Ann Brennan was only 4 or 5 years old when she first set foot in the St. John’s Art Gallery in downtown Wilmington.
“I remember there was a little glass display case that had little perfume bottles made out of different types of stained glass,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s mother, Erin, volunteers at a gift shop in St. John’s. In 1990, Brennan will be curator and registrar at the then accredited St. John’s Museum of Art. In 2002, the museum will reopen in a new 40,000-square-foot building on South 17th Street called the Louise Wells Cameron Museum of Art. Brennan has been an executive director since 2011.
Now, nearly 6 years after she first encountered him, Brennan is celebrating 60 years and 20 years of what has become one of Wilmington’s leading cultural institutions.
60+, a major exhibition highlighting the museum’s history and showcasing the work of many of the artists in its collection, opened to the public in Cameron on Friday. It will last until April 23, and on November 12 the museum will celebrate its 60th anniversary.
On Thursday, Brennan gave a presentation to 12 or 15 museum people who had seen “60+” the day before the opening. Brennan speaks of the early days of the establishment as St. John’s College, which began in 1804 in a historic Masonic inn on Orange Street (the oldest in North Carolina), her voice beaming, “This is crazy. I mean how naive? dealing with a permanent art collection in a building with no temperature control? This is a dangerous place even for humans. ”
However, from this rocky start, the Wilmington institution has grown, which Brennan attributes to the collective and ongoing efforts of staff, patrons, artists, and most importantly, the public.
In 60+, you can see a reconstruction of the late Wilmington artist Claude Howell’s home in his Carolina apartment, including the artist’s work, his personal diary, and even some of his furniture. Brennan was Howell’s girlfriend and her voice was filled with emotion when she spoke of Howell and his dedication to the museum, which he felt was enough to leave $800,000 after his death in 1997, and stipulated that the money be used to purchase works of art from North Carolina. painters.
“He wanted to put money in the pockets of artists in this state,” Brennan said. “To this day, we don’t know where he got so much money from.”
The exhibition also features the work of another iconic Wilmington artist, the late Minnie Evans, who went from being a janitor at Airlie Gardens to exhibiting her work in art galleries in New York City.
Among the museum’s collection of more than 3,300 works of art, there are many other works, including color prints by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose acquisition in 1984, according to Brennan, “changed the game” for the museum, as well as prints by such modernist masters, like David Hockney. and Jasper Johns.
Like one of Minnie Evans’ mandala-style artworks, Brennan loves the symmetry of it all: St. John’s opened in April 1962 and reopened in Cameron in April 2002. 60 and 20 years old.
Brennan believes that the longevity of the institution lies not only in its collections, but also in its ability to unite and reflect the values of the Wilmington community and all of southeastern North Carolina.
“We take the history of this region very seriously,” Brennan said. “We exist for the community. There is no museum like ours in the state.”
60 simple things we can do to learn about the Cameron Museum of Art, its history and the people who made it what it is today. However, for the sake of brevity, here are six facts about the museum that has bolstered Wilmington’s cultural scene every decade.
For Brennan, the history of the Cameron Museum of Art actually begins 100 years ago (another symmetry), in 1922, when the artist Elizabeth Chant moved to Wilmington. Chant opened a shop on Cottage Lane in the town centre, teaching art to Claude Howell, who would become one of Wilmington’s foremost artists, and Bruce Barclay Cameron, who became the museum’s biggest benefactor.
Chant awakened the Wilmington art world, and by 1938 the museum had its first true museum, the Wilmington Museum of Art on Princess Street. The museum closed in 1942 when public funds were diverted to World War II, but Wilmington’s love of art remained.
After Chant’s death in 1947, the Art Society of Wilmington and other organizations would hold annual exhibitions on Cottage Lane, and by the late 1950s, artists Esther Donnelly and Virginia McQueen were looking for new locations for their closed galleries. With the help of the Art Society of Wilmington, they found him in a former Masonic lodge on Orange Street, and the organization was born.
In 1964, Peggy Hall became St. John’s first paid curator (part-time) and the museum made its first art acquisition, an 1824 painting by Jacob Marin titled “Portrait of a Gentleman”.
“Institutions are people,” Brennan said, and many fail to mention the fact that they helped CAM become what it is today.
Museum enhancer Sam Hughes “which is why we have the collection,” Brennan said. In 1984, he helped the museum acquire a Mary Cassatt reproduction from Hughes’ client Theresa Thorne MacLaine.
C. Reynolds “Wren” Brown, hired in 1985, brought the museum to a new level of professionalism and helped define the parameters of its core mission, which still exists today: the acquisition and display of art in North Carolina and the United States. Art helps put North Carolina’s work into context. Brown oversaw the transition from St. John’s to the Cameron Museum of Art and served until his death in 2004.
Of course, the Cameron Museum of Art could not exist without the contributions of the Cameron family in Wilmington, especially Bruce Barclay Cameron Jr. He donated $4.5 million to build the museum (total value $6 million), a 9.5-acre site donated by the children of renowned architects Charles Gwatmey and Cameron, which today houses the museum and site of the Fox Road Civil War battle.
Brennan said that Cameron always said, “I don’t know anything about art.” But it was his wife, Louisa Wells Cameron, who did it at St. John’s Hospital. She died in 1997 and her husband helped build a museum, mostly in her honor and memory.
“If you’re in the same room with them, you can feel the spark, and they’ve been married for decades,” Brennan said.
Part of the 60+ Museum display showcases Bruce Cameron’s extensive collection of intricately carved wooden duck lures.
In 2017, art collector Louis Belden donated his collection of over 100 works by American Modernist masters in a major acquisition that will strengthen the museum’s collection for years to come.
In 1970, a fifth-educated black artist from Wilmington, Minnie Evans, organized an exhibition of her dynamic, visionary work at the St. John’s Art Gallery. Five years later, it will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
At least since then, if not before, Cameron has sought out and covered the work of black artists, women artists, and others whose voices are often overlooked.
Elizabeth Chant’s paintings were the first works in the museum’s collection, and color prints by the avowed feminist Mary Cassatt set the tone for future collections.
When the Cameron Museum of Art opened in 2002, its first exhibition featured an elaborately carved gourd by North Carolina black artist Michelle Tehula Turner.
In 2006, the museum held its first annual Living History Weekend, celebrating American troops of color who helped the Union win the last battle of the Civil War, at the site of today’s museum.
Last year Durham artist Stephen Hayes’ permanent sculpture “Boundless” was unveiled in front of a large crowd in honor of the soldiers.
From the original St. John’s Museum, the museum has hosted lectures, musical performances, public art exhibitions, and more.
Even during the pandemic, giant inflatable ducks have been placed near the museum so that the public can see something of interest as they drive by.
The museum hosts gallery lectures, concerts, lectures, film screenings, and occasional theater or dance events. Sometimes they even invite the public to hang their work on the walls of the museum.
In 2011, CAM held its first “Contemporary Art/State Art” exhibition where any North Carolina resident could submit work. Since then, the exhibition has been held every few years, including this year, when over 700 artists presented their work and proved so popular that it spawned a Children’s Art Exhibition.
Like any old institution, the museum has faced and faced challenges over the years.
By 1970, the museum was having problems with space and funding. In response, museum supporter Sam Hughes received a donation that enabled the museum to purchase two adjacent buildings: the historic Cowan House and the former St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which moved to what is now the House on College Road. (The former St. John’s Art Museum is now the Wilmington Children’s Museum.)
In the late 90s, when the museum announced a plan to build a new facility on the site of the Historic Hanna Block Arts Center (USO/Community Arts Center), there was a buzz. The CAC itself was a beloved institution and its backers came to its defense and the program was cancelled.
When the museum announced it would be moving to its current location on 17th Street, the site was far less developed 20 years ago, and the move to a remote location was condemned by critics.
Deborah Wilders of Houston’s acclaimed Menil Collection was hired as director following the death of longtime director Wren Brown in 2004. Some, including at least one CAM board member at the time, have argued that under Velders the museum moved away from its public roots by organizing exhibits that might be better suited to big city museums than small town museums.
Brennan is a staunch supporter of the Welders and is credited with raising millions to fund the museum’s donations, commissioning Genius Award winner Mel Chin’s iconic sculpture on museum grounds, and teaching at the Pancoe Museum in 2005. The building has a beloved Wilmington. sculptor Hiroshi Sueyoshi as permanent artist. (Sueyoshi retired in 2014, but his large Harmony sculpture was installed at the site in 2020.)
Brennan said the museum is still recovering from the pandemic. They had to lay off most of their staff at the time, but Heather Wilson was hired as Associate Director in 2019 and CAM seems to have rejuvenated to a large extent, with houses packed for sculpture and exhibition openings and often full parking lots. the bustling atmosphere is more like a community center than a sedate gallery.
Hundreds of schoolchildren annually visit the museum for excursions. CAM Museum School programs are open to artists of all ages. The kids at CAM are committed to getting kids involved in the world of art, and the museum’s summer art camps fill up every year.
Brennan notes that the Wilmington Museum of Art, the predecessor of the Cameron family in the late 1930s and early 1940s, also had a museum school.
She is excited to continue this tradition by opening the Cameron Museum School in 2010. Today, more than anyone else, Brennan is associated with the Cameron Museum of Art. But she knew he was bigger than her, even as she helped him grow into what Wilmington needed.
1922: Elizabeth Chant moved to Wilmington and became an important teacher, influencing artists such as Claude Howell, helping to organize local artists into an artistic union.
1938: Ethel Williams and others open the Wilmington Museum of Art at 225 Princess Street. The opening exhibition, American Watercolors, featured works on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Those who actively shaped the museum would, more than 20 years later, be involved in the creation of the Art Gallery of Saint John.
1942: With WPA funds now dedicated to World War II, the Wilmington Art Museum closes after 71 exhibitions and over 126,000 visitors in four years.