The Changing Tides of the Charleston Art Scene is a story by Angela Stump.
Change is constant on this roller coaster we call the human condition, but visual art consistently and unapologetically reflects our messy and unique lives and experiences better than any other medium. From the earliest cave paintings in Indonesia, to the wet linen canvas in progress in a sun filled Lowcountry studio— art, arguably, is paramount in understanding our history and expressing our times.
In 2000, I needed a geographic change. I had wanted to live in Charleston a decade before I finally unpacked my bags east of the Cooper River. Salty tequila tides, hidden-creek kayaking under a pregnant moon, the primal sense of connection to the Atlantic, as well as a healthy dose of childlike excitement inspired by crashing waves, are some of the reasons I moved here.
Since then, I can’t imagine living anywhere else that would inspire me so daily. But a dire need exists for a balance between being a historic, culinary, and arts destination and keeping that small town “warm and fuzzy” feeling accompanied by the city’s famous almost drunken hospitality.
“Change” is a word Charleston and its surrounding islands have spoken fluently for hundreds of years. A born-again optimist, I hope this recent rapid growth is an inevitable ‘cultural melting pot’ form of change since all southeastern coastal populations are on the rise. We all bear responsibility for preserving as many “old Charleston” aspects as we can as we collectively turn a crucial page in history. What will become of our dear Charleston in the future? After arriving in Charleston for the first time in 1919, renowned artist Alfred Hutty (1877-1954) was guilty of catching that insatiable Charlestowne fever. He immediately sent his wife a message to the North. “Come quickly. Have found heaven.”
A “happy transplant,” I feel kindred to Hutty and am in love with the city and its aberrant history. (I’ve sent urgent messages to lure friends from far away), and I feel compelled to pay homage to the artistic culture as rich, always, as the brackish marsh smells that pervade the air.
An eclectic mix of visitors … revolutionaries, socialites, scholars, and most especially visual artists have made the pilgrimage here. They still make their way here despite wars, earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes. With all the distinct changes we have seen over this last decade, it’s exhilarating to see the art community expand and inspire camaraderie. More and more easels stand on the streets of Charleston. Citywide art walks buzz with curious collectors, and many local restaurants finally figured out they should use local art to showcase their historic buildings where they offer their particular form of Lowcountry culinary expertise. But before we move forward, let’s take one quick glance in the smudgy rearview mirror of Charlestons’ artistic history.
I was fated to write a paper about the Charleston Museum while working on my undergraduate degree in Virginia 20 years ago. It gave me a great reason to visit Charleston for the first time. That’s when my schoolgirl crush on Charleston began. That Charleston had notched her belt as having the “first museum in America” struck me. The museum opened in 1773, eventually opening to the public in 1824, and it wasn’t long after that the reticent peninsula experienced an extremely intriguing time in its history, a cultural revival now referred to as the Charleston Renaissance. At the forefront was one of my favorite native Charleston gals, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883-1979) who wins the prize title as “matriarch of the Charleston Renaissance.” Losing her husband at a young age, she found herself illustrating Charlestonians, especially the graceful, hard-working Gullah vendors along downtown streets. She sold these prints in small books to visitors to support herself. Little did she know she was becoming a visual historian, an icon of Charlestons’ resourcefulness and creativity.
Charleston also enticed many writers and musicians at that time, and the little barged peninsula exploded with clusters of creativity all over the historic French Quarter, the area where most art galleries exist today. Dubose Heyward wrote the famous novel ‘Porgy’ in 1925 based on a true story of Charleston in the 1920s (illustrated by Mrs. Verner), later to become the famous opera ‘Porgy & Bess’ including music by George Gershwin. Visits to the Lowcountry inspired his timeless and dreamy song, “Summertime.” That vital time in Charleston also enticed notable nationally famous painters such as Edward Hopper and Childe Hassam. Charleston has, indeed, carried on an ardent love affair with the arts for a very long time.
Following the big bang of the Charleston Renaissance and into the last half of the 20th century, the Holy City experienced a surprisingly low-key time. Many Lowcountry natives who grew up during this time told me it was really quite magical. A sleepy and furtive city, still with its own charm and peppered touches of depravity, still, somehow, remained mostly undiscovered by the rest of the world.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the second visual arts renaissance rippled through the community, most appropriately in the French Quarter where so many undeniably important works of art have been inspired and birthed. A like-minded group of artists banded together to hold special receptions on Fridays to draw more people to their galleries. Art Thomas, Nina Lui, Billy Sumner, and Marty Whaley Adams play the role of heroes in this part of the story. Their love for the artist’s life and kindred friendships, along with other local artists Manning Williams, John Carroll Doyle, Linda Fantuzzo, and many more helped keep the creative momentum and inspiration flowing as they plein-air painted together all over the Lowcountry. From their collective efforts and regular art walks, the number of galleries quickly grew, and in 1988 the French Quarter Gallery Association took form. By 2008 the association had over 30 members.
As people flock to our world-renowned cuisine, heavenly weather, cobblestone streets laden with the guts of history, and treasured landmarks, Charleston’s hotel and culinary worlds earn deserved national and international accolades. The art community, underestimated for a very long time, has quietly and patiently been feeding the visual arts spirit always steadfast in Charleston, and now the secret is out.
As galleries increased to well over 50, many came together in 2015 and “herded the cats” into one larger united association—following the old adage “all boats rise at high tide.” And the tide is looking pretty high! This altruistic joining of forces officially became the Charleston Gallery Association in September 2015. In its first year it helped locals and collectors from abroad find the art their heart desires. The association includes 44 galleries in downtown Charleston and the surrounding islands.
It continues to grow and its member galleries represent 1000s of artists locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. The art lover can easily unearth fine art in many genres: paintings, sculpture, photography, jewelry, and more. The CGA hosts quarterly art walks every First Friday in December, March, May, and October. It is free to the public and you can get further details and even print your own map at its website: www.charlestongalleryassociation.com
It’ll be my pleasure to highlight galleries and artists in this association in future issues, as well as the comprehensive visual arts scene of sweet-changing Charleston. Thankfully, artists reflect all the tides of change for us, one brush stroke at a time.