Heather Wilson was named the executive director of the Cameron Art Museum (CAM) last week, becoming the 61-year-old museum’s seventh director. She joined the staff in 2006 as a development officer, became deputy director in 2019, and was the project director for the sculpture “Boundless,” honoring United States Colored Troops. 

Reporter Kevin Maurer caught up with Wilson this week to talk about her vision for the next era of CAM. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Dive: How does CAM fit into the community?

Wilson: We are, I believe, a community anchor, an organization that exists to support our community through access to high-quality art, outreach, and inspirational multi-disciplinary programming that promotes dialogue. We do this through 8-10 changing exhibitions each year, hundreds of public programs, hundreds of classes, and hundreds of tours each year. 

We also serve the community through outreach to Wilmington Housing Authority, through our Connections program for those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, through our Art Enhances Health program for cancer patients, and through free professional development workshops in arts integration for teachers. 

And 4,000 children visit the museum and “Boundless” on grant-funded field trips each year. One of our core beliefs at CAM is that art is a common language that we all share – and through art we are able to connect across lines of difference.

Heather Wilson, CAM’s new director.

The Dive: What are your short-term, long-term, and dream goals for CAM?

Wilson: Short term goal: We exist because of the community. We have no regular umbrella organization. A great short-term goal would be to grow our membership significantly to reflect our growing community support. We had 1,000 members in 2011. We are now at 2,000 in 2023. I would love to see us make it to 3,000 next year.

Long-term goal: A successful capital campaign for facility upgrades and maintenance within the next 2 years. Our current building is 21 years old, and it’s time for facility upgrades like a new roof, an expanded vault for art storage, and shade and stage for performances for the courtyard.

Dream goal: We have a big dream of building a new exhibit wing sometime in the future, and I’d love a rooftop bar and sculpture garden.

The Dive: What role does art play in addressing cultural differences?

Wilson: Regional art museums like CAM must balance local issues and connections with national and international art trends through work of the highest quality. By doing this, I believe that we can address our ongoing cultural differences and strive to find common ground. 

Art, like literature, is yet another expression of the human experience. An exhibition can allow us to juxtapose multiple voices – and that’s where I think the real magic happens – when different narratives overlap and bump against each other, where there is friction, that’s where the learning and the change takes place.

We’re doing just that in our exhibitions. “Place of Encounters/ Lugar de Encuentros” examines the landscape of immigration and resettlement. “Love,” which opens June 22, is a fierce unflinching exhibition that celebrates the variations of love. “Monument,” which opens in November, brings work by nationally known artists like Sonya Clark, Kara Walker, and Radcliffe Bailey to CAM to respond to the Civil War, the antebellum South, and our built environment.

The Dive: We’ve heard that the City of Wilmington is holding the confederate statues down on River Road. Would an exhibit at CAM that puts them in their full racist historical context be good for the community?

Wilson: What an interesting question. This would be a great opportunity for an artist like Fred Wilson, whose ground-breaking work “Mining the Museum” in 1992-93 used the collection of the Maryland Historical Society to confront and challenge ideas of racism, history, and culture.

I always think context is important and good for the community. This is part of why we are mounting the exhibition “Monument” in the fall, to allow contemporary artists to bring their own context and their own cultural identities to the issues surrounding the built environment in the South.

Find today’s newsletter online here. If someone forwarded this to you, sign up for the Dive here. If you like what we’re doing and want to read all our statewide stories, become an Assembly subscriber today.

Queen of the Port City

Tara Nicole Brooks has become a local legend and unofficial spokesperson for the Wilmington drag and LGBTQ community over the last 30 years. 

Brooks grew up in the small rural town of Beulaville, North Carolina, where her grandmother taught her how to sew. She eventually moved to Wilmington and began performing in drag shows. She describes her journey to coming out as transgender as “a process” – scary at times, but “doing drag made me more comfortable being Tara Brooks.”

On stage, amid the pulsing lights and pounding music, she is at peace. “Any sadness goes away,” she says. “Any anxiety goes away. Everything else just fades away. It’s my happy place.”

Brooks will turn 60 later this year, and has no plans to slow down. 

For The Assembly, photographer Maddy Gray takes us behind the scenes with Brooks.

Queen of the Port City

Pride may have felt different this year, but local drag legend Tara Nicole Brooks says she’s not ready to hang up her heels.

Council Race Kicks Off

On Monday, I moderated a panel of Democratic candidates running for Wilmington City Council. There are three open seats and four candidates – a bit of a game of musical chairs.  This event was more about introducing the candidates: David Joyner, Marlowe Foster, Salette Andrews, and incumbent Councilman Kevin Spears. WHQR will have in-depth interviews with them, along with some new Republican faces, in the coming months.

Here are my takeaways from the event:

  • Everyone hates traffic. Regardless of party, Wilmington’s gridlock grinds people’s gears. But agreement on potential solutions – improved public transit, denser development near employment centers, infrastructure upgrades – will still be a challenge.
  • People are still rightly mad about the GenX pollution in the Cape Fear River. But there is frustratingly little the city council can directly do about PFAS beyond supporting ongoing litigation and legislation. That said, there are a host of other environmental issues council can deal with, from a green vehicle fleet to pesticide use in city parks.
  • Public safety is public health. Two years ago, I was hearing conversation on the left about reducing budgets and increasing oversight. Recently, it’s been about root causes – and programs that work in tandem with law enforcement to deal with the mental health, drug dependency, and housing insecurity issues that can lead to crime.
  • The city is nearly out of developable space, and many residents dislike the encroachment of denser development (like apartment complexes and mixed-used buildings) on their suburban neighborhoods. But without more, denser development, the affordable housing crisis will continue. Reconciling those things will take serious political will.
  • A White Whale won’t save Wilmington when it comes to economic development. Several candidates and constituents noted that hoping for another Corning, GE, or Verizon is a poor or incomplete strategy – and sometimes creates jobs that are out of reach for many service economy workers. I’d love to hear more fresh takes on this long-running conversation. Based on Monday’s conversation, I’m not alone.

– Ben Schachtman

Development Might Be Shaw’s Future. Can It Hold on to Its Past?

Inside the debate over Shaw University’s attempt to rezone its downtown Raleigh campus — the cash-poor school’s biggest asset.

Whitewater, Gold Medals, and Green Cash

How a few hippies and hillbillies with a good idea created a billion-dollar industry in western N.C.

Little Boxes On The Hillside

In Winston-Salem, a fight over Wake Forest University student housing has pitted a neighborhood against developers.

The Assembly is a digital magazine covering power and place in North Carolina. Sent this by a friend? Subscribe to our newsletter here.