RALEIGH — The idea to build Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum sat on the shelf for many years, so it's fitting that when it finally opened on Saturday it was in a rehabbed cold-storage building and its first major exhibit is pieces made of recycled and repurposed materials.
Museum organizers couldn't say how many people came to see the opening of Dan Steinhilber's 13-piece exhibit made just for the space in the former Brogden Produce building, but there was a constant line at its biggest and most fanciful installation, an untitled, inflatable plastic sculpture visitors walk into through a refrigerator door.
Patient patrons also waited their turn to have museum curators and volunteers wielding household irons apply heat to their own artistic creations, made of bits of reclaimed plastic bags and fluffy clumps of Easter-basket grass. Ironing the items to a white trash bag "canvas" fused them together in a small-scale version of the same technique Steinhilber used to craft some of his pieces.
The make-your-own element will continue today. Steinhilber's creations will be in place much longer, through Aug. 22. A concurrent exhibit of glass-jar sculptures by Naoko Ito will run through July 11.
Both shows feature everyday objects given new meaning as artistic sculptures or painterly palettes, and displayed in a space that is more playful than precious. Where another museum might be dressed in marble and gilt, CAM is more comfortable in concrete and steel.
The interior brick walls and exposed beams of the old warehouse building on West Martin Street, in the downtown warehouse district, are painted white, and the concrete floors polished smooth. Visitors talked Saturday in their normal voices. Children ran up and down the wheelchair ramp.
"We wanted people to feel this is their museum," said Nicole Welch, CAM's curator of education, who trained nearly two dozen middle-schoolers to work as volunteer docents for the opening. The children, from Moore Square Museum Magnet Middle School and Leesville Road Middle School, came to CAM for an hour a week over five weeks to learn about the museum.
They were there as Steinhilber, of Washington, D.C., worked on site. He "painted" with colored plastic wrap, built with cardboard boxes and used a lawnmower to turn plastic strips into confetti and then fused them to white plastic sheeting with electric pancake griddles turned upside down and Velcroed to his feet.
Most of the Steinhilber's pieces relate to the building's 1920s origins as a trackside cold-storage warehouse. Produce came in from train cars that stopped on one side of the building, and was loaded onto trucks through big bay doors on the other. The floor in between is slightly sloped to make it easier to roll the bins.
Steinhilber filled a grocery cart with art materials and wrapped it in crinkling Mylar, sheathed wooden pallets in plastic, and used cardboard packing boxes like structural beams. Visitors can see the pieces take shape in a time-lapse video on a computer in the museum.
The 20,000-square-foot museum itself was much slower coming together.
The nonprofit group behind it opened City Gallery near Moore Square in the 1990s as a showcase for contemporary art, but the gallery foundered after a few years. In 1997, the group bought the old Brogden building with plans to build a mixed-use high-rise, but those ambitions had to be scaled back. Private fundraising, the use of several million dollars in community development and historic preservation tax credits, and a partnership with N.C. State University's College of Design finally gave form to the museum that opened Saturday.
Jules and Wallie Coco of Cary were glad the museum's organizers persevered.
"I think it's wild," Jules Coco said, ducking his head under the cardboard sculpture. "I used to think I was a creative guy until I saw this."
His wife was fascinated, she said, with another sculpture, an arrangement of hundreds of paper-covered clothes hangers. From a tangled pile of hangers on the floor emerges a graceful shape like a bird's wing that soars toward the distant ceiling and seems to take flight.
As a child in New Orleans, Wallie Coco said, she lived for a time across the street from a plant that took wire and turned it into clothes hangers.
"And here they are, turned into art," she said. "It's beautiful. I never would have thought of that."
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