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A brief civic history of CAM Raleigh, and a look ahead

The long road to CAM, and what it means for Raleigh 

A sculpture by Dan Steinhilber occupies CAM Raleigh's Street Gallery.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

A sculpture by Dan Steinhilber occupies CAM Raleigh's Street Gallery.

In the big scheme of things, Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum is a small building with an importance many times its size. It isn't just that the CAM fills a major gap in Raleigh's cultural scene, though it certainly does that. It offers an architectural template for connecting Raleigh's history and ambitions, another part of the story. But the rest of it, and the best part, is the fact that a small, diverse group of determined civic leaders stayed with this project—this artsy, long-shot project—for 14 years to bring it to fruition.

The group was not without influence: Mayor Charles Meeker was in it from the start, pre-dating his five terms in office, as was Marvin Malecha, dean of N.C. State University's College of Design. Carson Holding Brice, whose family name is synonymous in Raleigh with banking and conservatism, is currently chair of CAM's foundation board.

Still, contemporary art in Raleigh was a tough sell, as was a downtown art center in a city where the state museum of art used to be downtown but now occupies, with its Rodins and old Dutch masters, a giant tract of land just off the bypass (I-40).

CAM Raleigh, in fact, grew from the ashes of the old City Gallery of Contemporary Art, which operated in a restaurant-size building on Moore Square (now Tir na nOg) from 1983 until 1996, before a conservative City Council yanked its $150,000-a-year subsidy and sent it packing.

Those were the days when conservatives like Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble were elected in Raleigh by bashing arts funding, especially if the art in question was created by someone still living, with a message about society's shortcomings.

For Frank Thompson, the widely acknowledged "godfather" of CAM Raleigh, the conservatives were penny-wise and extremely shortsighted. Thompson, who owns a small audiovisual company, travels on business to other cities where downtown art centers—and, yes, contemporary art centers—are important cultural attractions, especially for the "creative class" of entrepreneurs.

In 1997, Thompson led the old gallery board to invest in the 20,000-square-foot building on West Martin Street that became the CAM. Thompson laughs now as he remembers thinking that the new place would be up and running in a year or two.

Raising $6 million proved a daunting challenge, however, until the partnership with NCSU was forged and tax credits for the renovation of a historic structure helped spark the surge to the finish line. Along the way, a tower of condos attached to the building was planned, and only discarded when the developer got cold feet. Good thing, given what's become of the downtown condo market.

The bottom line, Thompson says, is that CAM Raleigh raised more than half its money from private grants, the rest from tax credits and a $1 million city grant, and will own its building outright.

"Over the years," Thompson says, "there were so many points at which the project might've collapsed, but we never really considered giving up—we always found a different way to go forward."

The new CAM Raleigh will play multiple roles:

ARCHITECTURAL: The building itself is a work of art, says John Morris, a software engineer who moonlights as the photographer-writer behind the gorgeous Goodnight, Raleigh blog. Morris chronicles the solid utility of Raleigh's red-brick past, but he's also drawn to modern, experimental forms of architecture and art. "It's really just great that the CAM is a shining example of both," Morris says. It's an old building with a new purpose, a new interior and, with its canopy roof, a futuristic look "that it pulls off really, really well." Message: Raleigh should build on its history, not destroy it.

LOCATION: The warehouse district on the west side of downtown Raleigh "hasn't lived up to its potential—yet," says David Diaz, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. But oh, the potential. The area is in between the downtown business district and NCSU. It's a few blocks from Glenwood South and Hillsborough Street. It's the location for a hoped-for transit hub with light-rail, commuter-rail and bus connections. And almost exactly in the middle is CAM Raleigh, the area's first cultural destination. Diaz is just back from a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored trip to Denver, where a similar neighborhood of low-rise brick buildings became the ultra-hip LODO (Lower Downtown) District. "LODO is much more dynamic than our warehouse district is now," Diaz says. "But it's not beyond our reach."

CULTURAL: Downtown Raleigh has several museums but no library, no bookstore, no regular gathering place for the creative class. CAM Raleigh can serve that role and be an anchor for Raleigh's emerging arts scene, says Sarah Powers, executive director of the Visual Arts Exchange and a key organizer of Sparkcon, an annual festival of creativity. "CAM's mission to bring in really challenging works will be inspiring to artists here," Powers says. "Plus, there's something magical about having a place that you feel a part of, you care about and that's all about opening up conversations and helping people make connections." The connection to NCSU is regarded as critically important to Raleigh's future as a center of innovation. "Students are the future innovators," Diaz says. "Anything we can do to make them a part of downtown Raleigh, we should—and someday they'll open businesses of their own here."

POLITICAL: It took 14 years to pull it off, but CAM Raleigh's supporters were bipartisan, and the project never became a political target. Mayor Meeker was its steady advocate, but so was former City Councilor Philip Isley, a Republican. To Thompson, the project was always about economic development and the competition for business with places like San Francisco and Austin, Texas. "A cultural and social center for creativity," he says, "is just one of the amenities that we have to have to attract the companies of the future."

An amenity worth 14 years? "I had no idea it would be this hard," Thompson admits. But then, "I grew up in Raleigh and I think you sort of have this thing with your hometown. And when you think it's important, you stay with it."

"The reality," he adds, "is that 90 percent of things like this don't get done because people don't stay with it."

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

Corrections (April 28, 2011): The old City Gallery operated from 1983 to 1996 (not 1986). Also, Frank Thompson led investment in the new building in 1997 (not 1987).

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