Until recently, Charleston was not a place associated with contemporary art. Mostly it was known for its charming galleries on Broad Street and in the French Quarter, its pastel images, endearing church-steepled cityscapes and light-filled views of marshes and creeks and oyster beds.
Other kinds of art could be found in town: still life paintings, some decorative abstract works, pictures made in the classical tradition, some portraits. The only place to go for a dose of contemporary art was the Halsey Institute at the College of Charleston, which has long featured work by lesser-known and marginalized living artists.
But that is changing.
The Halsey still is a fountainhead of new art, especially now that it’s comfortably ensconced in the Cato Center for the Arts, which opened in 2010. On its firmer footing, director Mark Sloan has been able to show off some extraordinary artists. Local artists have declared repeatedly that Charleston never could have cultivated a contemporary arts scene without the presence of the Halsey.
That sphere is starting to enlarge. Redux Contemporary Arts Center will soon reopen in a large space on upper King Street, one equipped with gallery space, 40 artist studios and a photography center. Walking distance from Redux is The Southern, a gallery that features artists connected to the South, and The George Gallery, which specializes in Abstract Expressionism and other forms of non-representational art.
The Charleston Artist Guild now has 700 members, including some artists who push boundaries. The Charleston Artist Collective is an online gallery started a few years ago that features the work of 16 local artists and now has a bricks-and-mortar gallery in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant.
Some galleries in the downtown historic district that have specialized in landscapes or Realism or Impressionism or portraiture are now dipping their toes into turbulent eddies of contemporary art. Others emphasize it, whether its photo realism or abstraction. There’s even a hotel in town, The Vendue, devoted to the exhibition and sale of new visual art. Its shows are curated by Robert and Megan Lange. The Grand Bohemian Hotel Charleston has its own gallery.
More is in the works. Neal Rice, 22, just opened Beresford Studios, 20 Fulton St., where he is showing the work of emerging artists, including College of Charleston art school graduates. His first exhibit is called “Birdcage” and features Fauvist-like portraits of women by Chambers Austelle, a CofC grad who won Best in Show in the 2016 Piccolo Spoleto Festival juried art competition. Austelle’s work examines women’s place in society and the restrictions imposed by beauty.
Rice said he has restored the back room of a property his parents own to its original purpose as an art studio. The commercial space once served as the studio of Corrie McCallum, wife of famed Charleston painter William Halsey. Halsey developed a bold abstract style unusual for Charleston. McCallum studied in Mexico and paid close attention to the New York scene, absorbing valuable lessons that were reflected in her rich and expressive images. They were the city’s pioneers of contemporary art, Rice said.
Now he wants to help identify the next generation of pioneers. A senior in the college’s arts management program, Rice is providing artists a well-located space steps from campus and from the high-rent lower King Street corridor. He said he plans to organize lots of solo shows and a few group shows that run 30-45 days each.
Regionalism is good
Brian Rutenberg, a Myrtle Beach native who schooled at the College of Charleston then moved to New York City, said he headed north 30 years ago “to be near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to live with the people I wanted to be like.” Many serious artists gravitate to large urban centers to be nearer the cutting edge of their discipline.
“I no longer think that such a journey is necessary," Rutenberg said. "Charleston has evolved into a world-class destination for high-tech business, commerce, restaurants, tourism and culture. More people means more misfits, and misfits who practice a lot become artists. You can't have an arts scene without working artists.”
Rutenberg’s work can be found in public and private collections in town, including the Gibbes Museum of Art. He makes large-scale abstract paintings with thick applications of bold colors, often smeared on the canvas with a palette knife. He studied under William Halsey and has maintained strong connections to collectors, galleries and museums in South Carolina.
“A great deal of the credit for putting Charleston on the national map goes to Mark Sloan and The Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, as well as the Gibbes Museum and Redux, among others,” he said. “However, my hope is that Charleston never loses its local flavor. Regionalism is a wonderful thing. There is room for everyone. As long as there is access to affordable work space and good coffee, artists will continue to make work, galleries will open and the marketplace of ideas will flourish in one gem of a city.”
At The Southern, Justin and Erin Nathanson are slightly less nervous now than they were when they opened their gallery one year ago. They’re settling in, finding their groove. The gallery at 2 Carlson Court sits at the edge of Charleston’s historic district, near Meeting and Line streets. Inside the open rectangular space, the Nathansons show prominent artists rooted in the Southeast.
Unlike traditional galleries, The Southern doesn’t yet “represent” artists, acting as manager, broker, exhibitor and counselor. “We didn’t really want to be bound by that kind of schedule, that kind of regiment,” Erin Nathanson said.
So they go to a lot of art fairs and gather useful information from artsy.net. They partner with artists who have “built-in value,” Erin Nathanson said.
Currently, they’re showing large-format photographs by Eliot Dudik in a show called “Paradise Road,” which examines the discrepancy between the promise and reality of America. Next up is a show featuring works by North Carolina-based Juan Logan and Columbia resident Tonya Gregg.
Tim Hussey, a Charleston native who spent some years living in New York City and, more recently, about three years in Los Angeles, works in a studio on upper King Street painting dynamic abstract works, some very large, some on paper.
He got his start as an illustrator but found it too restrictive.
“I was known to be a grumpy illustrator,” Hussey said. So when he started painting, he went big. “My style was a response to the commercial world, it was about being in control of what I wanted to do.”
What he wanted to do was create stream-of-consciousness images imbued with the energy and emotion of the moment. Certain collectors covet these bold, expressionistic canvases, and Hussey now is cultivating relationships directly with collectors, galleries and museums, ever since he struck out on his own about eight months ago, he said.
The art market is changing. Increasingly it can resemble the popular music market in which bands rely less on big record labels and more on their own entrepreneurship.
“It’s hard for galleries to know anymore what they are,” Hussey said. It might make sense for a successful New York City-based or Los Angeles-based artist to have gallery representation, but in a small market like Charleston, why give away control — and half the sticker price?
If Charleston is experiencing a surge of interest in contemporary art it’s largely due to the influx of new residents, Hussey said.
“The only thing that’s going to change Charleston is to have new blood,” he said.
'OK to like what you like'
Mike and Michele Seekings, avid art collectors who have filled their historic Bull Street home with the works of living local artists, agreed that population growth is resulting in more connoisseurs of contemporary art.
“Traditional (local) collectors are not suddenly collecting new contemporary art, but the market will change as the community grows,” Mike Seekings said.
Already Charleston has a reputation for great music and food; next it will become known as a destination for visual art, Michele Seekings predicted.
“We’re at the beginning of that,” she said.
For a long time the practice among collectors was to match the visual art they bought to the city’s built environment, Mike Seekings said. That meant hanging traditional-looking portraits and landscapes on the walls of historic homes — “indoor mirrors outdoor.” But that’s changing.
“It’s OK to collect what you like and it’s OK if contemporary art ends up in a historic house,” he said.
At The George Gallery, Anne Siegfried has brought her degree in art history and passion for abstract expressionism to Charleston from Martha’s Vineyard because she sensed four years ago that the city was warming to contemporary art. She set up shop not in the French Quarter with the other galleries but in Elliotborough, on Bogard Street, a neighborhood that felt more authentic, she said.
A majority of her clients don’t live in Charleston; they find the gallery via social media or the internet or because of a referral. Siegfried said she works closely with interior designers in Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, Washington, D.C., and Charleston.
“There’s a license to be adventurous,” she said of the current business climate. Contemporary art looks cool in an old house. “It makes it more personal, makes it yours.” And a good gallery does the work of vetting artists so clients know they are getting high-quality pieces, she said.
Attitudes are changing, especially about collecting contemporary art, she said.
“People are more comfortable buying art now than they used to be,” Siegfried said. “It’s not just for the elites anymore.”
Thriving on change
The Gibbes Museum of Art also it putting contemporary art front and center, according to its director Angela Mack. The Society 1858, a group of young Gibbes supporters, sponsors an important art competition that draws much attention to living artists throughout the South. The Gibbes organizes special exhibitions that often feature the work of living artists, sometimes in provocative ways. The permanent collection includes many works of contemporary art, and the museum now is developing a strategy to buy more.
Attitudes toward new art have changed, Mack said, “because we’re becoming a much more diverse community.”
The interest in contemporary art has extended beyond the confines of Charleston, Mack noted. Consider Artfields, now five years old, the Lake City event that gathers many living artists together for a multi-day art showcase and competition (Erin Nathanson helped get it started). The Columbia Museum of Art also is acquiring new art for its collection, and the Greenville County Museum of Art, too, is a proponent of contemporary art.
“The arts thrive on change,” Mack said. “You’ve got to have an influx of young blood and dynamic going on, and a community of artists to feed off each other. If you don’t have that community, and support of that community, it goes stagnant.”