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Mint Museum's new leader sets fresh course

Kathleen Jameson takes over Charlotte's signature art museum at a turning point in its 74-year history.

With a ribbon-cutting at 5 p.m. today, the Mint Museum Uptown opens its Tryon palace, a vast cavern showcasing its acclaimed craft and design collection and American and European art.

Its $56 million five-story building is the final component in the Levine Center for the Arts on South Tryon Street, joining the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the 1,200-seat Knight Theater at the edge of uptown, a district formerly known for auto repair shops and parking lots.

It signals the beginning of an era for the Mint to pursue its ambitions as an internationally known arts center. And executive director Jameson arrives as the Mint begins creating a strategic plan, a 10-year blueprint beginning in summer 2011.

Jameson, 41, who comes from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is part of the vanguard of new faces at the top of Charlotte's arts scene.

"I've almost come at a time of the perfect storm to plan for the future of the organization," says Jameson. "We're in this extraordinary moment."

She joins newcomers John Boyer, who left the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., to lead the Bechtler; Christopher Warren-Green, who came from England to become the Charlotte Symphony's music director; and Scott Provancher, who left Cincinnati's Fine Arts Fund to head the Arts & Science Council.

They all have this in common: They hit Charlotte just as the city plunged into one of its worst economic cycles. Fundraising is a key concern for all major arts groups now.

"We're in an incredibly difficult environment and we're not the only ones looking for money," Jameson says. "We must make an irresistible and compelling case."

Mint on solid footing

Jameson succeeds the retiring Phil Kline, who took over the Mint in 2002. A former insurance executive who leveraged his business experience to get the Mint on track during a difficult period, Kline leaves the museum on a solid foundation.

Its endowment, $7 million when he took over, has grown to about $40 million. Its new $56 million home is debt-free.

Developed as part of the $600 million, 48-story Wachovia/Wells Fargo and Duke Energy tower project, it's financed in part by a tax on rental cars and reinvestment of property taxes from the site.

Kline, who leaves Dec. 31, notified the Mint's board last year that when the new museum opened, it would be time for new leadership and recommended someone with a crisp vision for the arts.

Jameson brings that, as well as a business background. She has worked in curating, fundraising, managing staff and is pursuing a master's degree in business from Rice University in Houston.

As assistant director of programming at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, she helped direct an expansion. As a curator she organized exhibitions and conducted research for acquisitions.

Vision for the future

Today is officially Jameson's 91st day on the job at the Mint.

She says she has spent a good part of the summer understanding the Mint's history and pondering where its future lies. One of her first acts was to "invite the neighbors together," meaning the leadership of the other centers on the Levine campus, and talk about collaborations.

A three-museum pass between the Gantt, Bechtler and Mint is being studied, and Jameson says she's not ruling out a marketing campaign aimed at the visitors to the nearby NASCAR Hall of Fame.

On the business side, Jameson is certain that the Mint must work to increase its $40million endowment. "It should be double that size at least for a city this size," she says.

Its endowment for acquisitions is about $1 million, she says, which generates only about $50,000 annually for new works, another facet that needs to be addressed. "If you want to be a national museum, you have to be more strategic in the marketplace when opportunities arise."

Most of the Mint's new acquisitions have been donations. Of the 545 objects the Mint has gotten in the last year, 536 were gifts.

Mint's Randolph home

Jameson also says she believes the organization needs to articulate a clear mission for the Mint's old home on Randolph Road, whose galleries will be renovated and exhibit the museum's art of the ancient Americas, decorative arts and historic costume collection.

"This organization has done a poor job communicating the mission of Randolph Road - I'm hearing a lot of questions about it," she says. "I think the possibilities of Randolph Road are tremendous."

One idea she would like to see explored is a center for N.C. pottery at Randolph, which was North Carolina's first fine art museum. It opened in October 1936, named for the Gold Rush-era building it was born in - the remnants of the U.S. Mint branch that opened in Charlotte in 1837.

True to community

While Jameson believes the Mint can reach national prominence, she also says it must maintain its local focus.

Education is a part of that, particularly as school budgets shrink and arts are left out. In Houston, she says, her organization came up with money itself to bus children in for art appreciation.

Promoting and exhibiting local artists is part of it too, she says, pointing to the interest in the gallery dedicated to Charlotte native Romare Bearden.

Overall, she says, the Mint's future relies on the core of its business - imagination.

"Being an encyclopedic museum like the British Museum is an outdated model. We can look out there and be creative," she says.

"You can buy a Rembrandt or take a risk and go where others aren't, and get known for that. It's about engaging, dynamic programming, pushing the boundaries."

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