Docent School at Cameron Art Museum

The new layout for the Cameron Art Museum's permanent collection has challenged expectations, and ruffled some feathers in Wilmington. The new design also means new tours, and new challenges to the museum's docents. WHQR's Megan Williams stopped by to see how they've prepared.

Wilmington, NC, November 9, 2005 – Saturday morning, docent school. Several dozen volunteers in plastic chairs sit under a wall-sized fantasia of curly metal in the museum's reception hall, awaiting instructions for tackling the new layout. Their instructor, is curator Ann Brennan...

Brennan: What we'll do this morning is focus on the ten galleries of the Renolds Brown wing, and we'll break up into groups and we're going to be doing exercises in those rooms ...

Brennan divides her docents into teams and dispatches them to their various rooms.

Brennan: Ten's the big gallery... we're doing 1,2,3,4. Who are you? Fire? Fire. We got a billion people in Fire, we got to break them up...

The ten galleries which house the Cameron's newly re-designed permanent collection are in themselves a work of minimalism. Divided among the elements of nature and art, a lot of the pieces on display are abstracts. There's a room with no color. None of the works have any explanation beyond title and artist. But Brennan says that in these exhibits, less is intended to be more.

Brennan: A museum should offer sanctuary for its visitors, there should be breathing room. There should be physical and psychological space for your spirit to occupy

Today that space is occupied by a dozen different discussions as the volunteers try to work out for themselves how to approach the new organization, and, even harder, how to make it interesting for the school tours they will lead.

Earth Gallery Docents: Sometimes it's not so good to talk about the title. Like the sculpture in the middle just leaves it wide open, and that's better in some ways than the title. What about the three-sided border? what do you think that's about? ...Well, that's interesting, the three-sided border. Why do you think the artist...?

The redesign has a lot of familiar works in storage, while what curator Brennan calls the collection's "forgotten stepchildren" take center stage... In the line gallery - a spare room filled with monochromatic drawings and sculptures - volunteers Judy Melman and Jane Llewellyn find that explaining the new hanging means first wrestling with it.

Melman: For me, when we first saw the re-hanging, this was the gallery I liked the best, because you could look around and get a quiet sense of the variety you can get in a hanging group without color per se, and having to use the visual experience of thinking about what the line is actually doing...
Llewellyn: For me, when I first walked in here, this was my least favorite, because I love color, and it was truly a challenge for me, and an opening experience to look and see the art, past just being black and white.

The challenges of relating to the new layout is a familiar one to many of the museum's recent visitors, and not something everyone enjoys. But Brennan revels in that friction. To start the docents in their work, she read to them from the museum's new comment book:

Brenna: This is just one spread, just two pages I opened to. It reads: "My wife and I toured the gallery last Sunday and we were pleasantly surprised! The one gallery we toured was laid out in an artistic and creative arrangement, etc, etc..." "I prefer the exhibit the way it was before. There isn't enough art! I miss the work of people who established the art community here in Wilmington. Claude Howell, Elizabeth Augusta Chant. I am the daughter of an old Wilmington family and I miss my history..." Lastly, "I don't like your choices. You have an awful lot of ugly stuff in here!" (laughter)

Love it or hate it, the permanent collection galleries will change again next spring. With only ten percent of the collection currently on the walls, there are a lot more ideas to try.

Megan Williams, WHQR News.