When galleries in downtown Charleston put together the first Art Walk event nearly 25 years ago, the overall goal was to synchronize exhibit openings and invite the community to see what was going on in the local arts scene.
Often, the cluster of galleries in the lower part of the peninsula seemed dominated by out-of-towners, so about 10 gallery owners in the French Quarter district decided to launch an event that primarily would appeal to local art enthusiasts and collectors.
On the first Friday evenings of March, May, October and December, galleries stayed open late and served complimentary wine and refreshments to attendees perusing the latest local artwork.
By the mid-2000s, the Art Walk had become a highlight of Charleston’s event calendar; the number of participating galleries had tripled. Sidewalks were so packed with art walkers, foot traffic often spilled into Broad, Church and Queen streets.
Lese Corrigan opened Corrigan Gallery on Queen Street in 2005, around the time the event was finding its stride.
“(The Art Walk) obviously made a difference, because we’ve grown from a small handful of artist studios and galleries to ... this large arts community,” she said.
In recent years, however, attendance during Art Walk events seems to have decreased, according to several gallery owners, raising the question of whether the quarterly event is still a viable strategy to promote the local art scene.
With that in mind, gallery groups such as the French Quarter Gallery Association and the Charleston Fine Art Dealers Association decided to join forces this summer as the Charleston Gallery Association, with the goal of uniting all the galleries on the peninsula under one flag.
As a more unified front, the association comprising more than 40 local galleries hopes to help the art community with marketing and breathe new life into the Art Walk events.
Although local attendance at the Art Walk was soaring about a decade ago, people weren’t always showing up to view and buy art.
Free food and wine was a popular draw, and open container laws weren’t enforced during the event, which meant attendees could move freely from one gallery to the next with drinks in their hands.
“In the old days, it was like ‘Oh, we’ve got to go to so-and-so, they’ve got great food!’ ” Corrigan said, adding that large crowds became overwhelming at times. “It’d be more of a street party than anyone planned on.”
But in 2008, police began stricter enforcement of the ban on open containers.
“When that started being enforced, there were probably fewer (attendees),” Corrigan said.
Many galleries started scaling back their food offerings after that, but Corrigan said that had more to do with the recession in the late 2000s than anything else.
Another change that could have affected attendance in recent years is that new galleries have spread to different parts of town, such as upper King Street, away from the walkable hub of fine art galleries in the French Quarter.
Then, clusters of galleries and art shops around town started holding their own events, such as First Fridays on Broad, or upper King Street’s Design Walk, which happened more frequently and sometimes at the same time as the Art Walk event.
“What happened was, the art walk scene got pretty diluted,” said Julie Dunn, the president of the Charleston Gallery Association and the director of Atrium Art Gallery. “Meaning, people thought ‘Well, they happen every month, so why not wait until the next month.’ I think when galleries started to do their own thing and people thought everybody was open every month, that’s when it felt it wasn’t as special.”
Given all the recent shifts in the local gallery scene, Dunn and several other gallery owners believe the new, more inclusive association is a move in the right direction.
“There is something wonderful about seeing an umbrella association finally come together that includes all of the galleries,” said Megan Lange of Robert Lange Studios. “The cross-pollination that is created from building an association like the Charleston Gallery Association is invaluable for the overall growth of the cultural scene.”
Corrigan agreed, adding that she has high hopes for the new group.
“The first thing I want to see happen is (for) every gallery (to) be a part of the group, and that’s just a matter of time and some energy. And then, let’s see what can be done as one unit. There are so many ways that visual art can impact a community,” she said.
Dunn said the group has already extended its reach to King Street, and hopes to continue adding gallery members across the peninsula. As more galleries join, she thinks the quarterly Art Walk will reassume its role as the main gallery event in town.
Mitchell Hill, an interior design shop that also functions as a contemporary art gallery on upper King Street, is farther north than any of the other members of the Charleston Gallery Association. Tyler Hill, who co-owns the business with Michael Mitchell, said that being far away from most other downtown galleries “is definitely a challenge,” but he sees the new Gallery Association as a way to bridge the gap between the two parts of town.
“Hopefully ... it will reinvigorate everything associated with the Art Walk. We’re excited. We’ve been waiting for it to get to upper King for so long, so I think it’s going to help us a good bit,” he said.
Aside from just bringing the event to different parts of town, Dunn said a major goal of the association is to function as a promotional group for Charleston’s arts community. So far, the association has printed maps to all of its member galleries and distributed them to local hotels and restaurants. A long-term goal is to look at tourism and other marketing opportunities outside of Charleston.
That’s the part of the new group that’s most exciting to Corrigan, who’s been a part of Charleston’s art scene for decades.
“People go to New York to buy art, they go to Santa Fe to buy art. There is a lot of room for growth ... so that we can compete in the big market,” she said. “The restaurants have gone and taken off, and if somebody says, ‘I want to go some place in the world for a great meal,’ Charleston is going to be on that list. Well, I want to see Charleston on that list for the arts, too.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at (843) 937-5906.