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Years in the works, Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum opens

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Whether they resist or embrace it, cities are always changing. Historians record that story in their archives, but lend a staid, sepia tone to what should be a living document. Artists often do a better job of capturing a place's vitality. And in Raleigh's case, the art scene itself is an ideal barometer of the city's life and times.

This weekend's opening of Raleigh's new Contemporary Art Museum—to be known as CAM Raleigh—is part of a saga that begins a new chapter in the city's story, a tale of industriousness, gentrification and economic travails. And, ultimately, a tale of the vision and determination of the creative class that has buoyed the Triangle in the national consciousness as a great place to live, even as the Legislature sandbags arts funding despite widespread popular support for it.

Located in a newly renovated historic produce warehouse between the Designbox and Flanders galleries on Martin Street, CAM also heals a self-inflicted civic wound sustained nearly two decades ago when the City Gallery of Contemporary Art retreated from Moore Square into near oblivion, to be replaced by an Irish pub. But that was the 1990s, wasn't it? Forget paintings, I want a pint of Guinness!

Over the years, Irish pubs became common in suburban strip malls, good stout found its way to grocery store shelves, and the City Gallery kept itself alive even without a facility to show for it. Until now, that is. A ticketed grand opening celebration and street festival for the reinvented CAM takes place on Friday night, April 29. The public opening weekend kicks off with a ribbon cutting the following morning.

The installations took a few weeks to put up in the space, but the space itself has been under rapid construction for the last year. Steve Schuster of Clearscapes, a principal architect for CAM Raleigh, laughs slightly with exhaustion when he is asked to recall how he first got involved with the project: "How far back would you like to go?"

It turns out that his involvement began back in the Moore Square days before the City Gallery lost its lease and became a museum without walls, showing installation works in various locations around town. He was also involved during the period spent at the historic Briggs Hardware Building on Fayetteville Street, which has hosted the Raleigh City Museum since 1998.

The City Gallery concept of showing contemporary art in Raleigh was adrift, but Schuster credits Marvin Malecha, dean of North Carolina State's College of Design, with grabbing the rudder. With Malecha's involvement, the college henceforth became a full partner in the museum. Then, after the current Brogden Produce building was purchased in 1997, Schuster teamed with a Charlotte-based developer on a mixed-use plan to tear down the building and build a new complex, including retail, restaurants and condominiums within the museum space.

"Just before they were getting ready to move forward seriously, the economy tanked, and the developer said 'You know, this is not the right time.' Which was a really good thing because now [Raleigh has] four condominium towers with nobody in them, and it's a good thing that CAM is not the fifth one."

CAM reorganized, and Clearscapes found a new partner in Santa Monica-based design firm Brooks + Scarpa. The firms formulated a plan to take advantage of historic district tax credits by renovating, not razing, the 1920s-era warehouse. They leveraged the tax credits to raise some $3 million in private investment. "If it wasn't for those credits," Schuster notes, "the museum would probably still be just a good concept, not a building getting ready to open."

Schuster and Larry Scarpa made several changes to the building—within state and federal historic renovation guidelines—that preserve its character while making it a state-of-the-art museum space. They cut a hole in the middle of the building to join the three different floor levels while opening large gallery spaces. Modern environmental systems and ducts were hidden in the walls in order to keep them from interfering with the beauty of the roof's structure. And a completely new lobby, peeking from beneath a spectacular overhang that looks like a giant dog-eared page, was added onto the original structure.

Scarpa led the design of the lobby addition and metal canopy, which echoes the simple metal roof over the original loading dock. Schuster explains that Scarpa wanted to "take that simple shape and extend it. And, like an origami bird, fold it. The color of the canopy, which is bird's egg blue, is one of the traditional colors you find on old Southern porches. It comes from that tradition, but is obviously reinterpreted for a contemporary art museum."

The executive reins of the new CAM have been handed to Elysia Borowy-Reeder, who until recently served as senior director of communications at the Milwaukee Art Museum. She will bring a lot of hats into her CAM office. Originally trained as a curator, Borowy-Reeder also spent seven years as associate director of marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She's just as comfortable and experienced building community relationships as she is lecturing to art history students or putting together an exhibition, an invaluable combination of talents for a leader of a new art space. Borowy-Reeder's only empty hatbox will be that of collections manager. CAM is a noncollecting museum.

Visitors this weekend—and throughout the summer—will be treated to a pair of entertaining exhibitions at the museum's debut. Washington, D.C., artist Dan Steinhilber's show titled Hold On, Loosely occupies the main and street galleries through Aug. 22, while New York-based Naoko Ito's Urban Nature installation debuts in the Independent Weekly Gallery's Emerging Artists Series through July 11 [see inset box]. Both artists are delightfully inventive with unconventional materials, while altogether lacking in controversy or confrontation. The same could be said for the CAM building itself, which shines as much as the artwork inside it.

Each exhibit space will host three shows a year, and visitors will have more of a chance to interact with artists as they install work. If it doesn't sound exactly like a museum, don't worry, it isn't. Steinhilber and Ito's protean work declares CAM as a swing space—equal parts museum and gallery—that reflects a changing Raleigh even while connecting to its City Gallery past.

Kate Shafer, gallery and exhibitions manager, feels that Steinhilber's work particularly appeals to local tastes.

"Contemporary art is still kind of a new thing for Raleigh. It might be a little uncomfortable for some people, or feel elitist because we've got 'museum' in our name," she says.

"We wanted it to feel comfortable and be accepted, so we wanted artwork that was easy, something that would provide people with a sense of joy and wonder. We started thinking about this building and its history, being a warehouse where things come and go. What about an artist who works with manufacturing-type materials?"

Exemplifying the creative link between manufacturing and art, a Steinhilber sculpture made of cardboard boxes will be front and center in the Martin Street windows when the museum opens.

"[Steinhilber] made many, many models. This is probably the most complicated piece of art in here," Shafer says, looking up into a lattice of 10-foot-long boxes roughly the relative dimensions of sticks of butter, fastened together by shipping straps. The sculpture is a reminder that Raleigh was ground zero for Buckminster Fuller's attempt to commercialize geodesic domes. Steinhilber, however, derived the angles of the sculpture from the tilt one uses to lift a heavy box on a hand truck. The work instills a feeling of childlike wonder, as if a giant baby stacked blocks before toddling off.

Steinhilber's featured work is a mammoth white, inflatable plastic form reaching from the slightly sloped concrete floor to the metal undergirding of the roof's apex. Looking a bit like the world's largest dollop of whipping cream, it allows you to enter through a refrigerator built into its side. Pass through the fridge quickly, though, as the structure deflates when the door is open, seeming to inhale again once the door is closed.

Upward of 10 people could stand inside the interior chambers, marveling at the fantastic accretions of colored plastic within. Every imaginable shade of plastic grocery and shopping bag has been shredded and affixed everywhere in swarms of color. A mulching mower peers around an internal fold, cluing you in to part of Steinhilber's process.

Just a month ago, the makings of this polythene fantasy were strewn throughout the entire gallery area. Steinhilber had been running the lawnmower over hundreds of plastic bags to make his spectrum of confetti. Then he would compose with it on the floor, much as a painter would, before carefully laying atop the white plastic sheeting that forms the structure's shell. Finally, he fastened Teflon-coated pancake griddles to his feet—hot-side facing down—and walked all over the sheeting to adhere the colors to the shell.

Some of his other works, such as brightly colored wrapped pallets and huge wall panels of twisted and wadded plastic bags, fall short of the transcendent wonder of the cavern, which maintains its form from the output of a pair of industrial blowers. Inside, people tip their heads up in open-mouthed smiles to gape at constellations of clotted fireworks, psychedelic dalmatian patterns and Popsicle nebulae.

Alternatively, Ito provides a miniature, monochromatic spectacle once you walk downstairs. She is the first of many early-career contemporary artists to appear in the columned basement gallery space. Brooklyn-based Rebecca Ward will be second, opening an installation of her architectural formations made of tape and vinyl adhesives on July 30. Shafer excitedly describes the mission of the basement gallery this way: "Is that a college student? Is that a grandmother who just started painting? Yes. It could be either." Passion and vision will count more than an artist's vitae or degrees in curating this space.

A long wall stretches the length of the street gallery. A spidery mesh or moss cascades over the wall—a work called "Felicity." In her New York apartment, Ito knitted 24-gauge hardware store wire with G6 knitting needles into varying densities of tapestry. It's lovely to examine closely, to see the perfection of Ito's handiwork.

The moss wall terminates against a perpendicular wall upon which a blurry video projects, accompanied by a piano soundtrack that sounds as if a second-year student is alternately playing and picking out a tune. Garden greens and Independence Day chrysanthemums can be made out, though the projection beam is interrupted by a large, clear jar.

Around the rest of the gallery are three assemblages of stacked columns and walls of jars of varying sizes. Short sections of tree branches are distributed and positioned precisely throughout the jars so that, seen as a whole, the branches are complete and seem to hover on their own. In "Flora," the branch is upside down, gradually branching out into smaller tendrils.

"Plight" is a slightly more complex construction, incorporating a stand made of small planks and stacked books, more conventional human transformations of tree forms. Ito chose to distribute a fresh branch throughout the jars of "Plight," so condensation gathers on the inside of the glass and the wood is covered by a fine white cloud of mold. These works, too, reward getting down on one's hands and knees to scrutinize them.

Shafer shared her favorite detail about Ito's work: "One thing I like about bringing her work to Raleigh is that she lives in New York City and had to go to the flower market to buy these branches. And here we are in the City of Oaks where you can find a branch anywhere. She actually got fined for taking a tree branch from Central Park."

Neither artist directly challenges a viewer with politics, although Steinhilber's wrapped pallets might bring up environmental anxieties around the usage of plastic on that scale. There's a conceptual tension, though, between his work and the quieter, smaller elements of Ito's installation. Steinhilber abstracts the idea of preservation into pure material. Nothing is preserved in his boxes, shrink-wrap and tarpaulin cavern. Ito's preservational impulse, however, is literally and figuratively transparent. The tree branches are made whole throughout her stacks of glass jars. Her wall hanging so completely simulates moss that it loses its materiality as wire.

Historic renovation and reuse conceptually fits the restless mission of CAM, as well as the current moment in the city's history. Schuster is excited to see the city's reaction when the paper comes down from the Martin Street windows along the loading dock, revealing Steinhilber's box sculpture and the galleries beyond. "Especially at night, the view into the museum from the sidewalk is spectacular. It's really a gift back to the city. People walking by, day or night, will get to see all the way into the museum and get a sense of what's happening inside."

When that paper comes down, Raleigh will wander into CAM to peruse the wares, just like at old Brogden Produce. It's hard to know—but also exciting to not know—what those wares will be, but they will now be ours.

After an invitation-only opening gala Friday, CAM Raleigh opens to the public Saturday, April 30.

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