Photos by Ruta Smith

Creating community

Summerville’s Public Works Arts Center (PWAC) is a nonprofit art gallery and studio that is working to provide residents with free access to galleries and hands-on activities while also giving artists a place to hone their craft.

“What we’re trying to do is kind of be the cultural cornerstone of this community,” said PWAC Executive Director Jana Riley. 

Jana Riley, an artist and Summerville native, is the executive director of Public Works Art Center

PWAC sits at 135 West Richardson Ave. in what was once the old post office building in the 1930s. Fifty years later, the Summerville Commission of Public Works (CPW) took over the space and it became the Water Company building until it moved to a new location in 2018. Riley and her staff are still greeted by confused locals looking to make utility payments. 

A group of Summerville citizens, led by People, Places and Quilts owner Diane Frankenberger and educator Kevin Morrissey, came together in 2019 to save the building from becoming a retail space. Riley said the team had a vision for making it a public space that everyone could enjoy.

“It was very much an underdog story,” said Riley, a Summerville native. “We had no money. There’d be investors who had millions of dollars and then there’d be us who had a dream and no money.” Riley said the CPW listened to their ideas and understood the importance of what they wanted to do.

From 2018 through 2019, the group petitioned the community to hear what the public wanted to see in the space. Volunteers raised approximately $400,000 for renovations that began in 2019. The building was extensively renovated: offices, carpets, fixtures and ceilings were torn out. Gallery lighting was added. The tight office spaces were converted to larger gallery and studio spaces. The doors opened. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Birthed in a pandemic

“That was not fun,” Riley said. “But I would say that we had the silver lining of not having to really adjust our processes or anything. We kind of were birthed into the pandemic. If we’d started six months before, it would have been harder.” PWAC closed its doors from March 2020 before reopening in June 2020.

Since its reopening, the PWAC has seen rapid growth with roughly 400 visitors a month in February 2021. That number jumped to approximately 1,600 people in February 2022. PWAC’s quickly rising popularity is a testament to its founding principle: free access to engaging art content. 

“One thing I’m super passionate about, being a mom in this area, is that there’s not anything for people to do that’s free, especially with kids, other than the library and the parks,” Riley said. Downtown Summerville’s bustling strip is full of restaurants, retail shops and local theater company Flowertown Players. “So for every exhibition we have [at PWAC], we have some sort of engagement activity. We always try to do something that a 2-year-old could do or a 102-year-old could enjoy.”

Riley pointed to the “What Does Home Look Like to You?” station on display. Visitors used various materials, such as construction paper, crayons and blocks, to make small house art pieces. For an earlier show about identity, PWAC installed a self-portrait station. The 2021 Mother Figure exhibition included a wall where patrons could draw pictures of their mothers or write stories about them. Each engagement activity is free, as are general admission exhibitions. 

Hands-on accessibility

Hands-on accessibility of the arts is another core tenet of PWAC.

“We want to make sure that everybody feels like they can engage with art,” Riley said.

When you walk into the Public Works Art Center, you’re greeted by smiling local volunteers. College students and recent graduates can be seen sitting at tables, laptops out, working on projects. Visitors wander through the three galleries featuring exhibitions that are changed out every six to eight weeks. 

An aggressive turnover schedule keeps things fresh and exciting. Local artists are featured more often than not, but Riley and her diverse board of directors also work to bring in artists from around the country to expose local audiences to fresh ideas. Atlanta-based artist Jamaal Barber had his printmaking and multimedia exhibition on display at PWAC in May. Area artists Kirsten Hoving and DeeJay Wiggins have exhibitions through July 30.

“We’re really intentional about making sure that we amplify as many voices as possible,” Riley said. PWAC’s exhibition committee accepts proposals from all over through a submission portal on its website. The committee scouts potential artists everywhere, from art museums to Instagram posts. Outreach is a vital element. Partnerships with advocacy groups like Palmetto Luna make sure that PWAC presents a wide array of voices.

“I always say that I understand that I have a microphone,” Riley said. “But I like to just kind of step back and just pass it to as many people as possible and let people use their voices here.” She considers the space and building, and their mission in the community, to be a huge responsibility.

The company is in the middle of an accessibility campaign to raise funds for the installation of an ADA-compliant ramp and interior lift to ensure that everyone is welcome to take advantage of all that PWAC offers.

Creating space for artists

Public Works Art Center isn’t just focused on the exhibition of art, but also on its creation and cultivation. Along with the galleries, PWAC also has 12 studio artist spaces, a pottery studio outfitted with two kilns, two art classrooms for work with students and even a mobile art station.

The 12 studio art spaces, located in the renovated basement that originally acted as a bomb shelter, are rented to artists on a year-long basis in the style of other spaces around town such as Charleston’s Redux Contemporary Art Center.

A tour of the facilities given to the Summerville Artists Guild in 2019 (while the building was still under renovation) led Susan Lowcavage to become one of the resident artists at PWAC.

“I thought the concept [was] a wonderful opportunity for artists, and submitted my application right away,” Lowcavage said. “It was accepted, and I have been there [since] the opening in 2020. The wonderful studio space, the interaction with the other artists and craftspeople and the positive energy of the volunteers and staff have stretched my scope of work beyond what I thought I would accomplish.”

Fostering community

The entire space can be rented for events, though that aspect of it was understandably slow to start thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But recently, a Juneteenth celebration hosted by Torreah “Cookie” Washington of Cookie Sews Quilts and Peggie Hartwell, chairperson of Women of Color Quilters Network Summerville chapter, was held at the center: a big quilting event that featured kids crafting and talks. Riley was moved by the event and what it signified.

“Holding space for the community to learn and grow together is a huge part of why we are here, and it was beautiful to see that intention in action,” Riley said.

PWAC has events and exhibitions scheduled through the end of the year and beyond. The 2022 Spark Exhibition, an annual event inviting artists to create, exhibit and sell one piece of either 3D or 2D art that speaks to a specific theme (this year’s theme is “Growth”), will be held Sept. 23 through Nov. 5.

“[We’re trying to] have a place where the people who’ve lived here forever and the new people coming in, everybody can kind of engage with one another and they can connect with one another,” Riley said. “They can connect with themselves and they can connect with the artists. But just having this place that’s free and accessible and open to all I just think is really important, especially when an area is experiencing rapid growth.”

Summerville is growing every year, with population up 26% since 2010, according to World Population Review, and becoming a cultural hub itself. Riley is well aware of that, and believes Public Works Art Center is a vital part of that growth.

“Summerville is cooler than people realize and there are cooler things happening here than people realize,” Riley said. “So we really want to do our best to highlight the immense amount of talent that exists here in Summerville, in the Lowcountry, and then beyond.”


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