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New art institute hopes to stoke Raleigh's creative fire 

Teaching the cutting edge

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Mia Yoon, artist and founder of the new Raleigh Institute of Contemporary Art - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

In our present state of near economic collapse, it might be counterintuitive to think that a rebound could be on the way in the Raleigh art scene. Still, the long-awaited Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh (CAM) is slated to begin construction in the coming months, while the North Carolina Museum of Art will unveil its $73 million, 127,000-square-foot expansion in April.

And on the street there is innovation afoot. A couple of weeks ago, an ambitious new art school that features top local artists among its instructors opened its doors. Modeled on the atelier concept of in-studio instruction with working artists, the Raleigh Institute of Contemporary Art marked its grand opening with classes starting this week.

RICA is the brainchild of Mia Yoon, an installation artist who has worked in Raleigh since 1994. Not your typical art institute, RICA will primarily focus on providing artists with an opportunity to expand beyond classical training—although RICA will offer foundational classes, too—and try their hand at other mediums.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Yoon moved to New York in 1972 and immediately enrolled in the famed Art Students League of New York, which was established in 1875 as a place where artists would teach artists. The ASL's alumni comprise a who's who of a century of American art, including the likes of Winslow Homer, Man Ray, Romare Bearden, Louise Bourgeois and Cy Twombly. ASL doesn't offer a master's of fine arts degree, just top-notch instruction from other working artists. Yoon, who also studied at the more traditional Pratt Institute, remained at ASL for seven years. "Without ASL, I would not be an artist," says Yoon.

Yoon initially experienced a culture shock when she moved to Raleigh but soon found a community of artists, despite the lack of structure. "We may be smaller than New York City," she said, "but Raleigh has an amazing community of high-caliber artists." While Yoon's background is firmly rooted in classical training, her works today reflect little of that early foundation work. Yoon's works are primarily modern pieces that deal with light installation or use paintings as part of large-scale installations, such as Spectrum Installation, her 2009 exhibit at Flanders Art Gallery. Meticulous, mathematical and still incredibly abstract, Yoon's final product turns out to be an exquisite visual experience.

Still, with recent gallery closings all over the Triangle, some might ask whether Raleigh needs an institute of contemporary art. Yoon, naturally, says yes. Noting Raleigh's financial growth, population explosion and ubiquitous presence on lists of the top 10 cities to live, work and play, she says the art scene has remained fairly stagnant, despite the city being home to talented artists. "I have often thought, I wish somehow we could do the same thing as ASL here," said Yoon.

Yoon opened RICA with a battery of locally recognized names on the teaching roster, including Jason Craighead, Marty Baird, Lope Max Diaz, Gayle Stott Lowry, David McConnell and Shaun Richards. Classes will focus on conceptual art, assemblage of found materials, urban art, visual journalism, collage, drawing, graphic design, photography and more.

Instructor Marianita Stevans moved to the Triangle three years ago from Baltimore, Md., where she taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She calls RICA an absolute necessity for the community of artists. "Being new to the scene," she said, "I noticed a lot of support for performing arts, but not necessarily visual arts."

Other figures in the Raleigh art world see the school as a propitious sign, too. Kelly Flanders McChesney, director of Flanders Art Gallery cites the prospect of instruction by Derek Toomes. "Imagine sending a child to take art lessons with Derek Toomes, who will probably be teaching some classes with spray paint and large walls," she said. "That's the type of opportunity you won't find anywhere else, and that diversity in instruction is what makes me so excited about RICA," McChesney says. "RICA has the opportunity to be a school consisting of some of the most established artists in Raleigh—all who are very different in preferred media and subject matter—that focus on the way an artist thinks about art making, as opposed to strictly teaching technique."

Nicole Welch, curator of education at CAM, says that while CAM offers its own classes and workshops, she does not feel there will be a duplication of services. "RICA will fill a need in connecting artists to artists and providing courses for not only adults but children," she said. "The way I see it, the more the merrier."

Welch has confidence in eventual collaborations between CAM and RICA artists, echoing the support Yoon has received from the communities' leading artists. One such supporter is Beth Howard Khalifa, Gamil Design's creative director, who is part of the group of downtown artists central to the annual SparkCon festival. "RICA can do a number of things: increase awareness of local talent and expertise, increase public understanding of contemporary art, showcase Raleigh as an artistic force on a national scale, increase both the pool of artistic talent and the pool of enthusiasts, and continue to nurture the arts as an element of why Raleigh is a great place to live."

With the expansion of the public art program and the soon-to-open Contemporary Art Museum, Raleigh is making great strides in becoming a destination for contemporary art. McChesney notes that while these are all positives, "More endeavors like RICA and further public art initiatives will be necessary to cement this progress."

For Yoon, the question of whether Raleigh needs a contemporary art institute will be answered in the months ahead.

"My goal is not to mass-produce people that can all do the same thing," she says. "I don't want 10 students who can make the same art and copy what I do. My goal—RICA's goal—is to work with each student on their individuality as an artist."


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