It's official, 122 years later. The trustees of the Gibbes Museum of Art have reached a deal with the city of Charleston that sets the stage for a major renovation project and formalizes the financial obligations of the parties.

The agreement between the city and the Carolina Art Association, legal stewards of the Gibbes' collection and property, was approved by City Council in November. Since then, museum and city officials have been preparing to reassert the original purpose of the institution: to provide on-site educational space to artists and visitors.

The Gibbes' first floor is to become workspace for local and regional artists, Executive Director Angela Mack said. It is not sufficient for the museum to be only a repository of art and history; it must become a "teaching tool," Mack said.

New gallery space will be added to the second and third floors. Art storage will be consolidated and doubled in size; part of it will be open to students and scholars.

The renovations will result in a net increase in exhibit space of 2,000 square feet, Mack said. Staff offices will be relocated off-site.

The agreement with the city and renovation project comes just two years after Mack became executive director in May 2008 and signals the start of a new chapter in the museum's history. Mack joined the museum staff as a curator in 1981.

Getting up to speed

The partnership may have taken a long time to formalize, but the two entities have been working together for more than a century.

After a bit of family wrangling, the $100,000 bequest stipulated in the will of James Shoolbred Gibbes, discovered upon his death on April 26, 1888, and probated in court 10 years later, was delivered to the mayor of Charleston and three of the city's residents.

In 1903, the trustees of Gibbes' gift purchased the lot at 135 Meeting St. and soon after executed contracts for construction of a Beaux Arts building.

In December 1904, a judge in the S.C.

Court of Common Pleas appointed the CAA, an organization incorporated in 1858 for the purpose of cultivating the arts and arts education, as co-trustee along with the city of the new building, though the judge did not enumerate specific responsibilities or obligations.

On April 11, 1905, the James Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery opened to the public.

By the 1950s, the building was in disrepair, and so were the museum's finances. The city came to the rescue, covering operation deficits and contributing to the upkeep of the physical plant. Two years later, in 1953, a special committee of the Gibbes reported to City Council that Charleston had fulfilled its legal obligation as co-trustee.

In 1976, Mayor Joe Riley's second year in office, the Gibbes Art Gallery underwent renovation and expansion. The city, though its official obligations to the Gibbes still were not codified, offered $300,000 toward the $1 million project.

Since the 1980s, the city has lent support to the Gibbes through its accommodations tax grant program.

Last year, the CAA and the city of Charleston finally formalized their relationship, ensuring that capital expenses will be covered in perpetuity thanks to a revolving Gibbes Facilities Fund into which the city will contribute $1.67 million by June 1, 2011. The city also will assist CAA in financing nearly $6 million to be repaid to the city.

An early payment of $200,000 approved by City Council in December and advanced from the total amount will help the Gibbes kick-start its new renovation project, said Steve Bedard, Charleston's chief financial officer.

The goal is to restore the museum's original mission to provide the community with "a Hall or Halls for the exhibition of paintings and for necessary rooms for students in the fine arts."

The next chapter

"The Gibbes is a wonderful and historic asset of Charleston, and it has joint ownership, going back some time ago, between (CAA) and the city," Bedard said.

So when discussions led museum and city officials to agree on a renovation plan, it made sense to set the stage for it properly, he said.

"It kind of makes sense; if you're going to do it, you do it," Bedard said.

The city pledged to pay half the cost of essential repairs, then help the Gibbes raise money for the additional work, he said.

Mack said the renovated building will offer access to the garden behind the building and likely include a cafe. The delivery bay along the side of the building will be revamped so trucks can back up to a loading dock.

Charleston-based Evans & Schmidt Architects is working on the project.

The Gibbes, which has an annual budget of $1.45 million, will end its fiscal year June 30 in good financial shape, according to Marla Loftus, communications director. Next year's budget will be the same, she said.

"Our goal with this renovation plan is to create a sustainable business model that continues to allow us to stay on budget," Loftus said.

Maintaining a revolving facilities fund into which both the museum and the city contribute will make it easier to maintain the physical plant and to ensure the long-term financial health of the institution, Mack said.

Bedard said the Gibbes project is part of the city's larger commitment to the arts and historic preservation. It is the latest in a series of renovation efforts that began in 2006 with City Hall, continued with Memminger Auditorium and the Dock Street Theatre and likely will encompass the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

The renovations to performance spaces were strongly promoted by Riley, accomplished in partnership with Spoleto Festival USA, and did not rely on bond issues.

"We did all these things with little or no debt," Bedard said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.