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Practical Visionary

Gordon Smith thought globally and acted locally
in creating the new Exploris Museum in Raleigh

By Suzanne M. Wood

Like many idealistic young college graduates who joined the Peace Corps in the 1960s, Gordon Smith was inspired by the thought of helping impoverished people in a developing country. He didn’t consider that he might gain just as much or more from the experience than the Indian farmers he helped with a seed hybridization program in 1967-68. But that’s what happened as Smith unwittingly heeded one of the Corps’ missions — to bring the world back to the United States. When he returned home, the vision of a museum-like institution that would teach North Carolinians tolerance and respect for other cultures was deeply imprinted in his soul.

On a warm October day in 1999, nearly 30 years after Smith first nurtured the idea for such an ambitious project, the Exploris museum in downtown Raleigh opened its doors with a jubilant multicultural outdoor festival and a parade of dignitaries and state officials. Like the dozens of other people who had helped plan Exploris since Smith created its nonprofit corporation in 1985, he felt relief and elation. In his case, however, the euphoria was tempered with “the recognition that I planned to really celebrate in year five. I’ve just assumed that like with any start-up organization, it would take five years before we could really mature into an organization that can serve people of all ages,” he recalls today.

Two years into the experiment, it looks like Smith will be able to crack open that bottle of champagne. The 80,000-square-foot “global learning center,” filled with colorful and creative interactive exhibits designed to expose 8- to-14-year-olds to a slice of the world, is a hit with school groups and families. But it’s only just the anchor of what Smith and his colleagues call the International Campus at Exploris, a seven-block, 20-acre area encircling Moore Square that they hope will promote international understanding and goodwill as well as help revitalize an inner-city neighborhood. Another starring component is Exploris Middle School, a charter school that opened in 1997 and already has been named a School of Excellence and a School of Distinction by the State Board of Education, based on year-end test scores.

An IMAX theater is scheduled to open next month adjacent to the museum, a public-private collaboration that will spread Exploris’ education mission by showing 3D films (complete with glasses for the audience) on a seven-story screen. It will be the first large-format theater within 200 miles of the Triangle. And other components of Smith’s master plan are under way, including an international center, a teacher education center and residence affiliated with the N.C Center for the Advancement of Teaching, an amphitheater and the Moore Square Museum Magnet School.

The campus will not only make the museum and the schools more enticing to visitors and prospective students, but it also will teach North Carolinians through features such as the 21st Century World Walk and the Geography Plaza. Its collaborators include Peace College, which is leasing some of the newly renovated single-family homes surrounding the museum to use as student housing. Downtown landmarks such as the Raleigh Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army will remain as part of the mix, lending a dose of gritty urban realism to the idealistic project. To date, businesses, foundations, individuals and Wake County and the city of Raleigh have invested $94 million in the project. That includes $12 million that Smith himself anted up: $2 million to start the nonprofit that began planning for Exploris in the mid-1980s and, more recently, $10 million to buy houses for redevelopment.

Smith, whose title is chairman of Exploris, comes by his museum-creator status naturally. His grandfather, Clarence Poe, was one of the four founders of the N.C. Museum of Art, the first state-funded art museum in the country. “I thought if my grandfather could start a museum about art, I could start a museum about the world,” says Smith with a smile. Poe was also influential in other ways. He named his 800-acre farm Long View after his life’s philosophy, a name that Smith has borrowed for the teacher village and international center components of the Exploris complex.

Smith’s late grandfather also was instrumental in more practical ways, having helped build a successful magazine chain that included Southern Living and Progressive Farmer. The sale of that company to Time-Warner in the mid-1980s provided Smith with an inheritance that he has used to grow Exploris.

“The thing that most impressed me about Gordon is that he didn’t take his wealth and go away,” says Vernon Malone, a Wake County commissioner who has known Smith for 15 years and worked with him as Exploris’ founders sought public funding. “He has a vision of giving of himself and his resources to the community. He would haul those cardboard schematics (of the proposed museum) around with him to meetings, and he was illuminating at every single meeting I went to. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say we would probably not be building the Moore Square Magnet School (estimated at $18 million) if not for Gordon and his willingness to be a supporting member, a linchpin.”

As devoted as Smith is, he doesn’t spend every day promoting Exploris and its mission. In keeping with his eclectic mix of education and work experience, Smith has a “day job” that at first glance seems incongruous with a museum founder. He’s vice president and financial consultant for Smith Barney in Raleigh, specializing in global investments for individual and institutional investors and advising the firm’s money managers on behalf of multimillion-dollar clients. The work he does at Smith Barney and the contacts he’s made with his foreign counterparts informs his decisions concerning Exploris and its components. There’s a definite cross-pollination, Smith says, that occurs between his two roles, and more and more of his ideas for programs, exhibits and collaborations involve global economics.

“The mission behind Exploris has never been to start a museum — the mission has been and is to help North Carolina make connections with the people of the world,” says Smith. “That includes our economies. All the business leaders we spoke with (during fund-raising for Exploris) are very aware of the challenges of the global economy on their businesses and on North Carolina. They feel we still have much to do to be successful in a 21st Century global economy. The global economy is developing so rapidly since the downfall of the Berlin Wall, the implications for North Carolina are far-reaching.”

Indeed, the opportunities and challenges surrounding world trade and investment loom so large in Smith’s mind that these days he’s hauling around another schematic featuring a lesson on global economic history and predictions for 2010 to 2025. As Smith (and many others) sees it, the United States will no longer be the dominant economic power. It will face competition from five other countries or regions: the European Common Market, China, India, the Pacific Rim nations and Latin American countries led by Brazil. Within the U.S., states will continue to compete with each other for importing and exporting opportunities, and Smith wants North Carolina citizens and businesses to be ready to expand their minds and their markets to the world. It would do well to think of itself as a nation like Switzerland or the Netherlands, both of which have populations similar to North Carolina (roughly 11 million) and have enjoyed relatively robust economies partly because “for the last 500 years they have thought globally,” notes Smith.

Exploris can play a role in encouraging international economic development. As Smith’s report concludes: “Exploris can be a leading educational institution for North Carolina to respond to the many challenges of the new global economy if this powerful learning environment is leveraged to make connections with people of the world and to increase awareness and enhance preparation for the global economy.”

Already, one of the museum’s most popular exhibits is TradeWorks, where young people can see and touch materials used in everyday products around the word, and learn about the people and services that make daily life possible. They can peek into actual closets typical of residents of countries such as Lebanon and Japan, and even use computers to link to foreign stock exchanges. Smith says that through exhibits like this one, other programs and services Exploris will develop and the two middle schools, tomorrow’s leaders will learn the attitude and technical skills necessary to make commerce with other countries as commonplace as domestic trade.

Smith, who turns 58 this month, has the North Carolina native’s regard and concern for the state. Born in Raleigh, he has lived in North Carolina, particularly the Triangle, all his life except during his high school years — he attended the Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Va.— and the time he served in the Peace Corps. Before joining the Peace Corps, he attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in political science. In 1970, after returning to North Carolina, Smith took a job with the Governor’s Crime Commission, where he would stay for 15 years, eight of them as director. During his early years with the commission, Smith would put in a full week, then devote the rest of his time to pursuing a master’s degree in sociology, which he received from N.C. State University in 1974. Not surprisingly, his thesis was on the feasibility of a museum like Exploris.

At the commission, Smith found a kindred spirit in Anne Bryan, who worked in the juvenile justice division and had a passion for helping young people develop their minds and increase their opportunities. The two would often talk of a center targeted at children that would teach global understanding, realizing from Smith’s feasibility study that their dream was within their grasp.

“In 1985, we reached the point where we said, ‘We’re not getting any younger,’” recalls Bryan, who is president of Exploris. It was around that time that Smith received the windfall from the sale of Southern Living, and the two friends were able to establish a nonprofit foundation that had $2 million worth of credibility to it. They were joined in those early days by the professor who had served as Smith’s thesis advisor and was impressed by the vision.

Bryan says Exploris owes its existence to Smith’s single-minded pursuit of his goal. “He is tenacious, and so committed to sticking with something and not taking no for an answer,” she says. “You really do have to give people a rationale for believing in something, and Gordon has the ability to make a strong case and bring people’s thinking around an idea. He has brought a sense of can-do to the project, and he won’t accept anything less.”

Not that he had to convince her of Exploris’ merit, says Bryan. “We’ve been partners in this venture for decades, and although we share a vision and goals, we have complementary strengths. And our thinking and the possibilities for Exploris have grown so much. It’s been a wonderful adventure.”

Another friend from the crime commission years praises what he calls Smith’s “unbelievable courage.” Jack McCall, a clinical psychologist and retired director of social services for the N.C. Department of Corrections, worked with Smith on several joint projects with the crime commission. “Other people have good ideas, too, but if Gordon wants something, he gets it done. But he’s very altruistic — nothing he does is for himself or will make him wealthy.”

McCall, who likens their relationship to a father-son one, is obviously proud of Smith’s achievements, but as an adopted North Carolinian, he’s also aware of the impact Exploris could have on the state’s residents. “Living in a dirt hut and eating rice during the Peace Corps, Gordon’s eyes were opened to the size of the universe. He’s a visionary who saw the future like nobody else — he saw the globalization of the planet and that it is getting smaller. He wanted to get his North Carolina people ready for the 21st Century because you can’t be a chauvinist anymore.”

North Carolina already is struggling with the challenges of embracing the world. There are a staggering 173 languages spoken by children in North Carolina schools today. The need for Spanish speakers to assist newly arrived immigrants is great and growing daily. Exploris and its related organizations have arrived at an auspicious time.

Not that Smith is content to rest on his laurels. He doesn’t see himself slowing down anytime soon, but when he does cut back on work, he plans to volunteer his time and skills at Exploris Middle School.

Also look for him and his wife, the formerly Beverly Blount, a marketing executive with IBM, to expand one of their favorite hobbies — traveling abroad. Although his investment work calls for some travel, it’s not enough to satisfy his palate.

And just like Exploris, Smith knows that other wonderful adventures await.

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