While art meccas like New York City have an average of four art galleries per square mile, and Santa Fe has three art galleries per square mile, the compact 5.5 square-mile Charleston peninsula has more than 40 art galleries; that’s about seven galleries per square mile. Visitors (and locals) can comfortably spend a pleasant weekend strolling historic streets, eating at world-class restaurants and browsing Charleston’s diverse art scene without ever getting in a car or on public transportation. However, it’s definitely worth exploring outside of the peninsula as well to see galleries in Kiawah, Sullivan’s, Daniel Island and Mount Pleasant.
Each year Charleston is bestowed with Best Of awards for restaurants and hotels. Though we have the country’s highest per capita concentration of art galleries, the thriving local art scene is wholly overlooked. It’s a mystery why this fact isn’t part of our many accolades, and the Charleston Gallery Association (CGA) is on a mission to change that.
The Charleston Gallery Association comprises more than 35 fine art galleries, representing thousands of local, regional, national and international artists. “Our goal is to connect art lovers and collectors with the wonderful art community that is part of the magic and beauty of Charleston,” says Charleston Gallery Association president Allison Hull. She explains that Charleston’s history as an art destination for artists and collectors is centuries old. “The Hudson River School would come to Charleston during the winters in the mid-19th-century, so we’ve always had a rich history,” she adds.
When the art renaissance came to Charleston between the world wars, it never left. Charleston has been and is home to internationally recognized artists such as Johnathan Green, John C. Doyle, Mary Whyte, West Fraser, Anna Heyward Taylor, William Melton Halsey, Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner.
In the wake of COVID restrictions, the CGA and gallery members are beyond excited to get back to First Friday Artwalks and openings. “First Friday Artwalks always have a celebratory feel,” Hull says. “And that’s what we’re doing—we’re building community and celebrating that there is such a rich art culture in such a tiny town.” You may have missed it, but in 2019, Charleston was voted the number one art destination in the country by Artnet News. “We have amazing restaurants, hotels, rich history and more than 40 galleries, and they’re flourishing. We could have many more, and they’d be successful,” Hull adds. “That’s why we are so passionate about developing the appreciation the local art community deserves.”
Hull says that the art in Charleston is different than in other art-rich cities because it’s so accessible. “The art here is going to make you smile,” she says. “You can buy a memory or fill your entire house with a broad variety that will sing harmoniously or stand on its own. The Charleston Gallery Association recognizes and appreciates how our galleries have something for the novice and the seasoned collector. There’s a broad spectrum of fine art for every taste here, from impressionism to abstract to hyperrealism to even amazing street art. Charleston is a good launching pad for someone who doesn’t think they can collect art; it’s a great place to buy your first piece or add to your collection.”
Remarkably, the CGA is an all-volunteer board of just four people. The current board, who affectionally call themselves the Gallerinas, are Allison Hull, president; Jennie Fili, vice president; Angela Stump, treasurer; and Griffith Britton, secretary. Between them, they promote gallery openings and events, produce and maintain the downloadable gallery walking map, and run a fun and informative social media account that showcases the diversity of Charleston’s art scene.
The downtown walking map takes art lovers from galleries on Broad Street and wends through the historic heart of town. Most of the galleries are concentrated between Broad to the south and Cumberland Street to the north. You could easily visit two dozen galleries in a six-block range but venturing a bit further north to icons such as the Grand Bohemian gallery is well worth the easy and delightful ramble.
First Friday Artwalks take place from 5 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, except in January and July. In the course of an evening, you can sample a variety of styles and media that include contemporary, realism, abstract, landscape, sculpture, photography, jewelry and experimental. Most galleries are in historic buildings, and each has a unique atmosphere.
There’s the quirky, industrial Robert Lange Studios, where you can watch painters paint or swing while taking in the latest exhibit. There’s Horton Hayes with its French Quarter vibe and artwork that ranges from Mark Horton’s pastoral Lowcountry scenes to Larry Moore’s curious abstracts of animals lounging in unexpected places. The Vendue Art Hotel features some of Charleston’s most cutting-edge exhibits, while Hagan Fine Art is home to a world-class roster of large-format impressionistic paintings.
Charleston’s artwalks are legendary for being joyful and sociable. Even for those indifferent to art, a walk around the city’s cobbled streets at dusk is an irresistible lure back to being together again. Inevitably, locals run into old friends, and visitors are welcomed as locals wherever they choose to stop in. “Artwalks are a chance to be together as a community and enjoy this rare and valuable facet of the city we all love. It’s incredibly important,” Hull says. “Our city should be known for the art mecca that it is, and what’s important is that we all participate and work together.”
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.