Passing the Albert Simons Center for the Arts on St. Philips Street has been a noisy, hazardous pursuit for the past two-and-a-half years. With one lane and sidewalk blocked off, pedestrians crowd the remaining thoroughfare and spill onto the street. Work has continued in earnest on a new wing since its foundations began to take shape in January 2007. The barriers and scaffolding around this new wing, named The Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts, have become such a commonplace sight that they’re practically ignored by most people. Now those barriers are coming down and the School of the Arts has started to move furniture and resources into the five-story space.
The tale of the Cato’s creation is a 16-year odyssey that involves millions of dollars, many false starts, three College of Charleston presidents, and one unfailingly fervent gallery director.
A capital campaign for an arts building began in 1993. A year later, the go-getting Mark Sloan became director of the William Halsey Gallery, which changed its name to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in 2005. But it took another three years for the space to be discussed in earnest, and it wasn’t until 1999 that plans started to firm up. During this time, it was obvious that Sloan needed more room, and that he was missing out on some exhibiting opportunities because of the Simons Center’s shortcomings. The center had been erected in the ’70s, when student numbers were half what they are now, and a lack of windows in the Halsey part of the building gave it a gloomy feel. Meanwhile a wet pipe sprinkler system, as opposed to a dry system, meant that art would get soaked at the first whiff of a fire. In spite of the venue’s inadequacies, Sloan built up the gallery’s reputation as a home to top-quality exhibitions.
It wasn’t until the arrival of President Leo Ignatius Higdon Jr. in 2001 that the venture became a concrete possibility. “He was a real builder,” says local architect and arts supporter Whitney Powers of Studio A Inc. “He focused on the project to move it forward.”
A potential roadblock was thrown up when lauded architect Robert Stern’s design for the center was rejected by the city’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR). Stern suggested giving it a traditional look. Residents of the Mazyck Wraggborough Garden District feared that the BAR favored some modernist carbuncle.
“There was a group on the rise at the time called the Committee to Save the City,” says Powers, who was on the BAR for the project. “Its members were very vocal and tried to say the building needed a sloping roof, multi-paned windows, and historic stuff, or they would jump up and down and see that it didn’t get funded.
“The architects and the college were hamstrung by a strong desire to get a building finished. Under the circumstances, a lot of compromises were taken,” Powers adds. “I kept saying, ‘But it’s an art school!’ We couldn’t do anything more contemporary. There are stylish things that should have happened.”
According to Powers, the BAR concentrated its efforts on getting the college to be more daring. “We were ready to sanction them doing that, being more adventurous.” The BAR could only moan and cajole, not design the building; its role was to make sure the finished product integrated with the local streetscape. Campuswide, that integration was considered one building at a time. “There was no thematic coherence put forth by the college about their new buildings,” says Powers. “No master plan.”
Compromises made, a ground-breaking took place in June 2004. Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. had already given a $1.5 million gift to complete the 74,000 square foot building. Yet it took another three years before the installation of pilings was completed.
“I think it suffered from a lack of focus,” says Powers. “It went over-budget with a couple of iterations and three different schemes.”
There were other woes. “The first construction company went belly up,” says Mark Sloan. “The project was pulled out from under me so many times. I’m not blaming anyone. It was part of the process. I realized there were things I had no control over.”
Powers recalls. “It was a frantic process. The School of the Arts has always been fragmented, with a schism between fine arts, performing arts, and art history. Everybody’s turf-oriented. This wasn’t like going in and saying, ‘We’re going to build a science building,’ and everyone agreeing straight away.”
It’s amazing, then, that construction was finally completed two weeks ago, 16 years after it was first considered and a few months behind schedule. There’s still work to be done — the Simons Center has to be renovated — but the Halsey and its director Sloan are now happily ensconced in his new space. Sloan will soon be joined by his School of the Arts peers — music and choir have rehearsal space on the second floor, theater and dance on the third, painting on the fourth, and photography on the fifth. But the Halsey is the most prominent with its ground floor placement.
The museum is a sight for Sloan’s sore eyes, full of bright white walls and 13-foot high ceilings, flexible lighting that can be controlled with three separate key pads like miniature lighting boards, larger gallery spaces, a room for matting and framing, and administration, media, and storage rooms, .
Sloan is ecstatic. “We have our own dry pipe sprinkler system and HVAC to maintain a constant museum environment. Yay! We have a loading dock. Yay!” he says, adding jokingly, “We can move an 8-foot cube into this gallery, so I can do my Monster Truck show.”
A bigger space warrants bigger exhibitions, and the relocated Halsey will reopen in October with a solo show by collage artist Aldwyth. Based in South Carolina, the 73-year-old artist creates assemblage on an epic scale. “It’s the perfect opening show,” Sloan says. “We always aim to shine a light in the shadows, promote work on the margins by emerging and mid-career artists.”
Although she’s well into her golden years, Aldwyth has remained out of the spotlight, but she certainly deserves to have her work exhibited. Her show is part of Sloan’s plan to “raise our profile locally and bring people in with the new building. A lot of people don’t know where we are — if they did know, they’d come.”
Powers thinks that the building’s layout won’t help with that. “The gallery seems isolated from the rest of building. There’s no signage to let you know a gallery is there. Even if you look through the doors on Calhoun Street, there’s nothing painted on the wall suggesting there’s a gallery space.”
Powers hopes that the college will use innovative, creative techniques such as video screens or projected images to create awareness about the gallery. “It’s incumbent on them to try and push the good art inside.”
Still settling in, Sloan is finally able to accept that he has a new space. “It’s a gallery director’s dream come true,” he grins. “I’m really happy, if nervous. I’m asking myself, ‘How is it all going to come together?’ But I know it will.” Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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