Blue Star Heads to Charleston
Colonel Barnard Elliott, Jr. (1740 – 1778), ca. 1766. By Jeremiah Theus (American, 1716 – 1774). Oil on canvas. Bequest of Mrs. Alexina I. C. Holmes
Yesterday, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman kicked off the 2012 Blue Star Museum program at New York’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took you behind the scenes on the blog, showing you some of the treasures that our military families visited during the event. Today, the launch celebration continues at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, and once again we're helping you get an insider's peek at the city's only visual arts museum. Opened in 1905, the Gibbes showcases Charleston's artistic trajectory, encompassing its early colonial roots, the Charleston Renaissance, and the contemporary cultural scene. The museum tells the story of the “Queen of the South” through more than 10,000 works of fine art, and has renovation plans that will further increase its offerings. We spoke with Executive Director and Chief Curator Angela Mack about the importance of story in Southern art, Charleston’s history of cross-pollination, and her ever-changing favorite piece in the museum’s collection.
NEA: I’m particularly interested in the Charleston Renaissance. Can you explain how this period came to pass?
ANGELA MACK: We like to refer to Charleston as the birthplace of Southern art. The story of the Charleston Renaissance, which really occurred between the two World Wars, is an example of that tradition in Charleston of artists either coming here to seek patronage of some kind, or as a destination for potential inspiration. What’s fascinating about Charleston is that this influx of artists from elsewhere, as well as the artists that are native to this area, [has led to] an incredible amount of what I refer to as cross-pollination, and the recognition that Charleston is very much connected to the larger world of art, both nationally and internationally. Art really tells that story, that story of connection. That’s really what we try to do in our presentation, and certainly that is the case in regards to our collection.
NEA: Can you elaborate a bit on this cross-pollination aspect?
MACK: For example, dating back to the 18th and 19th century, very famous American artists such as Samuel Morse, or John Vanderlyn, or Gilbert Stuart, sought patronage in this area. Later on, in the early 20th century, during the Charleston Renaissance period, people like Edward Hopper traveled here, and created marvelous pieces of the area. In all likelihood, he had the opportunity to see the work of such artists like Alfred Hutty, who was instrumental in the early days of the Woodstock Art Colony in New York, and then eventually spent part of the year here in Charleston as well. There are also artists like Birge Harrison or Georgia O’Keeffe, who didn’t specifically spend time in Charleston and create work, but certainly was familiar with South Carolina because of her time in Columbia teaching. So much like Santa Fe, Charleston became a place where people came to drink in the local ambiance and produce marvelous pieces of art.
Meeting Street, ca. 1925. By Alfred Hutty (American, 1877 – 1954). Oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association, Charleston, S.C.
NEA: How would you describe the city’s current artistic culture?
MACK: I think that [cross-pollination] continues to a certain extent, and the plans that the Gibbes has to renovate will create a much more proactive approach. The Gibbes itself was built as an Academy-style institution. In other words, the original 1905 Beaux Art building was intended to have display areas in its grand hallways---on what we refer to today as the second floor---and the ground floor was intended to be studio spaces for living artists to work. In fact, that was the case up through the early 1960s, when because of space needs, the studio component was housed in a building that was purchased nearby. But our intention now with the renovation is to bring that component back into the building, and to be much more proactive about creating artist-in-residence programs and master classes to truly introduce contemporary artists to this region and to…create that interrelationship between artists from other parts of the country and the world and [artists from] Charleston. Certainly, Charleston has become a site for acquiring works of art. There are numerous galleries that exist as a result of it being a destination for people, and those dealers and galleries are very much a part of the fabric of the arts scene in Charleston.
NEA: Do you have a personal favorite piece in the collection?
MACK: I get this question all the time, and my answer is always the same: my favorite piece is the piece that I’m working on at the moment. We just finished organizing a major traveling exhibition on the artist Alfred Hutty, who was one of the four major artists of the Charleston Renaissance period, including Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. He’s viewed as one of the main catalysts for a lot of artists from elsewhere coming to Charleston and discovering Charleston between the two World Wars. So right now, his work is on top of mind because we’ve just done some amazing research on him and have been able to bring him to the fore in terms of his capacity as an artist and his far-reaching influence in this country in terms of disseminating images of Charleston to the rest of the world.
NEA: What piece in the collection would you say has the most interesting backstory?
MACK: I think one of the most interesting backstories is a beautiful bust of Sarah Gilmor by Horatio Greenough. It was part of a bequest to the Gibbes through a family that had several life estates. And eventually we realized that after the last individual passed away, the piece never came to the Gibbes as it was supposed to. It took some doing to finally have the piece come to the institution. It’s a great work because we also have a painting of Sarah Gilmor by Thomas Sully… It’s fascinating to have these two pieces because they were done within a short period of time of each other and it allows us to look at how different artists viewed the same sitter. To me, that’s always fascinating, because it gives you a bit of a window into their treatment of the sitter, and also the dialogue that exists between the sitter and the artist when portraits are created.
Porch Party, Charleston, 2005. By Red Grooms (American, b. 1937). Gouache on paper. Gift of the artist and Lysiane Lvong
NEA: Would you say Southern art shares any particular characteristics or aesthetics?
MACK: Absolutely. Annually, we offer a prize called the Factor Prize for Southern Art. This prize, which we’ve been doing now for five years, has allowed us to create an incredible database of contemporary artists that work in the South. We bring together panelists from all over the country to review the applicants and to make the selection for the prize. And over the past five years, what has become extremely evident to us is this amazing interest in story. Artists that deal with Southern subject matter, or are from this region, either by birth or because they work here, gravitate to story. I don’t care if it’s from 300 years ago or was just made yesterday, that story component seems to always be there.
NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MACK: The South is often left out of the story of American art, for whatever reason. Our institution is all about creating or re-creating or injecting that story into the total story of American art, the good and the bad.