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What is the Cameron Art Museum?

Ben Steelman

A private, non-profit museum, located at 3321 S. 17th St., Wilmington [Map this], the Cameron Art Museum carries on a four-decade tradition of support for the arts and public education.

The 40,000-square-foot facility, open to the public in 2002, was designed by the American architect Charles Gwathmey, whose previous projects include the Guggenheim Museum extension in New York and the Otto Werner Hall of Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. (Gwathmey’s father, the painter Robert Gwathmey, was a mentor to Wilmington artist Claude Howell.) The main museum building, topped by signature pyramids, includes three major exhibition spaces, the Weyerhauser lecture and reception hall, a gift shop and space for a museum cafe (currently vacant). The nearby Pancoe Art Education Center contains a clay studio.

The museum houses a small but select permanent collection, with works by area natives, including Minnie Evans and Claude Howell, as well as notable artists of North Carolina and the Southeast. A major acquisition, in 1984, was a complete series of 1881 drypoint etchings by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), donated by Therese Thorne McLane in honor of Samuel H. Hughes (a longtime museum benefactor) and Zelina Comegys Brunschwig. (Due to their delicate nature, the Cassatt prints on paper are given only limited exposure.)

The museum’s 9.3-acre grounds have substantial stands of longleaf pine forest, as well as earthworks from the Feb. 20, 1865, Battle of Forks Road, marking the Confederate last stand against a Union offensive to take Wilmington. The museum plays host to an annual “Living History Weekend” on the anniversary of the battle, noting the participation of African-American troops in the campaign. At other times, the grounds are open for walks and self-guided tours.

The museum supplements its schedule of guest exhibitions with a calendar of lectures, films, concerts, workshops and other public educational programs. Among other events, the Cameron is home to the annual Cine Noir festival of African and African-American film. Art classes for adults and children are offered regularly, as well as a schedule of instructional programs in yoga and tai chi.

The Cameron Museum is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It is closed on Mondays.

Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students with valid IDs and $3 for children 12 and younger. (Infants and toddlers younger than 2 are admitted free.) Admission is free for museum members. Wheelchairs are available free for use by museum visitors; to request one, please call ahead at 395-5999.

Guided tours are available by appointment at a rate for $10 for adults, $5 for children. To schedule a tour, phone 395-5999 ext. 1019.

Efforts to organize an art museum in Wilmington date from the 1930s, when the Wilmington Museum of Art opened on Halloween Day 1938, in what had been a downtown undertaker’s establishment at 225 1/2 Princess St., Wilmington [Map this]. The young museum was able to arrange loans of American masters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and it offered an ambitious series of classes. Pressures from World War II, however, forced it to close on June 30, 1942.

Several residents involved in the earlier museum, however — including Claude Howell — resumed their efforts in the 1950s. This climaxed, in 1964, with the opening of the St. John’s Art Gallery in the former St. John’s Masonic Lodge building at 114 Orange St., Wilmington [Map this].

The gallery — which later rechristened itself the St. John’s Museum of Art — earned accreditation in 1972 and gradually expanded into adjoining buildings. In 1978, it acquired the former St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which became the Samuel H. Hughes Gallery. It later added the Cowan House, which became a studio and art workshop.

By 1997, the museum faced growing pains and problems with its refurbished buildings, particularly the lack of a modern climate-control system. The trustees and director C. Reynolds Brown made a bid to acquire the city-owned lot at Second and Orange streets, where the city’s historic USO building was located; plans called for the demolition of the structure and construction of a modern facility. After protests from historic preservationists and arts groups who used the old USO/Community Arts Center, however, the museum withdrew its offer and began looking for another site.

In 1999, members of the Cameron family donated $2 million in land off 17th Street and Independence Boulevard and followed up that gift with $4.5 million for construction. Ground was broken at the new site in 2000, and St. John’s closed its downtown facility in 2001. Trustees decided to rename the new museum in honor of the late Louise Wells Cameron, a longtime St. John’s trustee and the wife of Bruce Cameron, one of the museum’s foremost benefactors through the Bruce B. Cameron Foundation. The new museum formally opened to the public on April 21, 2002.

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