NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Heather Wilson’s passion and leadership for Cameron Art Museum has grown since she was first hired in 2006. Seventeen years later, she is undertaking the role as the museum’s top chief.
Monday night, the CAM board of trustees voted unanimously to hire Wilson as executive director. Wilson, promoted in 2019 as deputy director, has been acting as the interim director since Anne Brennan, who worked for CAM for almost three decades, retired in March.
Brennan expanded CAM’s collection to include diverse contemporary artists with North Carolina ties, as celebrated in a recent 60 years retrospective exhibition. She was a mentor to Wilson, educating her on the art world and market at large, as well as showing her the nuances of the 4,000-object permanent collection at the museum.
“Most of all, I learned about graceful leadership from Anne,” Wilson said on a call Tuesday morning. “She’s so kind, so wise. I think she helped me listen to people first.”
Wilson informed CAM staff of her new role at a meeting earlier in the day.
“Just as I couldn’t imagine the museum without Anne Brennan, I cannot imagine this place without Heather,” director of marketing Matt Budd wrote in an email to PCD Tuesday.
Her passion for education, history and arts coincide to strengthen CAM’s future, according to Elizabeth Overton, director of development. She added it extends beyond visitors and programming but to staff and volunteers.
“Heather leads each department at CAM with knowledge, grace, and awareness of what is best for artists, visitors, members, and employees,” Overton wrote in an email. “She pushes us with positive encouragement to get outside of our box, grow within ourselves, and our own career.”
Wilson actually started at CAM as a development director and worked her way up the ladder; she is the seventh director to take over the reins as CAM inches closer to its seventh decade of existence.
Her efforts have been recognized beyond CAM staff as well, including the 2021 YWCA Woman of Achievement winner in the arts category and Wilson was named by WILMA as a “Woman to Watch” in 2020.
CAM has been a stalwart of cultural output since 1962; it was formerly located on Orange Street at St. John’s Museum of Art (in its place now is the Children’s Museum of Wilmington). The art museum relocated to its current campus in the early aughts at the corner of Independence Boulevard and 17th Street.
One of the museum’s biggest challenges is funding, Wilson said. It isn’t supported by local or state government money, rather depends solely on donations, grants and memberships; CAM receives 33% earned income, 53% contributions and 14% endowment income.
In the last decade, Wilson said it has strengthened partnerships in the community, growing from 1,000 members in 2011 to 2,000 currently. CAM is the only arts museum in southeastern North Carolina, with attendance that has escalated from 25,000 annually, when Wilson started, to around 62,000 a year now.
Wilson has been central to the museum’s strategic planning process throughout the years, particularly when it comes to procuring grants. She has worked with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and PNC Bank.
The latter grant was in support of “Boundless,” a bronze sculpture by Stephen Hayes that portrays 11 soldiers from the United States Colored Troops. CAM also is located on the historical grounds of the Battle of Forks Road, where the USCT fought for their own freedom in the Civil War.
The sculpture was installed two years ago, with Wilson acting as project director. Last year, PNC USCT Park opened in its honor, with live performances and cultural events taking place every spring and fall.
This November an exhibition, “Monument,” will be planned in conjunction with the sculpture and park’s recent installations.
“It is contemporary artists responding to the Civil War,” Wilson said of the exhibit.
Work by Kara Walker, Radcliffe Bailey, and Alison Saar will be included. Saar has done a maquette of the Harlem monument to Harriet Tubman, which will be coming to CAM from Princeton University.
“A lot of really well-known contemporary African American artists will be highlighted in that show, too,” Wilson said. “Sonya Clark’s work ‘Monumental Cloth’ is kind of a signature piece for the show.”
“Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know” is a textile of the white flag that flew in the Civil War when the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox. It was known as the Confederate Flag of Truce, yet is the lesser-recognized cultural symbol of the Civil War.
“Stephen’s work is also going to be in that show, but this brings a female point of view,” Wilson said. “‘Boundless’ is very male — and so we’ll have quite a few female artists in this exhibition and I’m really excited about that.”
There will be a homecoming celebration for descendants of the troops during the opening weekend. Currently, CAM has a call out to remaining family members for an oral history that will be used as part of a film her husband, Adam, is making to show at the opening. Also at the opening will be Brunswick County native Sherwin Bryant, a professor from Northwestern, who will discuss his research about enslaved people in Brunswick County.
Wilson has helped steer the museum’s outreach into being more diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible to all genders, races, creeds, beliefs and ethnicities. DEIA is part of a national trend for museums currently but has been an organic part of CAM’s output, the new director said. It’s about highlighting community relevance and welcoming and encouraging conversations.
“I think art is this common language — it goes back to cave paintings, right?” Wilson said. “We’ve been trying to express the human experience through art and to connect with other people through art forever. … I think we can connect across lines of differences in a way that can be softer. I think we can bring people together who are different through connecting with art in a way that is non-confrontational, and can allow us to see how we’re all more the same than we are different.”
Wilson points to a recent experience with a CAM visitor viewing the current exhibition, “Place of Encounters/Lugar de Encuentros,” featuring Latinx artists.
“She moved to the United States and has done some translation work for us,” Wilson said. “She got so emotional saying how she feels welcomed here at CAM in a different way than she does at other places in our community.”
Wilson also has secured grants to bring in Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers once a month as part of a program called “Connections.” It’s funded by Champion McDowell Davis Charitable Trust. One Monday a month visitors can tour the exhibitions, listen to musicians play harp and flute and engage in art creations.
“And I’ll tell you, I cry every time,” Wilson said.
She also leads a class for cancer patients from the Novant’s Zimmer Cancer Center. They join in the exhibition spaces to meditate, partake in writing and art-making exercises, and then connect with one another.
“Watching them talk about their shared experiences, their cancer journeys, I will never forget that,” Wilson said. “There’s so many rewarding experiences of being part of the museum.”
Wilson moved to Wilmington from Boston more than a decade ago to receive her masters of fine arts at UNCW in creative writing. She was a co-founder of the campus literary magazine “Ecotone” and worked at DREAMS before taking a role at CAM.
She said she always was attracted to art museums in general due to them being a welcoming sanctuary of escape.
“Art is something that we all share, you know, whatever age we are, whatever our background is,” she said. “I love that we all bring our own context to a work of art and somehow through all of that, when you go to a museum, you can look at a work of art and have a shared experience with other museum goers.”
Wilson said it goes back to honoring the legacy of St. John’s, CAM’s founding, something that was challenged during Covid-19 — the hardest moment so far during her time at the museum. CAM was closed for six months and sustained losses of $300,000 from a typical $800,000 revenue stream. Staff was laid off; a core eight members were retained.
“We are slowly building staff back up,” Wilson said. “It’s going to take time to recover.”
However, there will not be a replacement in her former deputy director role any time soon, she verified.
In the immediate future, Wilson is concentrating on opening CAM’s next exhibit, “Love,” an adaptation of “What is Left Unspoken, Love,” on display in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art last year. Locally, it debuts next Thursday, June 22.
“It speaks to all different kinds of love that we as humans experience — friendship love, family love, romantic love — and looks at the way we experience that shared emotion,” she said.
Wilson is already working ahead to next year as well. In February 2024 “The Work of Their Hands” will highlight textiles.
“It’s a quilt exhibition and we just found out we’re gonna have quilts by Faith Ringgold here,” she said.
The New York artist is known for her activism of art, covering feminism and the civil rights movement.
“We are working with nationally known artists that are important in the art world right now,” Wilson added. “So a lot of good stuff coming up on the horizon.”
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