Art has been the lifeblood of Charleston and a draw for national and international tourists for decades. Until 2015, there were three associations—all with disparate missions—trying to promote Charleston artists to the world at large.
All that changed that same year when a group of gallery owners, along with leaders of the three existing associations and other art lovers, came together and incorporated into a single nonprofit organization to help galleries and art collectors collaborate in continuing the emergence of Charleston artists and art-related businesses. That organization, the Charleston Gallery Association (CGA), is on a mission to cement Charleston’s reputation as an international art destination. But the all-volunteer board of directors—Allison Hull, president; Jennie Fili, vice president; Griffith Britton, secretary; and Angela Stump, treasurer—is doing so much more.
“We want to help galleries communicate and collaborate with each other and act as a unit in marketing what Charleston has to offer on the art scene,” says Stump, CGA treasurer and director of the John C. Doyle Art Gallery on Church Street, one of the longest-operating galleries in the city. “By joining together, individual gallery owners have an easy way to contact each other to share resources, such as shipping information, help each other find the right placement for new artists, and co-market artistic events both locally and nationally.”
CGA launched with 27 galleries in 2015. Today, the association has 31 member galleries located within walking distance of the French Quarter, Downtown Charleston’s historic district. CGA is inclusive, however, and welcomes galleries in other parts of the greater Charleston area. Its current membership includes fine art galleries on Kiawah Island and Wild Dunes Resort, as well as art hotels and an artisan glass shop. The association also includes artists that use many different mediums and styles of creative expression, including painting, photography, sculpture, glass and jewelry design.
“We include any business that sells art via a storefront and wants to apply to join us,” says Stump. “We are an inclusive association whose members join together to share and promote the artists’ works they sell to local, national and even international customers.”
In the spirit of inclusivity, member galleries not only share resources but also regularly send referrals to their associates. “Organic referrals among gallery owners happen when they are trying to help a customer find just the right piece for their collection,” Stump says. “Art is such an intimate business, and we try our best to help clients find that special piece of artwork that means something to them, whether that is in our gallery or another local gallery. As they say, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’”
Sarah Miller, owner of Miller Gallery and a CGA member, is quick to point out how much she enjoys the camaraderie of the group. “It doesn’t feel like we’re competing with each other but cheering each other on,” she says. “The gallery industry can be cutthroat and competitive in other cities but not here in Charleston. Charleston is a little gem; we really want each other to succeed.”
Karen Hagan, owner of Hagan Fine Art and a CGA member, focuses on the simplicity of sharing information that the association brings to both member galleries and the public. “CGA makes it super easy for art lovers near and far to find the right gallery for their taste,” she says. “An easy-to-use website and gallery map help collectors find their way around Charleston’s abundant offerings with ease. We have met many new customers because of what CGA does for us!”
One of the most popular ways CGA promotes its fine art gallery members is through a monthly First Friday ArtWalk. From 5-8 p.m., member galleries that choose to participate open their doors to the community for a walkable tour, often including wine, hors d’oeuvres and live painting exhibitions. After a brief pandemic hiatus, ArtWalk is back due to popular demand, serving both locals and tourists. Those who wish to share in the fun can check out the list of monthly participating galleries and download the printable walking map from CGA’s website. Those who can’t participate on the first Friday of the month should not fret. They can download and print a walking map of galleries anytime from CGA’s website for a self-guided tour of Charleston’s art galleries and businesses.
A consolidated events calendar on CGA’s website collectively promotes member galleries’ events. This roundup resource is an easy way for locals and visitors to see at a glance all of the gallery events happening each month. “We are trying to use the association’s website as a central art resource,” Stump says, “and put everyone ‘on the map’ together.”
What does the future hold for CGA? Stump says one priority is pooling the purchasing power of galleries so they have more leverage in buying local and national advertising to promote the Charleston art scene. She also wants to see CGA produce collective events, such as an annual function to benefit Charleston County schools. “Our goal is to get more people immersed in the Charleston art scene,” she says. “CGA is pulling us together as a community. I’m proud of what we have accomplished.”
She should be. In a recent study by ApartmentGuide.com, Charleston ranks as the number one city in the country for art lovers. The city has one art business for every 1,775 residents, according to the study, which makes it the highest ranked per capita for ratio of art businesses to residents. Charleston beat
out other artistic hotspots like Miami, New Orleans, Savannah and San Francisco. Charleston also recently has been named the number one art destination by the global art wire network ArtNet News.
CGA’s goal is to keep growing the association as more artists move into the Charleston area and open art-related businesses and galleries. The association’s board of directors is focused on further enhancing the collective power of the group to become the central art resource for both Downtown and the greater Charleston area.
Dana W. Todd is a professional writer specializing in interior design, real estate, luxury homebuilding, landscape design and architecture.