Charleston’s growth has been a boon for, and in part driven by, its creative community. The return of festival season is a good opportunity to take its pulse and peek backstage at the studios, galleries, and theaters of our evolving and maturing arts scene
There was a moment when it all coalesced. May 27, 2016: opening night of Spoleto’s Porgy and Bess at the Charleston Gaillard Center. Exuberant costumes in candy-store colors designed by the Lowcountry’s own Jonathan Green; Gershwin’s score, written right here nearly a century ago, roused to melodic brilliance by an orchestra that included some local musicians: a story from our past brought to life in a dazzling new theater heralding a promising future. All headlining the 40th anniversary of a festival that put Charleston on the international cultural map.
In many ways, this moment was a culmination of the city’s deep artistic heritage and celebration of its yet untapped potential. Visually intoxicating, musically moving, dramatically compelling, and designed specifically to take place in the totally re-envisioned Gaillard Center—a civic jewel and $142-million public/private investment proclaiming the centrality of the arts within our broader community. It was a spotlight in which the maturity of Charleston’s arts scene seemed luminous.
Yet haloed around that shining moment are a thousand points of artistic light dispersed across the region. Any day of any week, all year long, artists across many mediums are creating, teaching, rehearsing, exhibiting, and performing in smaller venues with perhaps less glitz but no less passion for the power of art to inspire, challenge, and uplift the human spirit.
Increasingly in Charleston, all the city’s a stage, and not just during Spoleto and Piccolo. Far beyond the Gaillard Center, studios at the recently renovated and totally re-invigorated Gibbes Museum of Art and at the newly expanded Redux Contemporary Art Center are filled with artists both creating work and teaching students young and old. Professional actors are memorizing lines for their next performances at Charleston Stage, PURE Theatre, Midtown Productions, and Woolfe Street Playhouse, among others, while Footlight Players presents shows as the region’s oldest community theater. A steady lineup of classical, chamber, jazz, pop, choral, and rock concerts fill venues from Charleston Music Hall to the Gaillard, the Gibbes’ Lenhardt Garden, and the Pour House to churches, coffee shops, and street corners in between. Elsewhere, poets read and dancers dance, and this barely touches the surface.
The state of the arts in greater Charleston is thriving, affirms Scott Watson, head of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “The arts imbue every corner of this community, coexisting alongside oyster roasts and wildlife expos. Our artists and arts organizations are highly visible, celebrated, and resilient,” says Watson. And every arts organization leader interviewed for this story echoes his assessment. They report that their audiences as a whole are healthy and growing. The range of exposure of various forms of art presented by artists both emerging and established is more diverse than ever, and becoming even more so. Yet when Mark Sloan moved to Charleston to take the helm of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (then called the Halsey Gallery) nearly 24 years ago, he found a very different cultural landscape.
“I’ve seen Charleston change quite dramatically. I sensed almost a hostility to contemporary art when I first got here,” says Sloan, who has worked to educate the community about why contemporary art, especially boundary-pushing work by lesser-known artists, deserves attention. “I believe you have to create your own audience, one person at a time, over time. The key is being sequential and consistent, presenting quality artists time and again whose works are edgy and yet accessible, that challenge people’s perceptions of what art-making is,” he adds.
Today, the Halsey is strongly rooted in its identity as a noncollecting, international contemporary art institute and university gallery that shows “emerging, mid-career, and oddly overlooked artists,” says Sloan, and as such, he believes it plays an important role in Charleston’s cultural “ecology,” augmenting the Gibbes’s role as the large municipal museum, while Redux creates a place for project-based work, and the nonprofit City Gallery at Waterfront Park exhibits a mix. “I think of it like a rain forest. You’ve got your big trees, your canopy dwellers and bottom feeders, and everything in between,” Sloan notes. “A healthy art community has a wide range of niche organizations, and if any fails, all suffer.”
This strengthening sense of creative vibrancy is what enticed Cara Leepson to move here from Washington, D.C., last December to become executive director of Redux. Leepson, who during an internship at Redux in 2009 observed that the city was ripe with unrealized potential, found that a decade later, “the population growth meant the creative community had really expanded and was much broader in scope.” Beyond studios and galleries, she was encouraged to find entrepreneurs and small businesses hustling and “really making it happen—pop-up collectives and artist spaces all over town,” she adds. “The Redux model has inspired artists to surround themselves with other creatives—all they needed was the support and backbone of a creative space.”
New & Needed Arts Venues
After settling into a new home on Upper King last May, Redux’s work fostering creativity, cultivating contemporary art, and enhancing a multidisciplinary dialogue between artists and audiences has expanded. The new location more than doubles the organization’s previous studio space (now 38 studios, many subsidized to accommodate artists with limited resources) and houses three galleries—one dedicated to exhibiting Redux artists—plus a larger print shop, a classroom, a photo studio, and the city’s only public darkroom. Redux’s classes for youth and adults stay full, and with this growth, Leepson has hired an education outreach coordinator to expand their program to include more classes beyond fine arts (designing with succulents and bike tuning, for example) “to get all kinds of folks engaged,” she says.
Meanwhile, the venerable Gibbes Museum of Art is experiencing a renaissance after an $11.5-million building renovation that entailed a risky two-year shut-down (programming continued in off-site locations). Membership dropped significantly during the hiatus, but the gamble paid off—since reopening they’ve recouped and more than doubled the number of members, according to executive director and chief curator Angela Mack. “It’s been a tremendous dream come true for visual arts in Charleston,” Mack says. “The reinvigoration has exceeded our expectations; the building is a game changer.”
In addition to an enlivened and redesigned space to better showcase its own collection and curated exhibits, Mack is particularly excited about more opportunities for collaborating with poets; performers; and other arts institutions, including the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Jazz, and the Charleston Music Hall, that put on performances at the Gibbes. “These artists spotlight repertoire inspired by the visual arts, and they then become the spokesperson, bringing a fresh interpretation to the artwork,” she adds. “But having a physical presence is crucial,” Mack notes. “So many of the performing arts organizations don’t, and that has an impact.”
Indeed, while the dust has finally settled in new facilities for the Gaillard, the Gibbes, and Redux, other organizations scrounge for space in Charleston’s tight and pricey real estate market. Just ask Sharon Graci. As cofounder and artistic director of PURE Theatre, Graci has become as adept at real estate transactions as she is with stage direction, and not by choice. In its 15-year history, her professional theater company has moved three times, including four years in itinerant status, presenting edgy plays in even edgier, cobbled-out spaces. “That was absolutely devastating; if we had not moved into our home on King Street [where they’ve been for the last seven years], we wouldn’t have made it,” she says. “We were weary, really weary.”
With their King Street lease now up, PURE Theatre is eager to become the anchor tenant at 134 Cannon Street (formerly Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church), an ambitious new arts venue underway as a partnership between the City of Charleston and building owner Patterson Smith. The vision is both to invigorate neighborhood life through culture and to provide multidisciplinary, multipurpose space for artists and smaller performing arts groups. “Not every group is looking to fill the Dock Street or Gaillard Center,” notes Scott Watson, whose office will oversee the city’s management of the property. As anchor tenant, PURE would help up-fit the former sanctuary into a theater space, which will be available to other theater groups and dance companies as well. The adjacent education building will be converted into workshops, studios, offices, and other flex space, and a garden will honor the late Herbert DeCosta, Charleston’s foremost African-American architect of the 20th century.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg was an early champion of an arts-forward adaptive reuse of Zion-Olivet, which Watson sees as an example of the city “doing what we’ve always done—finding nooks and crannies and doing arts-inspired things in them.” He adds, “Charleston’s cultural landscape is always in flux, so we capitalize on what’s present and continue to work on deficiencies and blind spots.” 134 Cannon Street is an example of what could happen in different neighborhoods, he adds, including “animating spaces like The Schoolhouse in Avondale,” a retrofitted abandoned school and multiuse space developed by John Hagerty and Susan Simons to host concerts, small productions, and exhibits.
West Ashley will soon be further “animated” by Charleston Stage’s forthcoming West Ashley Theatre Center, a 10,000-square-foot, $1-million facility on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard that will feature a 127-seat performance space dubbed “The Pearl” (a nod to generous assistance from The Pearlstine Family Fund), as well as rehearsal and dance studios and offices. Though Charleston Stage’s main-stage productions will remain at the Dock Street Theatre, this expanded footprint will accommodate the 40-year-old company’s growing demand for education, “which from Day One has been the core of our mission,” says Marybeth Clark, associate artistic director and director of education.
Clark heads a 14-member education staff and is excited that this new facility (anticipated to open this fall) will allow expanded program offerings. “Our goal continues to be making theater more and more accessible, with sensory-friendly classes and productions for people with special needs [Last year, Charleston Stage and PURE coproduced a play with HeART, an arts-based nonprofit that supports adults with special needs] and for preschool-age children,” she adds. Plus she’s excited to share their performance space with other local theater and dance companies. To Clark, collaboration and sharing is central to creative vitality. “Our belief is that the more arts experiences our city can offer, the stronger everyone becomes,” she says. “We’re not competing with each other; we’re competing with 500 shows on Netflix and the beach and a million great restaurants.”
Onward & Upward, & Digging Deep
The region’s ever-expanding arts landscape isn’t contained within the peninsula and West Ashley. Ambitious plans are underway to build a 600-seat Daniel Island Performing Arts Center (DIPAC) that will serve as a performance and gathering space and center of artistic innovation in the growing City of Charleston/Berkeley County community. The brainchild of Mary Gould, founder and producer of the South of Broadway Theatre Company based in North Charleston, DIPAC would fill a missing mid-sized theater gap and further “stamp Charleston as an arts destination,” says Betsy Brabham, DIPAC’s director of advancement. The nonprofit’s board has yet to determine the scope of fundraising efforts or a construction time line.
The project and its forthcoming capital campaign will launch with the May 5 benefit performance of Puccini’s Tosca, featuring an all-Metropolitan Opera cast presented in conjunction with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at the Gaillard Center. “We are thrilled to partner with the City of Charleston and the CSO to showcase the level of quality we envision bringing to DIPAC. Our goal is that DIPAC will elevate all local arts organizations,” Brabham says.
Though a DIPAC dollar figure has yet to be announced, such an endeavor won’t be inexpensive. Meanwhile, in recent years, arts supporters have ponied up $71 million for the Gaillard (another $71 million came from the City) and $11.5 million for the Gibbes, while Charleston Stage is actively seeking a final $200,000 for the West Ashley Theatre Center and PURE Theatre is launching a “new home campaign” to cover costs associated with up-fitting 134 Cannon—all just for these capital projects, over and above ongoing programs—not to mention the dozens of other organizations also continually seeking donor support. At what point is an ever-expanding arts landscape unsustainable? Or does the collective growth in number and quality of arts opportunities and organizations create a deeper well of support?
There’s no easy answer to the funding question, but based on her first three years as executive director of Charleston Jazz, a nonprofit that oversees the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and Charleston Jazz Academy and presents the annual Charleston Jazz Festival, Mary Beth Natarajan banks on the latter. “I do think we’re undergoing a transformation from Charleston being known first for its history, and then its food, to now being known and celebrated for the arts,” she says. “And I’m a big believer in the Field of Dreams mentality, except with the arts, it’s not ‘If you build it, they will come,’ rather, “If you support it, they will stay.’ Artists go where they are supported.”
Mark Sloan echoes this and highlights the game-changing importance that arts-focused foundations such as the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation have played in the region. “The Donnelley Foundation has made a transformative impact on the performing and visual arts community here,” he says, adding that their support is “the single biggest factor for the health of Charleston’s arts ecology.” On the flip side, Sloan notes that the single biggest challenge is what he calls “the 800-pound gorillas—Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto—that guard the funding gate for all arts giving in Charleston.”
Sloan is not alone in being told by potential donors, especially large corporations, that they’ve already allotted their charitable arts dollars to the festivals. And he and others are quick to say they are supporters of these events and acknowledge the downstream benefit to their organizations that can come from visiting festivalgoers. “But it’s an unsustainable model for more than 50 percent of local arts funding to go to two 17-day festivals, while those of us here producing art year-round are starved off and left to fend for ourselves,” he adds.
In the spirit of creative collaboration, Marybeth Clark recognizes that part of the funding challenge includes “learning to share and mine the donor base,” she says. “But mostly the need is to find a new donor base. It’s an opportunity for ingenuity as far as growth is concerned. We’re always watching where the new people are, what they are looking for, and what we can offer.” So agrees her friend and creative colleague Sharon Graci, who dismisses a scarcity mentality.
“My hope is that the arts organizations in town are spending more time considering their relevance to audiences than they are their revenue and ticket sales. Which is not to minimize fiscal health—that is absolutely critical—but I hope it’s not what propels us to show up every day for work,” says Graci. Her personal motivation, she explains, is to “really build an inclusive community through the arts. To recognize that we are far more alike than we are different, and that our capacity for kindness is utterly unlimited.”
Angela Mack at the Gibbes Museum of Art concurs, and by collaborating across creative mediums and organizations, she envisions that connection becoming even stronger. “There is not a controversial topic that cannot be addressed in a thoughtful and empathetic way through art,” she notes. “It’s a fantastic avenue for building bridges, and I believe it’s incumbent on us as an institution to make that happen.”
“The role of the arts has always been to serve as the connective tissue in a community,” echoes Graci. “If we can do it in Charleston, then we can do it anywhere.”
Sidebar: GALLERIES GALORE
Once upon a time, there was the little Pink House on Chalmers Street, one of the city’s first art galleries tucked into one of its oldest and tiniest buildings, a stalwart for decades and home to its share of Rainbow Row watercolors. Today, the Charleston Gallery Association lists 44 members, including The Vendue art hotel, curated by Robert Lange Studios. And this doesn’t include pop-ups and smaller shops or the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. Art enthusiasts will find local and internationally known artists whose work represents every medium and genre. Here’s a look at a few of the newer players in the city’s ever evolving gallery scene.
Photographs by (Porgy & Bess-2) Julia Lynn Photography, (Scott Watson) Ruta Elvikyte, (Mark Sloan) Christopher Nelson, (Halsey exhibit The Tide Is High) Nathan Leach, (Redux-3, Angela Mack, Sharon Graci, Kate Hooray Osmond, & Mary Beth Natarajan) Brett Tighe, (Gibbes exhibit Betwixt & Between) MCG Photography, (The Royale) David Mandel Photography, (dancers) Leigh Webber, (Tosca) Deborah Gray Mitchell, (Revealed) Holger Obenaus, & (Charleston Jazz Orchestra) JB McCabe Photography & courtesy of (concert) Gibbes Museum of Art, (rendering & Disney’s The Little Mermaid) Charleston Stage, (rendering) Daniel Island Performing Arts Center, & (galleries-3) the galleries