Leadership Wilmington Session One: Arts, History, and Culture - Class of 2023
In order to understand what we were about to experience—in both this class session and throughout the entire Leadership Wilmington program—it was essential to start with an introduction to Wilmington’s past. We were lucky to begin the day with an hour-long survey of local history provided by Dr. Jan Davidson, Historian for the Cape Fear Museum. Using a range of artifacts from old family photos, newspaper clippings, government records, letters, and more, Jan used the stories of real people to bring the history of our region to life. The stories she told were sometimes inspiring and sometimes devastating. They made clear how the history of slavery and colonialism has impacted generations and generations of Wilmingtonians and how recent attempts to reckon with this history are helping to make our city a healthier, stronger, and more resilient place for all residents.
With our history lesson fresh in mind, we boarded the bus and were joined by Chakema Clinton-Quitana and Atiba Johnson from the OOPS (Offering Optimistic Plans for Success) Foundation. Atiba guided us on a bus tour of Black historical and cultural sites of significance in downtown Wilmington, all the while pointing out how history has shaped the physical space of the city and vice versa. Our tour took us through the streets where the Coup of 1898 erased the progress the city had made during Reconstruction and past struggling neighborhoods that are largely disconnected from the rest of the city by railroad tracks and poorly maintained streets. As we drove past public housing projects, public schools and parks, I was able to see some of the places I pass every day with new insight into the forces that shape our city.
Exploring Wilmington’s Museums
At the Cameron Art Museum we met with Anne Brennan and Rhonda Bellamy, two incredible women who have helped shape and support the richness of the arts and cultural offerings in our city. We learned how the CAM and the Arts Council work with donors, local companies, volunteers, and artists to make the arts in our community as diverse and accessible as possible. Then Daniel Jones, the CAM Cultural Curator, connected past to present with his tour of Boundless, a sculpture by NC artist Stephen Hayes. The sculpture commemorates the United States Colored Troops’ victory at the Battle of Forks Road, a battle near the end of the Civil War that led to the fall of Wilmington to Union troops and the end of the Civil War. The sculpture—and the rediscovery of the story of the Battle of Forks Road and the role of the USCT in ending the war—is the result of a decades-long public-private partnership to uncover the history of the land on which the CAM was built. We were incredibly moved by the story, which was new to everyone, even those whose families have been in Wilmington for many generations.
After the tour of Boundless, we had a quick opportunity to browse the State of the Art exhibit, where we were overwhelmed in all of the best ways by the sheer volume of incredible art that is being created by contemporary artists living in or native to North Carolina. In all, we left the CAM with a much richer appreciation of the arts in Wilmington and how the arts can provide a unique entry point to engage our community in exploring and interpreting our history and in shaping our desired future.
After a busy hour at the CAM, we piled back on the bus for our ride to the Cape Fear History and Science Museum. Guided by Heather Yenco, the Museum Curator, and Wayne LaBar, one of our Leadership Wilmington classmates and the Museum Director, we got an overview of the history of the Museum, its exhibits, and its collections, as well as a preview into the plans for the museum when it moves into its new home in a couple of years as part of Project Grace. As someone who loves to know what goes on behind the scenes, the tour of the collection was particularly engaging. The bulk of the museum’s collection is stored in the building’s basement, and it feels like entering a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of photos, letters, records, newspapers, books, signs, furniture, movie props, boats, military artifacts, and more. Seeing the collection in its raw form showed me two things: the passion of the staff, volunteers, and donors who have committed themselves to saving our history and how much skill is required to take all of these materials and weave them together into cohesive stories of our past.
The Performing Arts in ILM
After our tour but before we boarded the bus for Thalian Hall, we were joined by Johnny Griffin, the Director of the Wilmington Film Commission. I have lived in Wilmington for a bit more than ten years now. I’ve gotten used to the yellow-and-black signs around town pointing to filming locations, the “Film = Jobs” bumper stickers, and the tourists who sneak onto the front porch of the One Tree Hill house at the end of my block. Although I’ve known that film was a major part of our local economy, I didn’t understand why until Johnny explained the long years of work that the Film Commission has put into developing relationships, advocating for our city, building a skilled work force, and creating a major revenue stream for our economy.
From film we transitioned to the stage, and we were met at Thalian Hall by Rob Zapple, who is the interim Executive Director of the Thalian Foundation in addition to serving as one of our County Commissioners. Rob was animated by his enthusiasm for theater, and for Thalian Hall in particular, and he spent an hour giving us an insider’s tour of the building. We heard the story of the original drop curtain for the stage, which was created in the 1850s and lost for several decades. We saw the original fly rail for raising and lowering scenery drops, poked our head into dressing rooms, and each got a chance to enjoy the view from standing at the front of the stage. Finally, we crossed from the side of Thalian Hall that houses the theater to the part that houses City Hall. The dual purpose of Thalian Hall creates a physical connection between the arts and city government that is unique to Wilmington, and the symbolism of that connection was the perfect ending to our whirlwind overview of the city’s interconnected history, culture, and arts.
We’ve had two Leadership Wilmington events now—our initial retreat and our first class session—and both have been almost overwhelmingly stuffed with new experiences, new connections, and new insights into our city. Next up in October is our dive into education in Wilmington. There’s so much more to come!