2016 was a big year for the arts in Charleston — for better and for worse. The year started off on a high note with Spoleto Festival USA’s not-so-secret announcement of its production of Porgy & Bess, the 1934 George Gershwin opera set in 1920s Charleston (and based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy.) Bringing the opera back to its home city, and enlisting the help of Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green, along with a number of other local singers and actors, felt like coming full circle.
As far as the bad? Well, the Charleston County School Board cut the district’s arts funding this past summer, and while a number of board members are looking to reinstate it, the lack of arts education in public schools is troubling. Longtime arts institutions closed, like our former Morrison Drive neighbors, Cone10, and many events, including a large number of MOJA performances, were cancelled due to Hurricane Matthew, a year after historic flooding caused similar cancellations.
This city is ever-growing, and with this growth comes opportunities for a vibrant, thriving arts scene. 2016 was good, but we think 2017 can be even better. Here are our top picks for the best of the past 365 days.
The Gibbes Museum of Art reopens
After a two-year, $13.5 million renovation, The Gibbes Museum of Art reopened this May, debuting new features like an entirely free-and-open-to-the-public first floor, artists’ studios, and classrooms. Since its opening, the Gibbes has presented some pretty cool events and exhibitions, like millionare pop artist Jeff Koons’ talk in November. For an institution that focuses primarily on Southern, American art, it was refreshing to see the man behind the “Puppy” sculpture visit our fair city. And you can currently check out the exhibition, Realm of the Spirit: Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection and the Gibbes Museum of Art, until Jan. 15. This show was 80 years in the making; in 1936 the Gibbes presented Guggenheim’s first collection of modern art. Yep, our sleepy Southern town has some modern art roots. Look for two new exhibitions at the Gibbes this January — History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence and Painting the Southern Coast: The Art of West Fraser, opening Jan. 28.
West Ashley has an arts scene, damnit
It’s no secret that one of Mayor Tecklenburg’s goals is to help “revitalize West Ashley,” a part of Charleston that often feels just a little bit forgotten. While we can’t offer hard numbers on how that revitalization is going, we can say that this year we saw a surge of cool new stuff come to the area. In January Susan Irish opened Fabulon, an art education space and gallery on Wappoo Road, and since its opening Fabulon has hosted a new exhibition almost every month, featuring local artists. The space has also hosted music shows and, most recently, an art maker’s market. Check out 53 63 73, an exhibition from older arists that debuts in January.
West Ashley also saw the arrival of a new dance studio, Holy City Salsa (HCS), this summer. Founded by Georgia Schrubbe, HSC is Charleston’s only designated Latin dance studio and offers classes and dance socials, and puts on events around town, like the popular annual Strings and Salsa event at Striped Pig Distillery. If you want to start the new year with a little cha-cha, check out HCS’ Salsa boot camp on Sat. Jan. 14.
Avondale has always been a West Ashley gem, and this year the area got even more arts-y with Gala Desserts’ curated talent showcase, Truth Is, which brings true, personal stories told by locals to the little dessert shop once a month. Look for the next one in January.
The Southern and PULP push boundaries
This year saw the opening of two boundary-pushing downtown art galleries: The Southern and PULP Gallery and Bookstore. The Southern opened in January, located right behind Meeting Street’s Pizza Hut. Whether that location had any effect on the gallery’s contents is neither here nor there — what’s important is why the owners, Erin and Justin Nathanson, opened the spot. In January the couple told City Paper that they wanted a gallery to promote artists from the Southeastern United States, but also a space for people to be able to come and have conversations about tough subjects — like June 2015’s Emanuel AME tragedy. “How do you acknowledge such events and what do we do as a community to show love to each other?” asked Erin. “There needs to be a commercial space that can support contemporary works that want to talk about things.” The Southern’s current show, 99 Problems (But a Print Ain’t One), an exhibition that tackles serious problems currently plaguing the country, is on display until Dec. 31.
PULP Gallery and Bookstore also opened this past winter, taking up residency on Upper King Street in the former Star Beauty Supply Store. Owner Will Eiseman brings all kinds of edgy stuff to his space, from screenings of old, rare films to burlesque shows to art exhibitions like The X Show: Art & Photographs for Grown-Ups and the current show, Babes in Toyland, featuring, well, toy and doll-themed art. PULP also hosted the city’s first (in a while, at least) Zinefest this summer, and Eiseman is always taking recommendations for art and movies he can show.
African-American art nods to past, present, future
2016 welcomed both visiting and local African-American artists who brought to Charleston visual arts, music, and theater, that the city, heck, the country, really needed to see. A year after the shooting of Walter Scott and the Mother Emanuel AME tragedy, Charleston took a long, hard look at its past as a city built on slave labor, its present as a city still struggling with race-based violence, and its future as a place to learn and grow. In addition to Spoleto’s Porgy & Bess productions (which included a free simulcast in Marion Square), the international arts fest also featured a number of other performers who spoke to the black experience, including jazz player Randy Weston and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, whose multimedia production of Grace Notes: Reflections for Now paid homage to the Emanuel Nine.
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art welcomed Fahamu Pecou’s Do or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance, an exhibition that addressed society’s representation of black males while utilizing traditional themes of West African religious practices. In addition to his exhibition (which was free and open to the public, as all of the Halsey’s shows are), Pecou moderated a public talk between rapper Killer Mike and visual artist Arturo Lindsay as part of InterSessions: The Art X Hip-Hop Dialogues.
The city saw a number of other free exhibitions, like City Gallery’s 16 Crowns: Manifestations of Ase, a show that celebrated Yoruba and African identity, and several shows dedicated to the Emanuel Nine, like the Principle Gallery’s A Tribute to the Emanuel Nine: A Portrait Project; Leo Twiggs’ Requiem for Mother Emanuel, which took up the first floor of the City Gallery for one month; and The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity, & Resurrection, which raised money for a permanent gallery on the peninsula, one dedicated solely to the work of African-American artists.
2016 was also the inaugural year of Black Ink: The Charleston African American Book Festival, held at Burke High School this September. The festival, organized in part by author Barbara Gathers and her editor Steve Hoffius, offered an outlet for up-and-coming authors to display their works. Hoffius talked to City Paper about how important creating connections between new and established authors was. “Almost all of the authors will be there — one of the most important parts is the interchange,” said Hoffius. “If someone has an interest in the same area they can ask, ‘How did you do it?'”
The presidential election influences the city’s theater scene
Because all good art reflects the state of our society, we can’t really talk about Charleston’s art scene without mentioning this year’s presidential election. This fall two theater productions, one directly and one a little more discreetly, spoke to the insanity that was this year’s election. Unelectable You graced the Gaillard’s stage in September, a co-production from Slate and The Second City which featured sketch comedy, improv, and music, all depicting the 2016 election. Village Rep produced It Can’t Happen Here, an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel of the same name, this October, with a one-night reading at Woolfe Street Playhouse. The play centers on the rise of a politician, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who is charismatic, ruthless, and power-hungry. Sound familiar?
YALLFest celebrates LGBTQIA lit
This October the Charleston County School Board decided not to include middle school sexual education that discussed bisexual and lesbian relationships, among other LGBTQ topics. As disappointing as that decision was, we found some hope with this year’s YALLFest offering of an LGBTQIA panel of authors discussing their YA books that celebrate LGBTQIA characters. New York Times bestselling author Adam Silvera, whose book More Happy Than Not features a gay narrator, was one of the panelists. Silvera was joined by author Zac Brewer, who told City Paper, “I’ve received just two school appearance invitations since June 2015, when I came out publicly. Before I came out, I was receiving 30-plus invites a year.” If those words don’t speak to the importance of more panels like YALLFest’s, we don’t know what does.
Girly Bits looks to up Charleston’s comedy game
Earlier this year local comedian Genesis Gonzalez created Girly Bits Comedy, a group that put on all-female comedy shows at Park Circle’s The Sparrow. While Girly Bits has branched out since then, hosting shows that include male comedians, too, their main goal is to elevate all comedians in Charleston, and to bring in fresh blood from nearby cities for traveling shows. Gonzalez, along with Shawna Jarrett and Jessica Mickey talked to City Paper about the importance of a designated space for comedians — ya know, like a comedy club. While Charleston’s Theatre 99 is a great spot for local comedy, it focuses more on the sketch and improv side of things, and Girly Bits wants stand-up comics to have a spot, too. Here’s looking at you, 2017.
Redux Contemporary Art Center relocates to Upper King
This summer Redux Contemporary Art Center, the nonprofit arts organization that lived at 136 St. Philip St. for 14 years, announced that they were movin’ on up to 1056 King St., a two-story warehouse also known as The Hanger. The move has been a long time coming, with Redux’s executive director Stacy Huggins telling us that she and Redux’s board had been searching for a new spot for about five years. The Hanger, at 15,000 sq. feet, almost doubles Redux’s current space, expanding the number of studios from 16 to an estimated 35 or more. And, as local photog and Redux board member Jack Alterman tells it, the space will really benefit local photographers, offering a photo studio and a photo-centric gallery space. Shutterbugs, rejoice.
Marcus Amaker named Charleston’s first poet laureate
We could write a book about how much Marcus Amaker has done for the Charleston arts scene, namely in the poetry area. In addition to his poetry, Amaker is seemingly everywhere else, too, making music, giving talks, and working on his day job as a graphic designer. And this year Amaker can check another thing off of his “what can’t that guy do?” list by becoming the city’s first poet laureate. In July he told City Paper, “I’m treating this more like an honor for the whole poetry community, not just for me because I’ve definitely been connected with a lot of different poets in town ever since I moved here. It’s really amazing to really realize that the city is honoring this art form because there’s always been amazing poets all over the city.” As part of his title Amaker is tasked with implementing community outreach efforts to encourage writing and promote literacy. Hear, hear.