Mary Martin’s best ideas come to her first thing in the morning, when her eyes are still heavy from sleep and her brain is turning on. It’s then that she will not only set the course for the day but for the rest of her life.
“This is the way my life goes: I wake up in the morning with an idea,” Martin says with a laugh.
It was one morning in the early 2000s that she woke up with the idea to open an art gallery. After decades hustling in real estate and moving around the world, Martin figured that going into the art business would be a welcome respite. The Mary Martin Gallery opened its doors on Broad Street in 2004, her location at the Charleston Place Hotel Belmond followed in 2017, and she curates gallery spaces in hotels throughout Charleston. Today, she has more than 100 artists under her wing, ranging in works from sculptures to paintings, murals, photography and jewelry.
“I chose Charleston because the gallery owners got along; they like each other,” Martin explains. “It’s just a very pleasant place to be. It’s no stress, and I really like that.”
While the gallerist always had an affinity for art, it was decades before she married her passion to a profession. Martin was raised on a small farm in Central South Carolina with plans to study art in college, but Clemson University, unfortunately, didn’t offer the degree. For $125 per semester, she devoured as many classes as she could and graduated in 1965 with degrees in English and education and minors in history and psychology. But she was tired of South Carolina and wanted to get away, so she went about as far as she could in the continental United States: California.
“That was just as the hippie generation was beginning to start,” she says. “I was never a hippie, but I did want freedom, I wanted adventure. I just have always been inclined that way.”
Martin worked as a teacher in the Golden State and met her husband, an Air Force officer. His job swept them from one city to the next, including postings in Germany. The couple ended up in Charleston for three years and Martin taught English at Wando High School, then they settled in Colorado. Always up for a change, she opened bookstores before she woke up to one of her great ideas one morning.
“Having been a military wife, we moved quite often, and every time we moved, it would take me about two years to feel comfortable,” she explains. “I woke up one morning with an idea that I should start doing a tour for all the high-tech companies that were moving into Colorado Springs, tours for their people interviewing for jobs.”
And it worked—she approached a company that was planning to hire 64 people, and they agreed to have her show the prospective employees around Colorado Springs. She then facilitated their relocation and home buying when they were hired and moved. For three decades, Martin’s real estate empire grew to 250 Realtors.
When she wasn’t wrapped up in business, she would escape on trips around the world with her new husband, who shared her love of art. Together, they explored galleries and museums from Santa Fe and Carmel to London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague and other world-class art cities. Martin slowly stepped away from the real estate business and started painting, but she missed the socialization that she was so used to. Then, you guessed it, she woke up one morning with an idea.
“I realized that painting in a studio was very lonely for me,” she says. “So I spent the next two years driving all over the country researching cities in which to have an art gallery. I did the entire West Coast, I came across the southern part of the country, and then I ended up back in Charleston. I interviewed gallery owners everywhere I went.”
It turned out that being at home in the Palmetto State was exactly where she needed to be. She was attracted to the friendly aura of Charleston and how rooted everyone was to the city. The gallery owners also weren’t competitive; in fact, she opened the Mary Martin Gallery earlier than planned after hearing from one of her gallery neighbors. “I was sweeping out my space—the construction was not all done, but one of the gallery owners came over and said, ‘Oh, tonight’s the art walk. You’ve got to open today!’ So, we did,” Martin remembers. “The gallery owners here are just very supportive of each other.”
She was making a name for herself when the Great Recession slammed down on the country in the summer of 2008. While Martin had doubled sales over the previous year from January to July, that all changed for the second half of the year. Thankfully, her brain presented her with a new idea after a good night’s sleep: People might not be visiting the galleries, but they’re still traveling and staying in hotels. She said to herself, “I am going to go where they stay.”
Martin went to The Vendue, known as “the art hotel,” and presented her idea of outfitting its lobby with artwork from her gallery. They were on board, and the partnership brought her an additional $300,000 in revenue. Now, she also curates artwork at The Andell Inn, Bella Grace and The Harbour Club, adjusting to their tastes and styles. Customers have left comments admiring the artwork, and the hotels even saw their occupancy and room rates increase. In 2017, she was invited to open her eponymous gallery at Charleston Place, A Belmond Hotel, on the first, second and seventh floors.
Martin’s discerning eye has garnered her recognition as one of the top 25 galleries in the nation year after year by the American Art Awards, and her galleries showcase the works of more than 100 artists, including paintings by the late UB40 saxophonist, Brian Travers. It’s believed that she owns about 60 percent of his works.
“He was one of the most astonishing human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” Martin says. “He was very modest himself, but he spent a lot of time praising others.”
When asked how she chooses artists to represent in her gallery, the answer is simple: She trusts her taste. A lifelong lover of art and one who has traveled the world to some of the greatest museums and galleries, she purchased her first piece of art at the age of 21. She and her husband are avid art collectors, turning their home into a gallery in its own right.
“I buy art that speaks to me,” she explains. “Every time I walk through a room, I can remember my entire life because it’s all connected with art. I can look at a painting, and I can remember exactly where I bought it, meeting the artist if I did meet them. It’s like all my memories are encapsulated in my home because of my art.”
And the wide range of art styles is reflected in her galleries. Abstract, traditional, contemporary, impressionist, modern—it’s all there. What she homes in on when inspecting an artist’s work is their development. She wants an artist who has found their unique style, a style that can be recognized from across the room. That’s not to say she’s turned away artists still finding themselves, though. Over the years, Martin has coached young artists in whom she saw potential. Some have eventually made their way into the Mary Martin Galleries.
“One of the things an artist does need is an objective person to tell them when to stop. I counsel them, don’t ever paint over what you’ve got. If you get to a sticking point, walk away for a few days. When you come back a few days later, you’ll know exactly what you need to do or not need to do,” she says.
And now that the first Friday art walks have returned to Broad Street, Martin has a lineup of artists to present to visitors wandering down Gallery Row. The week after Travers died, she curated a tribute exhibit to him. Next on the list for art walks are artists like Brandon Newton, who “paints Charleston like no one else,” and Elaine Hruska, who has entranced Martin with her landscape pastels.
After all her decades of traveling the country and the world, it turned out that Charleston was exactly where Martin needed to be. “I wanted to get out of South Carolina and small-town living,” she says, laughing and thinking back to being 22 and escaping to California. “You notice where I ended up, right?” *
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.