Contemporary Art Engages the Community at the Newly-Opened Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh

I pushed open the inverted refrigerator door tucked into a crevice of the 20-foot high swooning inflatable white plastic-tentacled sculpture-creature and stepped into a whimsical bubble of exploration. Sound  ridiculous and a bit mind-blowing? It was! Welcome to the inaugural exhibition at the newly-opened Contemporary Museum of Art (CAM) in downtown Raleigh.

Entering artist Dan Steinhilber’s fascinating white industrial plastic creature through a refrigerator door creates the illusion of stepping through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe into a whimsical Walmart stockroom–an explosion of colored plastic bag shreds and industrial plastic sheeting. See an image of the sculpture here.

There is a lot to like–other than the first exhibitions–about CAM. A “museum in progress,”  CAM was born of a partnership between the NCSU College of Design and Contemporary Art Foundation. Located in the Warehouse district, the building is a charming reused space: a former produce warehouse with impressive architectural features.

CAM has already hosted a number of lectures and community events–and I mean interesting, lively events rather than the stuffy, cloistered museum kind. The staff incorporated participatory art activities for CAM’s inaugural First Friday reception during which attendees (more than 900, according to the CAM website) created their own versions of Steinhilber’s winged mobile-like paper wire hanger sculptures, currently hanging in the Museum alongside the infamous sculpture-creature.

If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, then check this out: CAM’s docent team is comprised of seventh graders! The ambitious middle schoolers attend a series of after-school interactive training sessions. In fact, several staff members and gallery assistants told me the docents have more insights into contemporary art than they have. Clearly, CAM aims to inject the conversation about contemporary art (often authoritarian-tinged or yawn-inducing lectures) with new thinking.

The CAM website reflects this thinking. The home page reads: “The world is always changing. Shouldn’t the museum experience be always changing too?” CAM helps to demystify the making of contemporary art by sharing a rare behind-the-scenes look at the installation–be sure to check out the time-lapsed video of installation of the current exhibition in the gallery.

On any given afternoon, chatty CAM gallery assistants are peppered throughout the not-too-large space, waiting enthusiastically to engage museum goers. (Thank you, Lorie, for an excellent discussion about museum experience, CAM background and contemporary arts culture in the Triangle!) I wasn’t surprised–though still delighted–to find that CAM’s three part mission encompasses the objective to generate a sense of community.

I was impressed by one particular detail which demonstrates CAM’s interest in engaging the community in the contemporary art experience: interactive prompts embedded throughout the exhibition leaflets that provoke new insights and thinking among Museum goers. One prompt reads: “Steinhilber chooses not to title his works so he does not impress his ideas upon the viewer. If you were to title his work, what would you call each?”

The innagural exhibitions–Steinhilber’s Hold On, Loosely and Naoko Ito’s Urban Nature–both respond to the history of the angular, lofty building with industrial materials and themes. Steinhilber’s neutral, playful presentation of industrial materials often associated with mass production and mass consumption is light, fresh and unique. Ito’s installations are a thoughtful, though less neutral look at the connection or disconnection between nature and development.

So, has CAM succeeded in creating a museum in progress? From what I’ve seen so far, I’d say yes. I’m impressed by CAM’s initial surge of innovative programming and creative tactics to engage Museum goers and the larger community. I anticipate CAM’s continued evolution in the coming months and years.

Check out a podcast featuring perspectives on the building of CAM and the inaugural exhibitions.

Have you been to visit CAM yet? What did you think? Introduce yourself below, subscribe to my RSS feed and say Hi on Twitter.

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