As customers step into the Mary Martin Galleries, the owner and namesake loves to people watch. Will it be a painting or a sculpture that this person will be drawn to? Even as they step from one piece to another, Mary Martin can tell when they’ve found something they adore.
“It’s interesting to watch the body language,” she says. “You absolutely know without them saying a word which pieces are speaking out to them.”
For Martin, the painting that first captured her attention was at an officer’s club in Germany, where she was living with her husband, who was in the Air Force and stationed there, while she worked as a schoolteacher. At just 21, she was enamored by the piece by Diego, and it was the first piece of art she ever bought.
“It is still one of my lifetime favorites,” she says. “Throughout my life, I’ve continued to be attracted to cities with a lot of art galleries. I love art. I love museum shows. I love anything to do with any kind of art.”
More than 50 years later, Martin is the one creating the art scene. She owns two eponymous art galleries in Charleston and has partnered with a number of area hotels to exhibit art. She represents artists from around the world, including Jean-Claude Gaugy and Hessam Abrishami, and her roster includes both skilled artists and emerging talent.
“I was a buyer of art for 50 years,” she says. “I like to look for originality. … I’m looking for somebody who does something totally unique, totally different.”
Before she became Mary Martin the gallerist, she was a schoolteacher and then a real estate entrepreneur. While living in Colorado Springs, she opened a business that worked with tech companies moving into the area. She first pitched that she could lead tours of the city to newcomers. Then, she expanded her reach and her staff to also sell homes, get spouses set up with jobs, and help their kids get acclimated to their new schools. Ultimately, she worked with 500 companies. In 2001, she sold the business to spend more time with her new husband as well as devote herself to painting.
“Throughout my whole life I had wanted to paint, so I sold all those companies and I painted for two years, and I absolutely loved it,” she says. “However, I did not love being in my studio all day not talking to people, not being with people. So, I decided that the next best thing for me was to open an art gallery.”
With her husband, she traveled the country in search of a home for her art gallery. Spots like Carmel in California were in the running, but she says, “I had something whispering in my mind, and that was the ocean in Charleston.” In the ’70s, she was a teacher at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, and the South was calling her back home. She fell back in love with her home state and, in 2004, opened the doors to the first Mary Martin Gallery.
Her vision for the gallery, which has stayed true, is to not pigeonhole herself into any particular genre. She noticed that when she visited a gallery, she was less likely to return if they always carried similar works.
“You’ve got to understand the buyer and why people buy art and what people buy,” she explains. “My taste is all over the board. My least favorite art is ultrarealism, but I have some. Abstract is beautiful, but I wouldn’t call it my favorite, but I have some.”
Of course, once Martin reaches a goal, she makes a new one. Her travels had her checking into one hotel after another, giving her the idea to partner with area hotels. The plan: She would provide the art, elevating the cultural offerings for the hotel, and it would send visitors to her galleries. Her first partnership was with The Vendue in Downtown Charleston when it was purchased by Jonathan Weitz of the Avocet Hospitality Group.
“We monitored the rates on his rooms and his occupancy rate, and within a few months all of that had doubled because of the art,” she recalls.
Next came the Andell Inn in Kiawah, and today her reach has extended to Hotel Bella Grace, The Harbour Club (by invitation), and the newest addition, the residences at Morrison Yard. She teases that there are also new partnerships in the works. The gallery has won Best Gallery in South Carolina by the American Art Awards nine times since 2013 and has ranked in the top 25 in the nation.
Martin also hosts art workshops for young artists, and one of her favorite memories as a gallerist was watching a family walk in and tell their young daughter to not touch anything. She saw her clam up, nervous to get too close to the precious artworks, so Martin walked over and asked if she could take the little girl on a gallery tour and allow her to touch the sculptures. Once stiff and cautious, the child’s eyes lit up as she had a chance to really experience the art in front of her. The girl’s birthday wish the next year, Martin says, was to return to Charleston to see what was new at the gallery; when she did, she was able to work alongside oil painter John Hoffman.
Hopefully, that child will start a lifetime love of fine art, just as Martin did when she found that painting in Germany all those years ago.
“As I walk through my house, my entire life is displayed there, from 21 all the way to now,” she says. “Any time you look at a painting you purchase, you remember where you were, who you were with and how happy you were when you bought it. I can walk through my whole life by just walking through my house and remembering every single thing.” *
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.