In early June at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery on Upper King Street, the curtains opened on a new show. Called Somewhere in the South, the show is a celebration of Southern photography and features works by such notable artists as William Eggleston, Richard Sexton, and William Christenberry. The highlight of the show is an exceptional Eggleston piece called "The Red Ceiling," a dye transfer print of a photograph so rarely printed that it also hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. And now it hangs here, in Charleston.
Clearly, this is not your typical Charleston art show. But then, what's "typical" of art in Charleston is rapidly changing.
For the past few years, if you mentioned to an out-of-towner that you lived in Charleston, you'd probably hear names like McCrady's, Husk, FIG, and The MacIntosh; Rainbow Row and the Battery; or Folly Beach, the Isle of Palms, and Sullivan's Island.
But here are some names you most likely wouldn't hear: Rebekah Jacob. Robert Lange. Wells Gallery. M Gallery.
That's because, as it's marketed today, Charleston is a foodie town. A beach town. A town in which you can relive history by walking the cobblestone streets, or setting sail on an old shrimp boat. Our tourism boards acclaim our restaurants, our hotels, our rich seascapes.
What's missing, though, is a serious acknowledgement of another exciting piece of our city: our fine art galleries and our art world as a whole, which is increasingly attracting buyers from across the nation.
But as our economy grows and our galleries bring in and cultivate international artistic talents, it's time to acknowledge that the fine arts scene in Charleston may finally be arriving, and is impacting our local tourism and economy in big ways.
And it's not just your grandmother's marsh-view oil paintings anymore, either.
The Essential Guide — Charleston, Savannah, and the Lowcountry acknowledged Charleston's status as an "art city" in its 2013 directory of premier travel destinations. In a piece on the Lowcountry art world, contributors Jordan Eddy and Ariana Lombardi wrote, "The Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia is no longer an emerging art market. Indeed, its art scene is now fully developed and established, with renowned galleries, studios, museums, cultural foundations, festivals, and artists of every description. Today, the Lowcountry can proudly and legitimately be considered one of America's top art destinations."
In fact, it was our art scene that drew Trish Byrd and her team at The Essential Guide to the Lowcountry. Initially begun in Santa Fe, N.M., one of the premier destinations for artists and collectors around the country, when The Essential Guide decided to expand, they searched for regions with similar qualities. They found it here in the Lowcountry.
For the past decade, Byrd notes, Charleston's galleries have grown, and as they grow they bring in international talent on a level with Santa Fe. Artists that Charleston galleries represent, like West Fraser and Jonathan Green, have gained recognition worldwide. No less than three Santa Fe galleries will be opening offices and galleries in Charleston this year.
Additionally, says Byrd, Charleston has another draw: people are willing to drive here from all over the Southeast to search for fine art. While here, they're staying in our bed and breakfasts. They're eating in our restaurants. They're adding to our economy in a big way.
As the national economy improves, the art world trends upward. People with the disposable income to collect fine art are spending it again, investing in art instead of socking everything away in a retirement fund. Byrd also points out that galleries often shift, merging and moving, expanding and contracting as part of their normal growth process. That's part of the nuanced business of running an art gallery — the dealers have to balance their love of art with the ability to take risks and make decisions that make business sense. Rebekah Jacob of Rebekah Jacob Gallery agrees. "Art dealing is truly an art form in itself," she says. "It is a long process [that requires] experience, credibility, smart business, and ultimately the invitation to participate."
As the Charleston art scene grows, our galleries are able to make bigger and riskier moves.
Take, for instance, Robert Lange Studios. The balance of the artist-dealer dynamic played into their decision to pick up and move to a new, bigger space on Queen Street back in 2009, in the midst of an uncertain economy. When many local businesses scaled back, they expanded, going from a 900-square foot space to one that is more than 6,000 square feet. "We had a fearless attitude at the time, but mostly we had faith that our artists' work had graduated to a level that would sustain the space and bring in new collectors," says co-owner Megan Aline, who founded the gallery with her husband Robert Lange. Their gallery has since expanded even further, adding a residency studio on the second floor. "I think our whole approach to having a gallery is a little different then most," she says. "Because we are artists first and gallery owners second, we make a lot of decisions that are not based on what's best for the business but what maintains the integrity of the work. And in turn, that decision ends up being what is best for the business." Robert Lange Gallery is no longer recognized just in Charleston, according to Byrd, but is becoming a well-known name among the New York art scene as well.
The benefits of risk-taking are nowhere more apparent than within the walls of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery. It's seen a significant revenue increase in the past year, due in part to the well-timed hiring of an expert in outside growth strategies. Gallery owner Rebekah Jacob brought a consultant on board to help take her gallery not just to the next level, but several levels beyond that.
Yet much of her gallery's success can be attributed to Jacob herself, who has been known to work from 8 a.m. straight through until midnight. And as the gallery's focus has shifted to professional, well-known artists and big-ticket works, so has Jacob's focus shifted to ensure that these high-end items are brought into Charleston, and, specifically, to the Rebekah Jacob Gallery. She's been on business trips to Mississippi, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington D.C. this year alone. She's also installed new security within the gallery to ensure the pieces will remain safe while temporarily housed under her roof.
The acquisition of Eggleston's "The Red Ceiling" is a massive win. Bidding on the piece begins at a modest $450,000, and she expects that it won't go unsold. Serious art collectors wait eagerly for prints of such works to go on sale, and they won't balk at the hefty price tag either.
But while it's certainly a win for the Rebekah Jacob Gallery, it's also a win for Charleston. The photograph in the gallery will draw people from all over the country, vying for a chance to view this rare work in person outside of the intimidating spaces of a huge museum. They'll likely bring in big tourism dollars, helping to bolster our rebounding local economy.
It could be a beautiful cycle — almost as beautiful as the artwork itself. If these galleries continue to grow, so too will others around them. More artists and dealers will flock to the area, expanding our art scene even more. Charleston's place as a national art destination will be secured, and the whole of the city will reap the financial rewards.