SECCA roars back to life

by Amy Kingsley

Reviving a cultural institution like SECCA takes more than primer and a little elbow grease. It also takes plywood, sheetrock, hardware, solvent, an army of contractors, state funds and a serious infusion of new blood.

The scale of the transformation happening at Winston-Salem’s premier contemporary art venue really manifests in the Main Gallery, where workers toil over two new freestanding walls and a concrete floor encrusted with carpet glue. I belly up to the balcony railing to get a good look beside Steven Matijcio, SECCA’s brand new curator of contemporary art. He looks down at the space — one that, in his own words, used to swallow exhibitions whole.

“When you’re putting together an exhibition,” he says, “it’s kind of like you’re creating a movie plot. This way you can take the viewer through it instead of giving them the whole plot at once.”

In two and a half weeks this construction zone will host an exhibition of contemporary quilting. It will accompany a solo show in the smaller Potter Gallery by Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf and a rotating collection of psychedelic videos. Taken together, the three elements of the upcoming Illuminations exhibition represent the second coming of SECCA, a grand resurrection after two years in existential limbo.

Some back story: Two years ago — after establishing its national reputation and engaging in aggressive expansion — SECCA’s staff and governing board uncovered serious problems in the museum’s physical plant. Roof leaks. Clogged fountains. Twitchy A/C. Peeling paint.

The facility’s decline mirrored the economic pain of the surrounding community, which had long supported SECCA with corporate and individual donations. Without those to draw on, the museum started to flounder. In 2007, SECCA’s board agreed to give itself over to the state of North Carolina, which tucked the museum under its cultural wing.

A new director, Mark Leach, arrived from Charlotte in December. Since then, almost the entire staff has turned over. Matijcio’s arrival at the beginning of August plugged one of the largest holes in the puzzle of SECCA’s future. Matijcio blew into town on July 22 from Manitoba, where he spent three years at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. When he saw that SECCA had an open position, he applied, knowing that he’d be able to immediately put his curatorial imprint on an institution looking to reinvent itself.

“All the cosmic forces aligned,” Matijcio says. “I knew I’d be able to come here and hit the ground running.”

The museum had already made waves as far north as Bard College in upstate New York, where the curator received his master’s degree.

“I knew about SECCA,” Matijcio says, “especially through the Home/House Project. I was interested in how that project really brought the gallery back into the community. Contemporary art always struggles with finding an audience. I thought that was a really innovative way to bring the community into the museum.”

Matijcio’s immediate goals are a bit smaller. For the upcoming Illuminations, he wants to incorporate the old Hanes estate fronting SECCA. He’s going to project videos in sitting rooms furnished with Art Deco era wing chairs and sofas.

The library might become a virtual portal to the Balcony Gallery, which is currently inaccessible to museum goers with mobility impairments.

SECCA’s next big push into the community is scheduled for 2009, when the museum intends to undertake a major public art project. Matijcio can’t say much about it, except that the museum has secured the blessings of Mayor Allen Joines and the Winston-Salem Arts Council. The project will incorporate some kind of technological interface, like a phone number viewers can dial to access information about the pieces.

The exact nature of the technology hasn’t been hammered out yet. In fact, Matijcio still hasn’t mastered some of the fundamentals of his new workplace. In the vault he fumbles with a key ring, unable to find the one that will unlock the cage holding quilts from the upcoming show. The tumblers wouldn’t align like the cosmos did, meaning that for the moment, the future would have to wait.

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