It’s safe to say that in Charleston, we are obsessed with our cityscape, forever in a flap over the rising hotels, the rising tides and the rising population that is driving development and stopping traffic.
With such hue and cry, there is a curiously disproportionate lack of talk about public art. After all, robust public art programs in cities the world over have demonstrated their potential for positive impact. Public art has the power to surprise, uplift and spark meaningful exchange about the topics that most concern the place in which it stands. In short, it can serve as the city’s connective tissue.
As gallery owner and artist Lese Corrigan put it, “Public art is the secret door.”
Take, for example, artist Jeff Koons’ 43-foot topiary puppy. In 2000, when it landed with outsize cheer in the middle of Rockefeller Center, it coaxed unexpected, welcome smiles from legions of passersby, who were likely otherwise head-down in midtown Manhattan’s urban churn.
What, you don’t like puppies? Consider Chattanooga. In 2016, artist Konstantin Dimopoulos worked with residents to temporarily paint the trees blue as a vivid statement about deforestation. Or in Memphis, artists Brad Goldberg and Garrison Roots joined forces to create massive granite scrolls for an entry plaza installation that helped transform the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library into a dynamic community hub.
Those are the kind of initiatives unearthed by a group of five Morehead-Cain Scholars from the University of North Carolina, who have been on the ground in Charleston for the past seven weeks. It’s all part of a comprehensive effort to help document best practices for public art here and to create an artist-friendly road map for anyone seeking to apply for public art.
“Just about every city has a public arts program,” says Mark Sloan, director and chief curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. “Currently, we are one of the few that do not.”
While Charleston has managed to make space for murals, there is not much beyond them punctuating our shared spaces. Sloan is chair of a public arts working group established by the Mayor’s Commission on the Arts, which is focused on furthering public art throughout the city.
To help streamline the city’s public art process, he has been collaborating with working group member Cathryn Davis, who heads up Enough Pie, the nonprofit organization that connects artists and community members in public art projects in Charleston’s Upper Peninsula. Both have been offering guidance to the rising sophomores.
So what exactly is the stumbling block in making a space for public art in the city of Charleston? “There is no one office or department that is fully in charge,” says Davis. The current, inscrutable application also can make it nearly impossible for artists to get to yes, so green-lit projects tend to be from organizations.
The scholars have been busy. Over the past seven weeks, they have met with the city’s leading arts practitioners, numerous key city officials and philanthropy officers. They’ve led artist focus groups. They’ve done deep dives with public art professionals in commensurate cities.
For instance, Morehead-Cain scholar Mary Hunter Russell discovered the prevalence of "percent for art" programs, which involve allocating a percentage of capital improvement projects toward the funding of public art. "One-hundred percent have them," she says of the cities that they researched.
On Friday, the students handed in the fruits of their labor: a comprehensive archive of documents that together create a clear, delineated path for artists, city officials, funding professionals and others involved in the public art process. The end goal is for the arts commission to fine tune it and present it to City Council this October.
Sloan and Davis are both impressed with the outcome. For the past five years, Davis has been navigating this very process on behalf of Enough Pie, most recently to facilitate creative takeovers of three bus shelters on the Upper Peninsula.
Sloan has been keen to put a percent for art program in front of city leaders since the early 2000s. In the meantime, he has had traction with public art on behalf of the Halsey, most notably with the extravagant red Shepard Fairey mural on the College Lodge residence hall on Calhoun Street, one of several that the artist created in 2014 as part of Piccolo Spoleto.
It was, after all, a public art initiative that prompted Sloan to move to Charleston 25 years ago, inspired by the 1991 “Places With a Past” site-specific exhibition, which was curated by Mary Jane Jacob on behalf of Spoleto Festival USA and is arguably the high-water mark for public art in the city. Today, the most visible remnant of it is artist David Hammons’ “The House of the Future,” the slim and prescient installation featuring a sliver of a Charleston single house on the corner of America and Reid streets.
As for the artists, the focus group led by the students at Redux Contemporary Art Center revealed marked frustration about the city’s overall investment in the arts. There also was consternation from the fact that the same artists seem to be repeatedly front-and-center, having managed to crack the local code in ways they have not. For example, the murals of the wildly popular artist David Boatwright are frequently commissioned by businesses.
Later, artist Gwylene Gallimard voiced concern about fast-tracking a policy without a more substantive dialogue with artists. She and her partner, Jean-Marie Mauclet, have been collaborating on public art projects in the city for decades, chief among them for the very “Places With a Past” exhibition that so captivated Sloan.
“It took so long for artists to get out of the frame of the painting,” says Gallimard, who worries about the constraining framework of any proposed policy before there is more talk among artists.
Gallimard and Mauclet are at the same time a stellar example of getting to yes, having recently been awarded a grant from ArtPlace America for conNECKtedToo, their public art initiative focused on Charleston’s micro-businesses. It includes a sculpture that is currently on public view in the lobby of North Charleston City Hall.
Corrigan, who is also a member of the arts commission and its public art working group, concurs that artist involvement is critical. “You have to weigh the artist’s vision versus the community vision versus the group soap box,” she says.
“We fell behind,” says Sloan, noting the incongruity of Charleston’s self-perception as an arts destination with its reluctance to embrace new art. “There’s a certain nostalgia for this Charleston that no longer exists, but there is a different mentality emerging.”
Whether the lag is due to pushback or pragmatics, many involved in the student project believe it could lead to the more public art.
So, if you’re walking down the street dodging construction sites or idling in traffic, consider how a striking splice of glistening steel might offset that value-engineered edifice. Or think how a hydro-powered riverfront piece might inform our anxiety over rising waters.
Or consider one that picks up where “Places With a Past” left off three decades ago. Corrigan envisions a work that reinterprets the Calhoun monument, possibly encircling it with representations of individuals like Sojourner Truth, or perhaps involving a towering woman gazing down on it with grace.
“Artists imagine how the world can be,” says Davis.
With new ways to make it possible for artists to do so, for all of us to see, Charleston may finally possess the mechanisms to make way for the next big puppy.