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A fall feast of the contemporary

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Bank of America collection to open Charlotte's Mint Museum Uptown

By Richard Maschal
Special to the Observer

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Six years ago, the Mint Museum on Randolph Road lost out on exhibiting a major corporate collection for the worst possible reason. The loading dock and freight elevator were not big enough to allow large contemporary art works through the door.

So when it came time to design the new Mint on South Tryon Street, museum officials made sure they had enough size and heft.

They're going to need it.

The exhibit for the museum's Oct. 1 opening, "New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection," contains some sizeable pieces: Frank Stella's "Damascus Gate II" (5 feet by 15 feet), Janet Fish's "Honey Bottles I, II, III" (4 feet by 16 feet) and Sam Gilliam's "Blowing" (4 feet by 41/2 feet by 3 feet).

The show features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs by other famed American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Deborah Butterfield.

"This is kind of a happy turnaround, that we have a beautiful state-of-the-art building where we can show large contemporary works," said Carla Hanzal, curator of contemporary art. She put together the exhibit.

The opening exhibit for the Mint Museum of Craft + Design is "Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection," the first major show of such work in either the United States or Great Britain. It features 100 artists.

For the first time, the Mint's fine-art side and art-crafts side will be under one roof. Each will occupy an 18,000-square-foot floor in the five-story, $60 million building. The Randolph Road building will house decorative arts and other collections.

The Mint will be the last of four cultural buildings to open as part of the Levine Center for the Arts uptown. Already open are the Knight Theater, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. All were built through public and private cooperation.

"(Charlotte) is (Bank of America's) headquarters and the Mint is the flagship arts institution," said Allen Blevins, senior vice president and director of the bank's corporate art program. "It's going to be a phenomenal show."

Collecting banks and art

The Bank of America Collection is called one of the largest and finest in the world. Its size and value are not disclosed. It is strongest in contemporary American art.

Hanzal, who had her pick, said she looked not so much for trends or movements as "stellar works." She picked out three works:

Stella's "Damascus Gate," a large abstraction, is full of color and geometric shapes and typical of his style.

Elizabeth Murray's "Split & Join" shows figurative elements (a heart) being re-introduced to American art after years of abstraction.

Ed Ruscha's "Clock Speed" demonstrates the lyrical way West Coast artists dealt with Pop Art themes and the use of text.

Because the art was collected by banks in different parts of the country which were acquired by Bank of America, the exhibit offers geographic diversity. Chicago artists Roger Brown and Ed Paschke are included, as well as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn from the San Francisco area.

Blevins said the exhibit includes large works that usually don't travel. Some have not been seen on the East Coast, including an 18-foot-by-36-foot painting by Sam Francis commissioned by Seafirst in Seattle, a Bank of America legacy bank.

While the Mint got to pick, Bank of America picked up the tab, paying costs such as crating and shipping, an important consideration when museums, like all nonprofits, are strapped for cash. The Mint will keep the ticket revenue.

"It's a wonderful side benefit for us," said Mint executive director Phil Kline, "but it's the art we're most excited about."

Traveling exhibits

Under its "Art in Communities" program, Bank of America will put together 20 shows this year and in 2010 for museums around the country. Its first international exhibit, on the Wyeth family artists, opens next month in London.

The bank did not set out to collect art. Former CEO Hugh McColl Jr. liked to quip, "We just collected banks." Still, many of those had art collections - Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles, Boatman's Bancshares in St. Louis and FleetBoston Financial in Massachusetts.

Such companies followed a corporate art-collecting trend that grew during the 1950s and '60s and probably peaked in the 1990s. Since, some companies such as Sara Lee Corp. have decided to dissolve their collections.

Several years ago, Blevins said, Bank of America considered doing that. Instead, it resolved to use the collection to support communities where it does business - and add some sheen to its name.

"We get great public relations out of it," said Blevins.

Full exposure

The British ceramics exhibit was the brainchild of Annie Carlano, director of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design. It draws in the collection of Diane and Marc Grainer of Washington, members of the Founders Circle, the craft museum's national support group.

Included are cutting-edge works by Julian Stair and Kate Malone, and also what in Britain are called "honest pots," ceramics for utilitarian purposes.

Kline said he was not concerned that two contemporary shows might chafe against Charlotte's at-times conservative tastes. He said the Mint will have other exhibits, including a show of portraits by figurative artist Robert Henri.

With the Mint exhibitions, plus European and Africa-American works at the Bechtler Museum and Gantt Center, Charlotte this fall will get full exposure to contemporary art.

"It will be a good time," said Hanzal, "to be on the cultural campus."

New exhibits

Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St., opens Oct. 1.

Highlights: "New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection"; "Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection"; Romare Bearden Gallery.

Details: www.mintmuseums.org; 704-337-2000.

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