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Museum debut puts Uptown in 'Mint' condition 

On Oct. 1, The Mint Museum Uptown will open its doors and let flow the greatest concentration of highbrow cultural mojo this town has probably ever seen.

The new Mint (located at 500 S. Tryon St.) is the anchor and the brightest light of the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus. The physical presence of the building and the surrounding area is as impressively elegant as the name "Wells Fargo Cultural Campus" is not. The street-side brick-paved sidewalk, the landscaped patio, granite tiles and splayed steps all lead through a shallow sideways vortex to the front doors of the most impressive museum Charlotte will have for a long, long time.

So what's inside? Right now, lots of people in a gorgeous cavern carrying boxes, wheeling sculpture, carefully hanging pictures on the wall and staring, with chin in hand, at walls and art and rigging.

Kurt Warnke, head of Design and Installation and nuts-and-bolts impresario for the Mint Uptown, gave me a quick tour of the concrete-and-glass envelope.

A vast central atrium is the heart of the Mint. A 60-foot glass wall overlooks 1st Street and faces the Knight Theater and the cityscape beyond. One wall will sport a painting by Sam Gilliam the size of a billboard. When I was there, the framework for the painting was laid on the floor, rigged with ropes and pulleys, ready to be hoisted to cleats anchored to the wall. Across the basketball-court-sized floor is another supersized wall awaiting a Helen Frankenthaler painting. Awesome would be the word, had the word not been co-opted by a generation who churned it to vanilla pabulum. The heart of the Mint is awesome in the old-world sense of the word.

Under our feet, on street level, is parking, and across the granite terrace, a large — 3,000-square-foot — museum gift shop. Above us are three glass-rimmed balconies overlooking the atrium. Beyond those balconies, to the left and right, are the galleries, which will house the museum's raison d'être — the art that brought the mojo and money, the steel and glass, and us. Escalators and elevators lead up to each floor.

On the floor above — the third floor — are the galleries dedicated to works from the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, a temporary exhibition space, and a classroom for hands-on activities for kids.

Studio furniture, fiber, ceramics, wood, jewelry, metals and glass are arranged in discrete areas flowing into one another around gallery walls. Each piece is given room to breathe, as are we. Project Ten Ten Ten, featuring artwork by 10 of the best in the craft and design world, commissioned for the new Craft + Design galleries, will help launch the grand opening.

Also opening is Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection, the first of its kind — contemporary Brit clay — seen stateside. Vessels and platters and pots and sculpture are taken to surprising technical areas. Here is where clay is taken to ceramic art, where what I could not imagine made from clay is imagined and made.

Next floor up are American, European and Contemporary galleries. New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection is the inaugural show, running through April 17, 2011. These paintings are the cream of BofA's abundant crop, with works by advance guard artists from the 1940s through today. Nevelson, Olitski, Stella, Rauschenberg, Thiebaud and Longo are a few stars among many making a showing. This gallery area and all other exhibition spaces offer wide walking and viewing areas, generous eyeball and foot berths for the enchanted many. No one needs to jockey for position. Thank you to whoever made that decision.

On the fifth floor is a special events room and a terrace from which to view the city south of Tryon, as the city looks your way.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1, followed by a 24-hour grand opening celebration. Activities include tours of the facility, a dance party sponsored by Takeover Friday, films, sunrise yoga, hands-on art activities and artist demonstrations.

Admission is $10 on Friday and free starting at 2 a.m. Saturday. And open and free again on Sunday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

It's party time for Banktown, and for good reason. Mint Uptown is a splendid place to be.

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