Would you open up an art gallery behind a Pizza Hut? That’s exactly what Erin and Justin Nathanson are doing.

Nestled behind the Pizza Hut on Meeting Street and wedged between a couple residential properties and the future Courier Square development, a formerly nondescript building is about to become Charleston’s newest contemporary art gallery.

“We would pass it all the time, and it was a kind of a poopy brown, eggplant color with lots of trees grown over it. And we were like, ‘What is that place?’” explains Erin. “We finally stepped inside, and we were like, ‘Whoa! This is what we’ve been looking for.’”

Months later, that very building at 2 Carlson Court will serve as the home of The Southern Gallery. A place, Erin says, will provide a platform for artists connected to the Southeastern United States. It opens today with it’s inaugural exhibition (it was) A Wet, Hot, Southern Summer.

The gallery’s mission of exhibiting works by southern-based artists stems from its founders’ travels and connections to the region. “I think it’s a natural extension of where we’ve been in the past 10 years, where we’ve traveled,” states Justin, a videographer and owner of The Cut Company. Though he’s originally from New York City, he’s lived in Charleston with Erin — who is the former arts director and curator for City Gallery at Waterfront Park — for the past decade, during which they’ve trekked extensively through the south.
“We have such a deep history that has been so lightly tapped because it’s controversial,” Erin continues. To rectify that, the Nathansons want to offer a space where artists can deal with such a history, including recent events such as the Emanuel AME church shooting in June 2015.

“We want our space to be very open,” she says. “We want people to come in, be able to have conversations, and not feel like they have to be quiet.”

Seeing a need for such discourse, the Nathansons dreamed of one day opening a space to spark these conversations. After spending five years at City Gallery  and another stint at ArtFields, an annual arts festival in Lake City, SC, Erin knew it was time to establish their own venture.

After an extensive search for the perfect space, they found it in an admittedly odd location — one apart from Charleston’s French Quarter, where the bulk of the city’s galleries are located. “One of the reasons I think it really works in the end is the weird location,” she says.

“Being behind the Pizza Hut, it’s kind of fresh in a way,” adds Justin, noting that it was important “to still feel like you’re connected to the neighborhood.”

Though the building’s outward appearance failed to impress initially, the duo discovered a 2,100-square-foot clean slate inside, and they’ve spared no expense to transform it into a space dedicated to showing art. “We built out the space much more than we initially planned, but in the end that was the best thing we did,” says Erin.

With a vision of a space capable of presenting any type of artwork, the duo built walls 18 feet high — complete with plywood backing so they can hang anything they want — and installed a garage door to accommodate large works and let in natural light. Pouring over every detail, the couple even painted traces of their tropical influences — from frequent trips to Miami — in the offices and restrooms. Artist David Boatwright painted the gallery’s exterior signage.

“It looks just like a Chelsea gallery,” says Justin, comparing it to spaces in New York City’s art-centric neighborhood.

The large space will allow the Nathansons to be flexible when it comes to presenting works of art, and they want to be able to accommodate what artists are presently working on. The gallery’s initial exhibition reflects these desires, presenting current works from 10 artists from around the southeast. The exhibition will also show the wide range of media the Nathansons are interested in, with works ranging from photography (Gately Williams) to mixed media installation (Antoine Williams) and textiles (Kristy Bishop and Jeanne Vockroth).

“We wanted a diverse group of artists that all work in different ways,” Erin says. The connecting thread of (it was) A Wet, Hot, Southern Summer encapsulates artists who were creating work in the south during the summer of 2015 and responding to various events and conversations. Artists in it include Charlestonians such as Karen Ann Myers as well as others from out of state, including Michael Pajon from Louisiana.

“It was a summer full of a lot of things, and it was the hottest summer on record,” Justin adds.

“How do you acknowledge such events and what do we do as a community to show love to each other?” asks Erin. “There needs to be a commercial space that can support contemporary works that want to talk about things.”

Along with their exhibitions, the gallery will also have a works on paper and objects program, showcasing smaller works and functional objects like skateboards by regional artists as well. Differing from other typical commercial art galleries, The Southern Gallery will have a traditional roster of artists, which will allow the gallery to collaborate with a wider range of institutions across the southeast.

Ultimately, the Nathansons envision The Southern Gallery fostering a regional network of arts organizations. “We’ve been able to network and get to know gallery owners in other states and are forming really nice relationships,” Erin comments on the years building up to the opening of the gallery.&nbsp

“And that’s something we want to do, to create a web of curators and gallerists across the southeast who all have the same vision, as well as the knowledge that there are some great things being created in the south,” she continues. With The Southern Gallery opening up, Charleston will have a new place to see and discuss such works of art.

The Southern Gallery (2 Carlson Ct.) opens tonight with a reception from 7-10 p.m. For more information, visit thesouthern.gallery.

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