Designed by architect Frank P. Milburn, the James S. Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery, today the Gibbes Museum of Art, opened to the public on April 11, 1905. The event was greeted with considerable enthusiasm in Charleston and throughout the American art world. The first exhibition included works on loan from New York as well as paintings from Charleston collections. The Charleston Evening Post reported that “visitors were admitted to the feast of pictures and works of art and exclamations of delight were heard on every side as the beauty of the exhibition was grasped.” The monumental Beaux Arts-style building located in the heart of the peninsula is the oldest purpose-built museum in South Carolina and the first permanent structure designed for the display of art in the South. Since its inaugural opening the building was expanded in 1978 and again in 2016.
Today, the art on view at the Gibbes spans four centuries and aims to provide a dynamic introduction to the visual culture of America and the American South from the colonial era to the present. Paintings, sculptures, miniature portraits, works on paper, decorative art objects, and multi-media installations, express the evolving aesthetic tastes of Charleston. The permanent art collection has deep roots in the city’s history and contains artworks inspired by lowcountry South Carolina’s unique landscape and cultural heritage, as well as cosmopolitan works that that demonstrate local art patronage. The Gibbes holdings range from pastel portraits from the first decades of the eighteenth century by Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston, who is widely considered America’s first professional woman artist; to twenty-first century baskets by Mary Jackson, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and an internationally-recognized master of sweetgrass basketry.
Throughout its long history, Charleston has welcomed many major artists to the city and over the last 115 year the Gibbes has been a center for the city’s art activities. Visiting artists—from early American portrait painters John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, and Samuel Morse of the 18th and 19th centuries, to American landscape painters Edward Hopper, Andrée Ruellan, and Childe Hassam of the 20th century, to contemporary American luminaries Jeff Koons, Maya Lin, and Fred Wilson recently featured in the Gibbes Distinguished Lecture series— have significantly shaped the city’s artistic culture. Studio spaces and art classes have been a part of the Gibbes experience for over a hundred years and a robust visiting artist program continues to allow visitors to interact with artists and learn more about techniques, materials and creative inspiration.
Since its opening in 1905, landmark exhibitions have been a primary avenue for the Gibbes to share the work of important artists and art movements with its local, national, and international visitors. In 1936 the Gibbes made history when it hosted the first-ever showing of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s collection of non-objective art. The exhibition featured works by Pablo Picasso, George Seurat, Rudolf Bauer, Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. This extensive collection of modern art became the core of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, established in 1939. The Gibbes again made history with a New York based collection in 2019 when it presented the first showing of the Studio Museum’s storied collection to travel outside of the city of New York in the exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Featuring major works by artists of the African diaspora, including many with roots in the Southeast, the exhibition traveled to six museums nationwide, and the Gibbes was the only Southern host.
As Charleston commemorates its 350th anniversary, the Gibbes too looks forward to a new era in which art plays a valuable role in examining and representing Charleston’s full and inclusive visual history. In celebration of this momentous year, the Gibbes will open Building a Legacy: The Vibrant Vision Collection of Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman, an exhibition that explores themes of labor, love, belonging, and spirituality in works that portray tender moments between a parent and child, struggles for racial equality, pride in ancestral heritage, and strength derived through personal faith. These works and all artwork presented at the Gibbes aims to stimulate curiosity, provoke questions, evoke aesthetic appreciation, and encourage personal and collective reflection.