Mint's dreams beyond its wallet

In a town known for balance sheets, Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art produced something of a masterpiece in the last year.

Membership rose significantly . It opened a sleek uptown branch widely praised for its design and gallery space. It has an ambitious new director eager to raise the institution's profile.

But the Mint, quietly marking its 75th anniversary this weekend, is tens of millions of dollars short of what it says it needs to meet critical challenges and move into the strata of first-class art museums nationally.

Its budget for acquiring new artworks is meager for an institution of its size. It opened the new uptown museum with virtually no increase in staff, stretching itself thin. It has not hosted a blockbuster show since Ramses two decades ago.

And while the Mint holds notable treasures, particularly in its decorative arts and burgeoning craft and design division, its overall collection is undistinguished nationally.

"It's interesting about Charlotte," says Lawrence Wheeler, director since 1994 of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, where a major Rembrandt exhibit is in progress.

"It invests ambitiously in infrastructure. Big buildings, stadiums, arenas. You're building a beautiful physical city. I think what has been missing along the way has been the substance and the programs that these buildings house - the issue is quality."

Wheeler says he's surprised the Mint doesn't have a stronger collection of early 20th century and contemporary art given the wealth - and potential gifts - concentrated in the city.

"I think everything is there in terms of a catalyst to get things moving up, but I think the community has to gather around the Mint and decide they want it to be one of the distinguished regional museums in the country. ... It's going to take money, people giving art, people giving money for art to build those collections ... It is teetering on the edge of being there, but it's not there yet."

Mint rose from rubble

Charlotte's historic mint, which opened in 1837 and went out of business in the Civil War, was facing the wrecking ball in 1932 when citizens raised $950 to salvage its materials. They were carted to Eastover and reassembled to make North Carolina's first art museum, which opened with a gala Oct. 22, 1936.

Over the decades, the collection and building grew, but by 2000, the Mint was in financial trouble. In 2002, former insurance executive Phil Kline took over during a tumultuous period following the defeat of an uptown arts and sports referendum. He got the museum back on track financially, raising its operating endowment from $7 million to $40 million.

In 2009, as the Mint was preparing to expand into the debt-free uptown museum developed as part of the $600 million Wachovia/Wells Fargo and Duke Energy tower project, he notified trustees that he would soon retire. He was a money guy and had done his job; it was time, he told them, to find a leader in the arts.

Quietly, an international search was launched, ending with the appointment of Kathleen Jameson, assistant director of programming for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Jameson, 42, a self-described "geeky art historian" with a list of degrees including a doctorate in art history and now a master's in business, has finished her year-long test drive of the Mint and is guiding it toward a five-year strategic plan, expected to be unveiled this winter.

New ideas, new goals

Jameson has spent months talking to people about their impressions and visions for the Mint. "Some think it's been good, not great," she says. "We are in a city that aspires to be a global city. We have to embrace those aspirations."

Among the initiatives likely to be part of the Mint's near future:

An emphasis on pottery, building on the museum's noted Delhom ceramics collection. An N.C. pottery center for the Randolph Road branch of the museum is under consideration.

Renovation of the Randolph Road museum to bring it into the same league as its uptown counterpart and make it hospitable to the growing technological movement in art museums.

Energizing the Mint's digital presence, radically redesigning the website to become a destination in itself and to provide spinoff sites, like for pottery.

Adding architecture as a specialty. Soon the museum will be announcing a lecture series for 2012, partnering with the UNCC School of Architecture, to bring in local, national and international experts, including those in landscape architecture.

Responding to the surging growth of the region's Hispanic population, the Mint will become bilingual in English and Spanish in labels, programming, printed guides and online.

Big-moment opportunities

Most of all, Jameson says, the Mint needs to attract electrifying exhibitions like the Ramses show that opened in 1988 and drew in only four months more than 600,000 visitors - more than seven years of average attendance for the Mint at that time. She says the museum is now in talks to land a blockbuster impressive enough to drive tourism to the entire region.

"It is unacceptable to me that the glory moment for the Mint was 23 years ago," she says. "There hasn't been the unifying moment through art here since then. We must deliver on that level."

Jameson has invigorated the Mint's long-slumbering marketing campaign by adding staff and hiring the innovative Charlotte agency Boone Oakley, whose ads promoting the ongoing Romare Bearden exhibit are wrapping Lynx trains.

A push is also being made in membership, with the museum aiming to raise it by 80 percent this fiscal year. Today the Mint has 3,927 members, up from 3,198 a year ago.

Jameson has also been named to the Association of Art Museum Directors, a prestigious group capped at 200 members representing the top leaders in the museum field. Her appointment marks the first time in more than a decade the Mint has been represented.

Paying for quality

Jameson recognizes that the museum is handicapped by an acquisitions endowment of $1 million. That throws off less than $50,000 annually, which doesn't go far when it comes to buying works. A museum the size of the Mint should have an acquisitions endowment of at least $25 million to compete, and $50 million to excel, she says. Of the 545 objects the Mint added in 2009, 536 were gifts.

And its $40 million operating endowment should be double that to cover costs and staff. Since the Mint expanded to uptown, its annual operating budget has increased by a fourth, to $10.2 million.

But where millions to improve endowments or underwrite a major exhibition would come from is unknown. It is a difficult time to raise money, particularly in Charlotte, hit harder than most cities by the global financial crisis. That's a view shared by the Mint's uptown neighbor, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.

"This current climate is one of genuine and completely understandable caution, especially at the corporate level," says John Boyer, the Bechtler's executive director and a Mint member. "And it will remain that way for the next couple of years."

Boyer says a key to success right now is leveraging existing collections in new ways and partnering with other institutions in developing compelling exhibitions.

Jameson insists the Mint must show a commitment to raising its profile. "It is a time to move methodically and carefully, but it doesn't cost anything to dream big. For now, we need to aim at being one of the top 20 museums in the country. And I see no reason we shouldn't aim to be the best museum in the country."