Photo by Ruta Smith Yard Work featured art installations by local artists in people's yards in downtown Charleston.

Going Through Changes

There’s not really a good way to sum up this year for Charleston’s art scene. To stay safe, the live events the city prides itself on were shuttered earlier in the year, leading to a significant impact on the local economy. But, there was hope gleaming through that the old systems can change for the better. Independent artists, some regularly in precarious financial situations, were forced to contend with the impacts of galleries closing, while museums and artist spaces shifted to the virtual world. Then, late in the year, some major players in Charleston and the state’s art scenes announced their retirements in rapid succession. Here are just five of the biggest moments from a turbulent year.

Spoleto canceled, and much more

The worst-case scenario for a city that thrives on large gatherings came true in the spring as a wave of cancellations struck the vibrant arts and music worlds. Events across the board were canceled, including gatherings that brought people from around the world to Charleston like Spoleto Festival USA. High-profile music festivals like High Water and up-and-comers like Cultura met the same fate. Spoleto’s cancellation was the first in the festival’s 43-year history. Galleries and museums in the city followed suit when COVID-19 began encroaching on South Carolina and state health officials pushed for non-essential businesses to close. In recent months, with cases still high and businesses feeling the impact of closures, galleries and museums have looked for creative ways to stay safe while opening to the public. No one knows how the pandemic will affect festivals in 2021, but some remain hopeful that events will come back in the next year.

Photo by Leigh Webber
Nigel Redden, Spoleto Festival general director

“Help wanted” at cultural institutions

The series of canceled events was met late in the year by a string of people announcing their departures from high-ranking positions in the art scene’s upper echelon. Spoleto general director Nigel Redden announced his departure from the festival after 25 years in September. One week later, South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth resigned after 17 years in her position. Just eight days later, Mark Sloan, the director and chief curator of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, announced his retirement after 26 years at the end of the year.

Photo by Jonathan Boncek
Dr. Ade Ofunniyin

Dr. O remembered

The passing of Ade Ofunniyin was one local story of 2020 that hit close to home for the scores of people he interacted with over the years. Ofunniyin, commonly referred to as Dr. O by students at College of Charleston, was the founder and director of the Gullah Society and an adored professor. He was 67 years old. The grandson of iconic Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons, Dr. O was a devout advocate for Black Americans and the Gullah people. In his tenure leading the Gullah Society, Dr. O was pivotal in preserving unmarked burial grounds around the city, educating the public and celebrating Gullah culture. Kristi Brian, a colleague, recalled his role on campus as making “freedom fighters, revolutionaries, culture shifters,” in a statement after he died.

“He asked us all to live as boldly as he did. Few of us ever will.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Mia Loia in her studio working.

Shows, exhibits go virtual

Artists and museums had to get creative, in response to COVID-19. Some artists, such as Mia Loia and Andrew King, told the City Paper about the importance of simply working on art as much as possible. Art platforms had to pivot too, moving their shows online. The Charleston Museum posted live videos and virtual tours to social media and their website. Many, like Landing Contemporary Art and the Halsey, moved exhibits online to ensure the public is safe while viewing displays like Displacements: Revisitations of Home in August. In addition, PURE Theatre and the College of Charleston’s theater department livestreamed performances of plays like Satchmo at the Waldorf and Antigone. But, as Cara Leepson of Redux Contemporary Art Center pointed out in a September City Paper column, individual artists are still in dire need of support, even as content has shifted online.

Photo by Raven B Green featured in Time Magazine

Artists respond to protests

Of course, the other biggest news story of the year was the uprising of national protests against police violence toward Black Americans. Some artists in the area were inspired by the protests, as well. Raven B. Green of New Moon Visuals photographed the demonstrations in Charleston, which landed her in TIME Magazine in June for their video essay titled “We Just Want to Live.” Soon after, Redux’s annual artist exhibition, Creative Corners, opened up. While it isn’t necessarily a social justice initiative, Leepson told the City Paper, many of the artists participating created visual pieces influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, artist Katie Libby created a collage of BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors. When Gallery Estrella opened up on Spring Street in December, it premiered Paper Cuts, an exhibit by artist Lorenzo Masnah that centers around the summer of protests.