This is a story about Redux Contemporary Art Center and its struggle to stay alive amid the only constant it has ever known — change.
Borne of the ideals of community and collaboration, sprung from the desire to give young artists a place to work and play, evolved into a growing professional nonprofit, Redux must now overcome its greatest obstacle yet.
Seth Curcio, whom many credit with saving Redux, is about to step down after a successful yet controversial term as executive director and chief curator.
More significant is that Redux, after five years at its current location on St. Philip Street, will lose its lease at the end of 2009. Over the next year, Redux must find in itself the courage, strength, and leadership to face an uncertain future.
But there's more to this story.
In a way, telling the story of Redux is telling the story of contemporary art in Charleston, a brief history marked by ideological dissonance and aesthetic harmony, petty squabbles and enduring friendships, financial crises and organizational triumphs. What happens now with Redux will be the test of its mettle and a lesson for Charleston's contemporary artists for a long time to come.
It's also about the burdens of leadership and the nature of change.
Redux is, after Curcio's three-year tenure, a much different organization from what it was in the beginning, when it was more or less the preserve of college kids whose ignorance of bookkeeping and the myriad duties of managing an arts nonprofit were easily eclipsed by their passion and eagerness to make new art.
Now Redux strives to be a professional organization dedicated to the "production, presentation, and education of contemporary visual art." It boasts growing educational programs, art classes, artist studios, musical events, and an annual schedule of exhibitions featuring local, regional, and national artists.
Such change, though, has come at a price.
As it formalized itself, early supporters lost interest. Critics disagree with its current agenda. Others question Redux's national ambitions. It doesn't serve local visual artists like it used to, they say. There's no sense of community anymore. Redux needs to clear up its mission and stick with it once it's clarified, and while they're at it, clean up the board, too. It's a dysfunctional mess.
Worse is what appears to be a growing reputation of poor quality.
What happens at Redux isn't worth paying attention to anymore, some say. Others, including those inside the organization, have expressed doubt about shows that were on display this past year, calling them disappointing and uninspired at best, juvenile and woefully behind the times at worst.
If Redux is to succeed in making the case for its value to the community, and thus rally public sentiment for a new home, it must address allegations of poor quality.
Yet for every quiet critic of Redux there is a vocal champion. Many inside and outside the organization have praised Curcio's commitment, determination, and business savvy. He was called at one point "the savior of Redux."
Indeed, Curcio has expanded outreach, increased funding, and boosted membership. If there's a decline in quality, his defenders say, it's short-lived. The priority over the past three years simply has been getting the house in order. Give him a break.
Even so, most say that Redux, if it's to survive, and then, if it's to thrive, needs a strong leader. Curcio has done a commendable job of maintenance, but if Redux is to blossom, and overcome the daunting obstacle of location, the board of directors needs to take a more active role in leadership and vision.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Redux must survive, because it stands for an ideal important to anyone who cares about contemporary art. Redux is a counterweight to Charleston's 135 galleries, in which you're likely to find marshscapes and "contemporary" art circa 1955, but little that's truly new.
"Redux is filling a void," says Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. "We need more of it.
"If they don't do it, no one will."
The wonder years
In the beginning, Charleston's contemporary scene was dark and without form, with the exception of the College of Charleston's Halsey Gallery and the short-lived eyespy. These were the only places for Bob Snead, a talented young student painter, to experience new art.
"There was nothing but swamp paintings everywhere else," Snead says.
He set out to change that in 2002. After an initial and successful attempt at running a space called Untitled, Snead, with the help of friends and other artists, managed to lease an empty warehouse at 136 St. Philip St.
It was a mess. It was full of years' worth of forgotten junk that had to be cleared out. They knocked down walls, put up sheet rock, worked on the plumbing, updated the electrical system — in fact, they more or less renovated the entire building on a shoestring budget in order to set up artist studios, an administrative office, and a gallery space.
"We had to borrow crowbars," says William Bolton, a Redux co-founder who now lives in New York City. "That's how tough it was. We'd demolish the place for a couple of hours every day. Then at night, we'd wire up some lights to paint. Those were good days."
Redux quickly earned a reputation as a place where interesting and provocative things happened. Snead and his buddies put on at least 12 shows a year. They had art competitions, workshops, and eventually scholarships. For many involved in those early years, they had a feeling of being on the cutting-edge of innovation.
A moment that illustrates Redux's must-see sensibility is an exhibit from 2004. It was called Pop Goes the Apocalypse. The artist was Caleb Weintraub, a painter who traveled from Philadelphia for virtually nothing to install a show whose paintings depicted children doing things that kids just shouldn't do.
"They took over the world," Snead says from his vegetable oil-fueled bus called the Transit Antenna, parked in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. "They were killing each other, stripping, drinking, having sex. It was really disturbing."
It had depth, too, Snead says. Weintraub is an Orthodox Jew concerned with exploring spirituality. By depicting the absurdity of kids doing such unkid-like things, the artist evoked doubts about the morality of postmodern adulthood.
Such a sensibility established Redux as a haven to experiment and grow. It was alternative exhibition space free of the anxieties of a commercial gallery. It naturally attracted like-minded artists. In short time, a robust subculture emerged.
"It was the only place where students and artists on the vanguard could show their work," says Morrow Dowdle, a City Paper art critic. "There was a clubhouse feeling that combined with community outreach. I liked the attitude. They made a place for you if you were serious about your work.
"You were welcomed there."
The source of that attitude, nearly everyone interviewed for this story says, was the magnetic personality and able stewardship of Bob Snead. With a combination of charisma and determination, Snead whipped up enthusiasm for just about anything. He saw clearly what he wanted Redux to be.
Though management and interpersonal skills were hardly his strongest traits (he's quick to acknowledge his flaws as an administrator), he was a natural leader who also bore much of the responsibility of running Redux.
"Bob was easy to follow," Bolton says. "He had a clear vision. He was passionate about bringing something new. He was stubborn enough to follow through when no one else gave a shit. He put more hours into that place, amounted more debt, and invested more emotion than anyone else there."
And then it came close to falling apart.
The working years
Looking back, it makes sense. Redux emerged from imagination and guts. It had no structure, little revenue, a board of directors in name only, and depended almost entirely on Snead and his dedicated president, Seth Gadsden.
Redux was a cool art club with a loyal following that was built on personality and idiosyncrasy. It was far from a nonprofit organization run on professional standards, governance, and civic principles.
It could last as long as Snead and Gadsden could last. In the end, they didn't. Snead wasn't paid. Neither was anyone else. As time moved on, they too had to move on, eventually to graduate school and beyond.
It wasn't clear what would happen to Redux without Snead. From this uncertainty arose Redux's first real test, a period of upheaval that all small grassroots arts organizations must face if they are to continue to exist.
Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin, says that when organizations as small as Redux face any setback, no matter how small, it hits hard. Redux was closely associated with its leader. When he left, Redux was left without an identity.
"It can be hard when that leader leaves," Taylor said by telephone from Madison. "It might not be the death of a nonprofit, but it's certainly a test of its mettle."
Sharon Graci, a co-founder of PURE Theatre who sits on Redux's board of directors, says that in general the early years of arts organizations are easier in a way than future years of transition, because "there's not as much at stake," she says.
Fortunately, Redux passed.
After a false-start with their first hire, and after acquiring some money to pay for the job, Snead and his board chose Seth Curcio as the new executive director. Few others were qualified to do it, Snead says. Many applicants were shiftless dreamers. If Curcio hadn't risen to carry the mantle of Redux, who else could?
"He saved Redux," he says.
Curcio brought something new to the art club.
His approach was reserved, precise, organized. He established an infrastructure, a curatorial procedure, and new revenue streams, particularly from education grants awarded by philanthropic foundations and the like. During his nearly three years, he grew the operating budget by 35 percent, up to $150,000 a year. (Revenue was $95,182 in 2005 and $83,720 in 2006, according to tax documents.)
Paying members more than doubled in number during the same period. He took a fledgling series of educational programs and ran with it: The art center currently offers some 40 classes, workshops, and outreach events annually. It now has partnerships with the Cannon Street YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club, and the Girl Scouts.
He lacked Snead's charisma and extemporaneous spirit, but Curcio turned out to be the right kind of administrator at the right time. He was able to guide Redux to the next stage of evolution: from an ad-hoc "pet project," according to one source, with a mission peculiar to one man's whimsy, to a professional nonprofit with a formalized and objective mission.
"Redux is progressing the way it has to," says Lia Post, a photographer who worked closely with Curcio before moving to Philadelphia. "Bob had a seat-of-the-pants approach that could not last. Seth tried to get more involved with the wider community, to figure out what the mission is. The board didn't have much to contribute.
"He's had to do it all by himself."
Years of controversy
Progress, however, has a downside. It can exclude as much as it includes. Beyond the petty disputes, personality conflicts, cheap opinions, and sour grapes — all of which have certainly played a role in Redux's development — critics remain skeptical of Redux's change of attitude and, most importantly, its mission.
This is common among young arts organizations, especially those associated so closely with one person's vision. It's unlikely Snead had to explain himself much. Followers understood his vision, because they understood him. When Snead left, Redux's mission went with him. The public needed a new way of understanding.
This is when an organization's board must clarify its mission and provide strong leadership, says Andrew Taylor of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration.
"Conflicts of vision are typical," Taylor says. "Young organizations don't have a corporate structure in place. So it's up to the board to really engage the question and engage the public regarding the question. The board is a servant in the public's trust, so it must engage the pubic in the conversation."
The board didn't do that (more on the sketchy history and vision of Redux's board in a moment). Curcio was busy learning to be an administrator. Redux's mission didn't get a public airing. Disagreements among those who cared about where Redux was going and what it was doing were bound to happen. And they did.
Critics say the current focus on educational outreach is a problem. Other entities, such as the Gibbes Museum of Art, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, and Creative Spark Center for the Arts in Mt. Pleasant, do it far better. What's the point of spending resources on something that can be done better elsewhere?
Indeed, the Gibbes spends 45 percent of its $1.8 million operating budget on education. Creative Spark is a multi-disciplinary arts nonprofit. Twenty percent of its $660,000 annual budget is channeled to fine arts education. Of the city's $1.3 million Piccolo Spoleto budget, 10 percent goes to fine arts outreach.
In contrast, Redux spent $15,121 last year, Curcio says. In 2006, it spent $16,361, on "education, exhibitions, services for artists, and fund-raising," and in 2005, that figure was $24,748, according to the most recently available tax documents.
While it focuses on outreach, critics say, it fails to showcase enough local artists and thus foster a feeling of community among them. If Redux doesn't provide that, who else will? (This yearning for a place is, in fact, a sentiment held among the city's visual artists. It is the driving force behind a recent push to establish a new center for the arts, independent of Redux, by the Charleston Arts Coalition.)
"Redux strayed from its original mission," says Philip Hyman, an artist. "The organization and the exhibitions got real political. Shows don't really have the appeal that they once did. Now you see the same people all the time. They want to help educate people about the art world, but I don't see much of that."
Others say that bringing in national artists in an attempt to raise its profile does not serve the community as Redux once did. In fact, no local artists were showcased during the 2007-2008 season. Such efforts, critics say, have the paradoxical effect of disconnecting Redux from the local community.
Max Miller, an artist involved in the early stages of Redux, and a key figure during the Untitled period, says he lost interest after Curcio took over. He says there is no longer a focus on cutting-edge art as there had been.
"There was a strong following in the beginning," Miller says. "But that was lost. The new people running the place are missing the mark, I think."
Allies of Redux argue that it's more connected to the community than before, because of its expanded outreach, classes, and workshops. It gives artists a chance to teach. The nature and quality of outreach are unique. Exhibitions are a diverse mix of local and national artists, which they say helps educate the public about the spectrum of contemporary fine art.
Bob Snead says that bringing national artists was always a part of the bargain. He and his friends wanted to bring in artists that couldn't be seen anywhere else. Snead cites Pop Goes the Apocalypse as an example.
"The point was to show underrepresented art wherever it was," Snead says.
Jamie Self, Redux's grant writer, says there's a practical reason for Redux's current direction — money.
An artist-based center is a fine idea, she says, but an idea can't sustain itself. Rent needs to be paid every month. Letting out studio space isn't going to cut it. If Redux is going to ask foundations and governmental agencies for money, it has to do educational outreach. If it's going to raise money from national foundations, it has to curate shows that garner national attention, as was the case with The Constructed Image this past spring, a show that Snead called "the kind of show Seth wanted to do all along."
In fact, rent and related expenses (maintenance, utilities, etc.) are Redux's biggest outlay — in 2005, these costs were 46 percent ($40,769) of its operating expenses; in 2006, they were 45 percent ($32,892); in 2007, they were $33,572.
"Everyone wants a place to call their own, so whatever changes take place, there are always going to be people who don't like it," says Self, who is married to Seth Gadsden. "Sometimes you can't avoid hurt feelings. But change isn't horrible."
Then there's the issue of quality exhibitions.
Kaminer Haislip, the new board president, says exhibitions have been exceptional under Curcio's curatorship.
According to Jarod Charzewski, a new board member, experimentation is favored.
"Redux is an incubator for ideas," he says.
Co-founder William Bolton says the gallery is about the unexpected. Sometimes, it's a hit. Sometimes, it's a miss.
"I find that exciting," he says.
In private, however, even avid supporters express concern about the quality of recent exhibitions. In fairness, they say the pressures of management have eclipsed the need for Curcio to apply the right level of curatorial control.
Even so, quality, they say, remains an issue.
"Yeah, they've been pretty crappy," says one insider who did not want to be seen as unsupportive. "That new media show (on display last fall) was not new. It was new in 1980, but not now. That show was really a disappointment."
Kat Hendrix, a former board member, says poor quality is the result of too much influence by the College of Charleston. Marion Mazzone, in fact, is a long-time board member and professor of art history at CofC. She is known for opposing representational art and for advocating 1960s-style avant-garde.
"It's too academic," Hendrix says of exhibitions. "It's great if you're a teenager."
"We don't talk about quality," says a board member who asked for anonymity. "We're too busy talking about business matters. But if there are questions about quality, they deserve to be examined. We owe it to people to look into it."
In an interview, Curcio says he feels an equal responsibility to exhibit local and national talent. Since 2006, he says there have been numerous shows focusing on local artists, but says none were showcased last season. That's part of the balancing act, he says, of providing a mix of talent for the public's edification.
"We do that very well," he says. "The board is very confident about our mission."
Years of clarity
Saying the board is confident about its mission is a prudent thing to say to a reporter. A director of an arts nonprofit wants to avoid appearing at cross-purposes with his board. Even so, board members admitted in interviews to being unclear about Redux's mission.
This is the latest in a history of failures by Redux's board.
Since the beginning, it has been an issue, say those inside and outside the organization. It has been ineffective, passive, even aloof.
Yet at the same time, it has made huge demands of Curcio, sources say, that have added even more pressure to the already daunting challenge of getting Redux into shape, an accomplishment for which Curcio was compensated, according to available tax documents, $14,583 in 2006. (That's less than Curcio's predecessor, who earned $19,271.).
"One of Seth's major goals was getting a board that works," says a person with intimate knowledge of the board and Curcio's frustration with getting it to play a more active role. "There can't be only one person running the place. A board has to be the heart of the organization."
Ideally, a board provides a nonprofit with governance and a strategic plan. The director then implements that vision. This is the ideal, but it has hardly been the case. As Redux faces its greatest challenge — finding a new director and finding a new venue — a board that provides not just oversight, as it has been, at least in form, but leadership and vision as well will be needed more than ever.
This often occurs with small nonprofits. During times of crisis, when leadership and vision are most needed, an organization may find it has none, says Andrew Taylor of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration. If there is a clear vision, then the board can hire the right person to implement that vision. If there is no definition of success, no clear vision, then how can a new director succeed?
"It's hard for a group to change what they've always done," Taylor says. "Some members may be lingering from the founder. They found ways of making things work for that person, but with a new leader, it has to become a different kind of board, a strategic board. The problem is they often don't know how to do this, because there's no one to tell you how to change. There's no standard for them to follow.
"These are the growing pains of young organizations."
It's far too early to know if Redux has overcome its growing pains. That will be determined over the next year. But there are signs of change, particularly those that have come to light in the last two weeks. These signs suggest that Curcio's efforts to restock his board of directors — what may in retrospect turn out to be his greatest achievement in shepherding Redux through its years of transition — are beginning to yield results.
The board hired a development director to handle fund-raising. The advisory board merged recently with the working board, resulting in greater, clearer, and more immediate communication. A new director's "job description" has been drafted. A time table for the search has been set, too.
"The board has not reexamined its mission statement in a while ... but many changes are in the air," Jarod Charzewski says. He adds that the current mission as stated on Redux's website, "makes perfect sense to me."
On record, board members play down confusion about its mission. Some have been more active than others, they admit, but a clear vision is quickly taking shape. Steps are being made to rewrite the bylaws to accommodate change in personnel. Indeed, with the stepping down of Marian Mazzone at the end of Curcio's tenure, no member will have served for more than two years.
Kaminer Haislip, who has been board president since January, says criteria in the "job description" include experience managing a nonprofit, a deep knowledge of how to transition to a new building, an ability to manage public relations, and an ability to adapt to a changing environment.
Last week, she says, the board officially announced a call for applicants. No salary has yet been determined.
Haislip says the addition of a development director will relieve the burdens of the new director, burdens that Curcio has been shouldering alone for nearly three years. In this way, the new director will be better positioned to focus on curatorial, administration, and the search for a new building. The current plan is to have a new director in place by the first week of November.
"It will finally be one person for one job," Haislip says.
As for a new home, Haislip says contingency plans are in place in case a new building can't be found. What will the mission of Redux then be? Whom will it serve? And so on. But much has yet to be revealed. There is an option in the current lease with PrimeSouth Group for a one-year extension. A new director is the first item on the agenda. Then the board will address a building.
"Redux has always needed people with vision," Snead says.
"It looks like things will finally change."
"Everyone wants a place to call their own, so whatever changes take place, there are always going to be people who don't like it. Sometimes you can't avoid hurt feelings. But change isn't horrible."
—Jamie Self, Redux's grant writer