In past lives, the unassuming brick warehouse at the corner of West Martin and Harrington streets in downtown Raleigh moved produce, paint and chrome bumpers.
In its new incarnation as the Contemporary Art Museum, it has the power to move people.
When it opens Saturday, the museum will feature works by Dan Steinhilber and Naoko Ito, both of whom use recycled and reclaimed materials in their art.
"We thought it would go along well with the building itself," said Rosemary Wyche, the museum's director of communications and development.
The bones of the old warehouse are clearly visible inside and out, but Raleigh-based design firm Clearscapes and architects Brooks + Scarpa updated the space with a modern feel that complements the vitality of its opening exhibits.
"Contemporary art is representing what is happening now," including the cultural trend of recycling and finding value in used materials, Wyche said. Steinhilber's display includes pieces made from cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, coat hangers and plastic wrap run through a lawn mower. Ito's work encases segmented tree branches in glass jars.
"When you look at it later," Wyche continued, "it will say 'this is what was happening at that time.' At one time, Michelangelo was considered contemporary."
There are no frames in the opening exhibits, and nothing is under glass. One of Steinhilber's pieces requires the viewer to step through the door of a junked refrigerator into a giant, inflated plastic shape.
"It's not the kind of museum you walk into and you can't touch," Wyche said.
The pieces on display are new and unique - constructed primarily inside the building. CAM is a noncollecting museum - nothing is on display permanently. Exhibits will change about every three months, Wyche said.
Also helping to keep things fresh will be the museum's partnership with N.C. State's College of Design.
"It gives them the ability to have an outreach area, an off-campus laboratory, and it's outreach for the community for them as well as for us," Wyche said.
Hopes for downtown
David Diaz, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, sees the museum as an "incubator for creative people."
"The more students you have coming to school downtown, the more creativity and innovation get to happen," he said. "We'd love for those students to ultimately open up their own places, their own studios downtown."
CAM's educational mission also includes a design camp for middle school students and, during opening weekend, training for student docents who will answer visitors' questions.
Visitors interested in how the works they're viewing came together can watch videos of the artists building their pieces. There's a good chance, Wyche said, that visitors with good timing will have the chance to meet artists and watch them as they create.
"We want people to walk in and think about (the art), feel it, and just go out feeling as though they've actually experienced something," Wyche said.
Community boosters already have something to appreciate in CAM.
"Anytime you add to the cultural community of a city, you draw attention to the enormous number of opportunities there are for arts and culture for that location," said Eleanor Oakley, leader of the United Arts Council for Raleigh and Wake County.
Diaz has high hopes that CAM will give a boost to the growing number of restaurants, shops and art galleries sprinkled throughout the Warehouse District.
Oakley, too, sees the museum as yet another sign of life downtown.
"There's a synergy that's been building in downtown Raleigh for a very long time," she said, "full of creative people, creative venues like galleries and performing spaces, and I think that the Contemporary Art Museum really can supply a great anchor for arts and culture in the Warehouse District."
Success at last
Much like the building that houses it, the museum has a long past. The foundation behind it opened City Gallery in the 1990s to showcase contemporary art near Moore Square, but after a few years the gallery foundered.
The backers continued to envision a museum for contemporary art in Raleigh. They bought the current site in 1997 and briefly imagined a museum housed in a mixed-use high-rise. Economic realities scaled that plan back, and restoration of the 1920s warehouse became the goal.
Successful fundraising and some help from tax credits rewarding community development and historic preservation got the physical job done, and the partnership with N.C. State fueled the creative mission under which CAM will open Saturday.
"At a time when nonprofits are struggling, we figured it out," Wyche said.
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