The Jerome Foundation, a vital source of support for young artists in Minnesota and New York City, has picked a familiar figure to lead its operations.

Ben Cameron, who ran arts programs at the Dayton Hudson Foundation (now the Target Foundation) in the 1990s, will become president of the St. Paul organization — and a less-well known sibling, the Camargo Foundation — starting Jan. 4.

He succeeds Cynthia Gehrig, who previously announced her retirement after 36 years at the helm of both foundations.

For the past 17 years Cameron, 61, lived and worked in New York City. He was program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation since 2006 and executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a professional organization, for eight years before that.

"I've lived many places, but Minnesota is by far the closest to my heart," Cameron said. "Following Cynthia Gehrig is not an enviable task because she has been such an extraordinary leader, but at the same time it seems so right."

The $1.8 billion Doris Duke Foundation, annually dispensing $15 million in grants to national organizations and artists in theater, jazz and contemporary dance, is considerably larger than the St. Paul-based entities. Cameron also manages a special $50 million Duke Foundation award program for artists and arts groups. Under Cameron's leadership the Duke operation partnered with other foundations to commission playwrights, expand fellowships and develop arts residencies.

The Jerome Foundation, by contrast, has a $100 million endowment and gave out $3.7 million last year to artists and performers in Minnesota and New York while the Camargo Foundation runs a retreat center for artists and scholars at an estate in Cassis, France.

Both foundations were started by St. Paul-born artist and filmmaker Jerome Hill (1905-72), an heir to the fortune of Minnesota railroad magnate James J. Hill.

Three things attracted Cameron to the smaller, Minnesota-based foundations: his love for the region, his admiration for Hill's "visionary legacy" and his conviction that in the future "the most important advances in the arts are going to come at the local level."

Cameron's "commitment to artists and his knowledge of national and international nonprofit organizations is a perfect fit," said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Jerome and Camargo boards.

Born and raised in High Point, N.C., Cameron graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and earned an M.A. from the Yale School of Drama.

Before his stint at the Dayton Hudson Foundation, he worked at the National Endowment for the Arts for four years including two years as director of its theater program.

Loquacious and witty, he has lectured about theater during cruises on both the Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, and has been a panelist for 13 seasons on the amusingly esoteric radio quiz show during Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

Cameron serves as a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee and has twice ridden his bicycle from Minneapolis to Chicago to raise money for AIDS relief services.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431