Keeping tabs on all the high-quality visual art that crops up around town can be tough on a guy, especially on a weekly schedule. There are well over 100 commercial galleries in town, two city galleries, and an array of alternative spaces; in recent months, shows have been held in a record store (52.5), pubs and restaurants (the Village Tavern, Vickery’s, Med Deli), and a hotel (the Market Pavilion).

As if that weren’t enough, some new contemporary galleries have opened this year: Danny McSweeney’s Spark Studios and Kristy Cifuentes’ Avondale-based Modernisme have both survived long enough to build up strong followings and a roster of talented progressive artists.

There’s also lots of worthy work beyond Charleston, including the outdoor sculpture exhibitions in North Chuck’s Riverfront Park and a good mix of public and fine art projects at 10 Storehouse Row. The Sumter County Gallery of Art has been hosting some increasingly strong shows that are begging for a mention. Right now Arturo Lindsay’s solo show Healing is up there, gracing the gallery’s walls with large-scale contemporary mixed-media pieces that reflect the African diaspora. The Columbia Museum of Art is proudly displaying Picasso’s Head of Man painting and is hosting a traveling Frank Lloyd Wright show dedicated to his graphic and decorative designs.

In other words, there’s a lot of good stuff to see out there — more than we can hope to squeeze into the CP. But we do try to cover all the major art happenings in Chucktown, and warn you about the stinkers, as well. This year has seen more than its fair share of those.

2006 started well with two rich, enthralling shows. The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art exhibited powerful, politically resonant photographs by Simon Norfolk, while the Gibbes Museum of Art tapped into local fondness for another photographer, Walker Evans, with the traveling Three Weeks in Cuba exhibition. The black and white images that Evans captured while visiting Cuba with Ernest Hemingway were enhanced by some of the writer’s personal ephemera, screenings of A Farewell to Arms, and one or two interactive elements. The show was even more impressive considering that the Gibbes had no executive director at the time (Betsy Fleming had departed the previous September), and her eventual replacement Todd Smith recognized the museum’s savvy staff by keeping them on and giving them clearly defined positions.

The quality of these shows set a high standard for rest of ’06. Disappointingly, that standard wasn’t always met. Redux Contemporary Art Center, also without a director at the top of the year, took a while to present a memorable show. Perhaps the sheer number of events it tried to organize — live music, documentary screenings, and 12 shows in as many months — meant that quantity would outweigh the quality.

Re:Invention, an attempt in January to get back to its roots with art by the Center’s studio renters, was coherent but tame. Another low-key offering, NATURE:Redrawn, also lacked any serious impact. Renee Van der Stalt, Talia Greene, and Christine Buckton Tillman did clever things with paper but failed to capture the true thrall and intricacy of their natural inspirations. With Seth Curcio now officially at the helm, Redux is picking up steam, offering more effective shows like the hand-printed Hot Pressed Poster Fest.

We can’t say the same for the City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre, which has suffered from its limited wall space and a mostly uninspiring choice of art. We haven’t heard anything from Calvin Dilligard’s Culture Shock Movement since its overhyped, immaturely wrought Fusion of the Arts back in March. We also believed the billboard-heightened hype for the Gibbes’ Edward Hopper in Charleston, but there was only so much the museum could do with 12 watercolors. With a little more space and more emphasis on the important work of his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, this could have been the “landmark show” the Gibbes’ ad campaign promised.

The Halsey Institute hasn’t always come up trumps. Gallery space was devoted to some mostly unimaginative CofC student work in April’s annual Young Contemporaries. We were left with the impression that Director and Senior Curator Mark Sloan was so busy organizing the spectacular multigallery, multiartist Force of Nature and preparing for a 2008 relocation that the Halsey was left to coast a little, but that’s only because of the high benchmark he’s set for the gallery in past years.

It’s been the privately owned local galleries that have put together some of the year’s most memorable shows. Currie McCullough risked 53 Cannon’s fine-art reputation on contemporary paintings (a Kevin Taylor retrospective), photography (Through a Glass Darkly), and
even vinyl (May’s Munny Show). Nina Liu presented work by many of her favorite artists from her gallery’s 20-year existence; currently she’s featuring the paper lightshades of Smithsonian-bound Jocelyn Châteauvert, who tastefully blurs the line between art and functionality. And Sherry Browne’s Studio Open is always worth the trek to Folly Beach. Sonoko Mitsui’s installation there had as much aesthetic impact as any of the Force of Nature components, covering a similar theme of the artist’s personal relationship with the environment.

With their directors finally in place, Charleston’s art institutions can learn a lot from the hard-working, underappreciated gallery owners who have kept things ticking between major happenings.