I’m a dyed-in-the-wool window shopper. When I’m walking down King Street, I like to take a peek at the merchandise, nose pressed against the glass like an Edwardian urchin. But recently I’ve had less to ogle. Many stores are closed thanks to pricey leases, the struggling economy, and cheapskates like me who spend too much time looking and not enough time spending.
While opportunities for retailers have dwindled, another part of the community has stepped in to give King Street a visual boost. WALK Gallery is an organization that was created to put art in vacant storefronts. WALK’s all-volunteer staff develops group shows that give unrepresented contemporary artists an exhibition space.
The concept isn’t new. In London, gallerists and curators have long since realized that they don’t have to fight for space when there are so many empty properties that can be used. More recently, New York artists have tarted up some of the dingier parts of Brooklyn with work that varies from kitsch to caustic.
Many other cities have tried this approach or are starting to appreciate its potential; San Francisco began a similar initiative in September. In the Holy City, WALK (walkgallery.org) began as the idea of Plum Elements owner Andrea Schenck and Rena Lasch.
“It came out of an initial meeting that happened when Jonathan Oakman (director of business services for the City of Charleston) came on board,” says Schenck. “We were talking about things that could be done for King Street, and it seemed like a no-brainer.” Schenck’s gallery is packed with artwork, and she was aware that “people wanted exposure for their work.”
Schenck previously lived in Cincinnati, which for a time had a main retail street with unoccupied storefronts. “They had murals that students painted,” she says. “It’s not rocket science that if you have something of interest in a window, it encourages people to stop, look, and continue walking down the street.”
She has a point. If you’re from out of town and you see empty storefronts down the street, what’s to stop you turning around and going in the opposite area?
The success of WALK is hard to quantify. According to Schenck, some artists have sold work. Graphic designer Christina Bailey has a different way of measuring its effectiveness. “For the first exhibition, we created rack cards and put them in the Visitor Center and hotels. I saw people walking around the streets with the materials.”
Bailey admits WALK’s infrastructure isn’t fully in place. The all-volunteer staff needs to get better at organizing their time together, since many of them have day jobs. For now, they’re holding meetings at Baked on East Bay every Thursday at 9 a.m. They have to make it easier for art buyers to contact the artists and involve more stores. They also need to find out how effective their project really is. But the concept’s solid — people looking for art might fall in love with a space and lease it, and shoppers don’t find themselves lost in a depressing sea of empty storefronts.
But why stop there? Why not bring these storefront works to our parks? The cities of North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant have both hosted successful contemporary sculpture shows in public spaces at Riverfront Park and Westlake in I’On, respectively. The art stays up for a year or two, so the cost of remounting is considerably less than places with more frequent exhibitions. These shows have also brought added attention to these areas during quieter periods of the year, and they’ve given artists a much-needed opportunity to show their work.
Marion Square has a couple of permanent sculptures, but little else. If the city can display Christmas trees ornamented with empty egg cartons and paper plates, why not show work by art pros another time of the year? The art-packed storefronts prove that there are talented local artists looking for exhibition space. All it takes is for a willing official to step up, test out a few modest spots, and bring some serious art to our parks.