Ruta Smith

Almost as soon as the international coronavirus pandemic hit Charleston, the city’s artists moved into action. Theaters, galleries, museums and writers started a movement of hope, perhaps even unbeknownst to each other.

The world has come to a curious standstill but artists are still making art. And communities are still craving stories.

Stories continue to be told by Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker, who created to celebrate work from this moment. The pandemic will not last forever, and neither will the website, Amaker says.

Hope for the future grows from seeds planted by local authors like Cinelle Barnes and Corrie Wang who say that they’ve been writing more than ever while in quarantine.

The optimism is hard to miss on Instagram, where visual artists like Katherine Dunlap and Rachael Nerney continue to release new collections. And eager customers are snapping up their new creations within minutes.

More than anything, Charleston artists and arts organizations are planning for what comes next.

Mary Gould, founding artistic director of North Charleston’s South of Broadway Theatre Company, has taught herself QuickBooks during the past couple of months. She’s rearranged furniture in her theater’s lobby and has big plans to tidy the costume closet. If Gould has her way, the company will return to Park Circle stronger than before.

And when they do, Gould’s plan is simple: “We hope to do what theater and arts always has: Bring joy, beauty, connectivity and renewal to our community.”


Gallery owners Robert Lange and Megan Aline have weathered uncertainty before. During the 2008 recession, they expanded Robert Lange Studios from 700 square feet to nearly 7,000 square feet. In the latest challenging season, the couple is finding silver linings.

“I think it’s important to shake things up and for business owners, it’s important to ask why you do things the way you do and how you can change,” says Lange. “Hopefully at the end of this (fingers crossed the end is near) we have all evolved for the better.”

Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA, is also peering ahead. “I’m looking forward to being on the other side — where 2020 is just a bad memory,” he says.

Spoleto was officially called off on March 24, much to the dismay of organizers and the faithful attendees of the city’s largest arts festival.

Spoleto Festival’s monetary and cultural impact on Charleston is hard to quantify: Artists and tourists flood the city from around the world, engaging with the arts community, creating memories that will bring them back year after year. Galleries host special guests, youth actors take the stage for the first time during Piccolo Spoleto, the city’s sister fest, free readings and outdoor performances are accessible to all.

Redden describes the festival, first held in 1977, as an anchor for the arts in Charleston, and even for the city itself. “The festival helped stimulate this renaissance in Charleston,” says Redden.

So how do we cope with a year without Spoleto? Redden recalls talking to Mayor Joe Riley in 1990, after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo the year before. “Basically he said, ‘What you can do for Charleston is to put on the best festival you can to show that Charleston is back.’ And I think we did. In 2021, I hope we can help in a similar way.”

While the city’s cultural scene is struggling right now, groups are also hopeful that the dearth of events and activities will reinforce an appreciation for what we’ve missed. Live theater isn’t the same on a screen. Author Q&As are more thought-provoking in person.

Even South of Broadway’s younger audience members are “fed up with squares on a computer monitor,” Gould says.

“We think in many ways the arts’ importance to the community will be more valued and benefit from more engagement and support through this pandemic experience,” she says.

Redden talks about a recent pandemic play, What Do We Need To Talk About, from playwright Richard Nelson. Performed on Zoom, the play follows the Apple family, including an English teacher, who discusses teaching her students about The Decameron, which tells the story of young people fleeing the Black Plague.

“They entertain each other by telling stories,” says Redden of The Decameron‘s protagonists. “Some of them have a little bit of sexual overtones and politics, some have religion, some are about the church — but very few are about the plague. It’s these stories that we tell each other about finding common threads in life and we do this at times that are stressful, be it COVID-19 or before. The arts are about finding these moments of common humanity.”

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