As the City Paper‘s arts editor, I’m constantly thinking of new and inventive ways to cover the arts scene in our city. Fortunately, I don’t have to try all that hard to find talented artists doing badass stuff — more often than not, this city’s artists aren’t just creating, they’re speaking out about issues that affect our community. This city is full of incredible shows, artists, and pop-up events — and I’m grateful every day that I get to share their stories with the city. Read on for a collection, in no particular order, of some of the notable art stories that stuck with me this past year.
The Gibbes Museum of Art reflects on its past with two notable exhibitions featuring all black artists
Over the last decade, and even more in the past year, the Gibbes has looked at how it represents minority artists. In May, the Gibbes hosted a lecture exploring the impact of a 2009 exhibition, Prop Master, which illustrated the disparity of artists in color found in the Gibbes’ permanent collection. The lecture, Prop Master Revisited: Race, Response, and Representation looked at the progress the Gibbes had (or had not) made in representing more African-American artists in the past 10 years. The Gibbes’ offered a visual response in the form of New Acquisitions: Featuring Works by African American Artists, a selection of works by African-American artists added to the Gibbes permanent collection in that time. Prop Master Revisited was, appropriately, held during the concurrent exhibitions of New Acquisitions and Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem, a traveling exhibition that highlights the works of artists of African descent, and one that counted the Gibbes as only its second host. At the time, Gibbes’ executive director, Angela Mack talked to the City Paper about the significance of the Gibbes hosting, first, Prop Master, and 10 years later, Black Refractions: “We recognize our age, the fact that the institution was segregated, the fact that at one time you had to be invited, just like a private club, to be a member of the Gibbes.”
Neema Gallery opens on Broad Street
One of my favorite stories from this past year is the opening of Meisha Johnson’s Neema Gallery. Neema, which means “favor, grace, and prosperity” in Swahili opened on Broad Street as one of the very few African-American owned art galleries in downtown Charleston. Neema Gallery only sells the work of African-American artists, and the roster includes big names like Tyrone Geter and Cecil Williams. In addition to exhibiting the work of mostly Southern artists, the gallery also hosts art and music classes and field trips for local schools. Johnson hopes her thriving gallery (she recently displayed works at Art Basel Miami Beach) will encourage other African-American gallery owners to open up shop downtown. As she told us in January, “My goal is to help increase diversity, and it’s my goal that even maybe some of these artists, once they do well, they may open a gallery.”
Podcasts take over town
This year we talked to a handful of Charleston-based podcasters — editor Sam Spence was even a featured guest on one show — about, well, talking. Podcasts are growing in popularity (NPR predicts that podcast sponsor revenue will surpass broadcast sponsorship revenue for the first time next year) and folks in Charleston are hopping on board. That’s not to say that podcasts are a passing trend, an easy side gig to cobble together. It takes time, energy, and patience to produce a podcast — and then there’s the part where you have to make it interesting and build an audience for it to even be worth your time. We love that we can listen to locally created shows when we’re looking for our true crime fix — Talk Murder to Me — or political discourse rooted in Charleston issues — Mic’d Up from Tamika Gadsden. And yes, Charleston, your favorite alt-weekly is looking to release our own podcast soon. 2020 seems like a good time, no?
PURE Theatre opens strong in new space, celebrates 16 years
This year as part of City Paper‘s annual fall arts coverage, PURE Theatre co-founder Sharon Graci reflected on 16 years of PURE — the name is a play on the idiom “pure theatre” for those wondering. The little theater company that could is remarkable not just for its longevity, but for its ability to tell the stories we need to hear. As Graci wrote, “Story is the backbone of PURE. It’s the lifeline and spinal cord all wrapped up to form one indispensable component from whence all good things come. Stories at PURE have to be worth listening to; we have to have a fighting shot at producing them excellently, and they have to provide the audience with something to talk about when they leave the theatre.” This past year alone PURE told stories of Sweat; of playwright Sam Shepard’s two masterworks, True West and Fool For Love; and of a silent, spiritual retreat in Small Mouth Sounds. This past year was the company’s first in the new Cannon Street Arts Center, a city-owned space that offers a much-needed venue for art exhibitions and events as well as PURE’s usual lineup. Any local space dedicated to the arts is a win for everyone in town.
Venues diversify in Charleston
PURE Theatre’s former location at 477 King St. is now occupied by Forte Jazz Lounge, which opened this past summer. Forte is the only downtown spot dedicated to live jazz music, and owner Joe Clarke hopes his new club can offer a valuable service to both artists and guests. Clarke says, “I think Charleston has a very large, diverse population of guys and girls who have really honed their art and have been doing it in the corners of restaurants, weddings, and cocktail parties. I feel like it’s time that they have a little bit of a spotlight.” In addition to Forte, another new kind of venue opened downtown this year: Holy City Magic. The magic parlor, owned by local magician Howard Blackwell, hosts evening and matinee shows at 49½ John St. Visiting magicians like Michael Trixx (he makes vanishing birds rock n’ roll, natch) pop up while Blackwell, a talented illusionist himself, holds down the fort. The spot also regularly hosts comedy shows. We love new businesses that aren’t, um, hotels, and we really loves ones that support local artists.
Free Verse Festival grows, becoming even more inclusive
Three years in and Marcus Amaker shows no signs of slowing down his city-wide poetry festival, Free Verse. Amaker acknowledges the truth of his role as both the city’s poet laureate and the Gaillard Center’s artist-in-residence in a poem “COPY/PASTE,” which he says is about “being the only black person in many spaces in Charleston.” Rather than be dissuaded by that fact, Amaker continually uses his platforms to introduce lesser-known black voices to the city. He brings in talented artists for Free Verse — like Jericho Brown, a poet named by the New York Times as one of 32 “Black Writers For Our Time” — and he offers young artists opportunities to share their words through open mics and poetry slams. This year Amaker made a point to make the festival even more inclusive, adding more gender queer artists, like poet and activist Andrea Gibson. On the eve of this year’s third Free Verse Amaker told us that he’s “trying to push what it means to be a festival.” We can’t wait to see what he’s got planned next.
Rough House Pictures continues to create jobs for local creatives
Last year was the season of Halloween; this year was all about the holiest of holy shows, The Righteous Gemstones. Both come from Rough House Pictures, the production company headed by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill. McBride and Green moved to Charleston a couple of years ago, and since then, they’ve boosted a small, but thriving film community. As Green said in a City Paper interview last year, “If we can work with the state and the city and rebates that makes it an appealing place to film. I know people want to stay in Charleston and work and live, so I’m just a big advocate for the community and trying to bring a sustainable industry there that is both low impact, but financially beneficial to everyone. Tourism and beyond. And capture a beautiful city and the infinite directions of its appeal.” This year, Rough House brought Gemstones to town, screening the tale of a world-famous televangelist family in recognizable locations like Citadel Mall, a local KOA Campground, and North Charleston’s Whirlin’ Waters Adventure Waterpark. Locals stepped up in the role of extras, playing everything from folks with ’80s style to our personal fave, “cyber goth” rave-goers.
Cultural Arts Center opens in Citadel Mall
West Ashley’s Citadel Mall had a pretty good year, not only as a major location for the filming of The Righteous Gemstones, but also as the new home of the Cultural Arts Center of Charleston (CACC). Formerly known as the Charleston Performing Arts Center, CACC rebranded this year, expanding their mission to include the goal of “promoting and advancing the cultural arts through an ongoing series of family performances, educational opportunities, and community events that celebrate our diverse and multicultural community.” CACC has transformed a former retail space into 6,600 square feet of stage, seating, and space for classes. Owners Kirk and Scott Pfeiffer want Charleston to know that CACC is here for all arts-related needs. As Kirk told us earlier this year, “It’s not just ours, it’s for anyone. A lot of studios have been closing, and it’s really difficult with the rent in Charleston.”
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