During our conversation about the Gibbes Museum of Art’s new exhibit, A Day At The Beach, Pam Wall, the Gibbes’ curator of exhibitions, mentions something pretty incredible: If you include the pieces they have in storage, the museum has around 10,000 different works of art in its collection.
It’s a stunning number of pieces, and even after its recent renovation, the Gibbes can only display a small fraction of that collection at any given time. It’s one of the reasons that the Gibbes has created a series of exhibits in the two smaller galleries on either side of their rotunda space, exhibits consisting of works that are already in the Gibbes collection but might not get as much exposure as they deserve.
That’s the idea behind A Day At The Beach, a new 11-work collection of summer themed paintings and prints by artists like Jane Peterson, Martha Walter, William Silva, and George Biddle. The works in this exhibit are centered around people enjoying their time out on the beach and taking in the sunshine, and though it wasn’t necessarily intentional, most of the pieces are from the early-to-mid 20th century.
“It’s a small exhibition,” Wall says, “and it’s in one of our smaller galleries, a place where we try to have fun with our collection. We try to dig into what we have and find themes we can pull from, and really do some things that we can’t do in our normal permanent collection. The time slot we were working with was obviously the summer, and we knew we had a lot of great beach scenes in the collection, so we kind of just dug through to see what we had and what would work, and as it turned out we had a good group of 20th century works.”
In fact, some of the paintings were so rarely displayed that Wall herself was surprised when she saw them again.
“The Silva painting I was very familiar with, but the Jane Peterson doesn’t get out as much,” she says. “I had to remind myself when we went to go pull things from our collection storage that these really are great pieces. And what’s really great is a lot of them are really lighthearted; they’re just fun.”
Wall mentions the idea of the exhibit being a fun, informal one several times during our conversation, but as it turns out there are some larger ideas at play here. One is that for many of the families portrayed in these beach scenes, the idea of any sort of extended time off was a new one.
“The other part of what that show looks at is the rise of middle-class American leisure,” she says. “That’s the thread beyond just beach scenes; that’s what pulls these works together. There was greater access to time off, and people had growing vacation time.”
It’s a broader theme that Wall hopes that those coming to see A Day At The Beach might take note of. “Typically, I don’t really have one specific message in mind for these exhibits because I want them to bring their own ideas to it and enjoy what they see,” she says. “I hope that people can just come and get lost in the paintings. But maybe in this one, they’ll think about the ideas of leisure and access to this type of vacation or relaxation.”
Interestingly enough, the A Day At The Beach exhibit has a connection to another small exhibit currently showing at the Gibbes, Vanishing Charleston by painter Julyan Davis.
“I think they’re kind of connected because Vanishing Charleston looks at the changes that have happened downtown due to growth and development,” Wall says. “So I think the two shows kind of relate in terms of tourist or vacation destinations and the resulting changes to our neighborhoods, which is what you see in Vanishing Charleston.”
Despite the link between the two exhibits, Wall says it was serendipity, not planning, that caused them to be shown at the same time.
“Each idea started independently, but as we dug into them we saw the connections between the two and realized that they would pair really well together,” she says. “It really worked out well, and that’s not always the case when we plan out those spaces. Oftentimes the shows are completely different but in this case we were able to tie the two together.”
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