Last week, the two owners of SCOOP Studios glanced around their narrow gallery, pointing out artists whose work they've exhibited over the past few years. "Everyone we've worked with is up right now. It's our SCOOP retrospective," said Colleen Deihl, who co-owns the gallery with friend Saramel Evans.
SCOOP is one of two contemporary art galleries in downtown Charleston closing this month. The other, Eye Level Art, is not only shutting down, but owner Mike Elder is moving to New York. In a city that can count its truly boundary-pushing galleries on one hand, the loss of two at once is a heavy blow. It begs the question: What is the future of contemporary art in Charleston?
Tivoli Studios and Garden is on the northern end of Upper King, where the tide of trendy new businesses has yet to reach. It's a huge warehouse, almost directly under the on-ramp for the Ravenel Bridge, and the brainchild of Nic Roberts, who found the space when he was looking for a place to work on his own art. The walls of the warehouse are now lined with small studio spaces constructed out of salvaged wood, most with windows that look out into the center common area. A tumbled glass masonry fountain, which will be dedicated to its late creator Dale Arnheider, welcomes visitors at the front door. Despite the concrete chill and the lack of natural light that comes with industrial structures, it's a homey sort of place, almost like the earthy counterpart to Redux Contemporary Art Center's bright white, modern space.
Naturally, art is everywhere: lining the walls, resting next to doorways, hanging on partitions in the center of the studio. Tivoli is a collective with multiple goals — one being to further sustainability and provide an example of a truly urban garden — but its most basic one, the one that set the whole ball rolling, is to be a place for artists to work away from the distractions of home. Roberts didn't stop there, though. "I thought it was the type of space that could offer affordable office space for artists, but then it made a whole lot more sense to have a space where you can work, but also sell," Roberts says. "When it comes to making money and paying bills, it's frustrating for any artist. Hopefully we found a space where we can bridge that gap."
Tivoli is one of, if not the only, artist collectives in Charleston that approaches what you might call the "all things to all artists" model: it is a studio space, an exhibit space, and a place to socialize, sell art, conduct business, and meet with the public. Tivoli's open studios and public art shows allow artists to bypass galleries altogether and sell their art directly to the public. Roberts says galleries often serve as the middle men, taking up to 50 percent of your sale price. "I don't think that's ideal for artists," Roberts says.
That idea has strongly resonated with the local contemporary art set, and Tivoli appears to be leading the charge in what could be a major shift in art culture: away from the gallery setting and more toward personal ownership of the creation-to-sale process, facilitated through the kind of collective, community spirit that Tivoli embodies so completely.
Middle men or not, SCOOP and Eye Level Art were not your grandmother's galleries. Far from it. Eye Level was known for its focus on street art and media, while SCOOP set out from the beginning to show contemporary artists who were not getting the local exposure the owners believed they should.
SCOOP was so dedicated to its artists that the gallery showed only one per month, giving over the space to a unique solo show that was usually a new collection and sometimes an entire reinterpretation of the artist's body of work. Deihl started out with two one-night-only events for underrepresented artists called "One Night Stands" back in 2009. These events were so successful that she opened SCOOP's physical space on Broad Street, bringing in Evans as a business partner in 2010. "We thought we were unique," Deihl says. "We were really confident." While the gallery has garnered plenty of attention in its two and a half years, their art sales simply haven't been enough to justify keeping the space and they decided to close in November. Evans continues, "It's amazing how supportive the community has been — verbally, at least. There's that disconnect: people just aren't buying."
Artist and former Redux executive director Karen Ann Myers, who has exhibited at SCOOP, has also found that to be the case. "For all its support of the visual arts and the visibility of the art market, Charleston is still a conservative city," she says. "I believe Charleston's commercial galleries are interested in exhibiting contemporary art that pushes boundaries, but there isn't a large contemporary art collector base yet to buy that art. These things take time."
Elder, who started renting Eye Level out for weddings and parties to supplement the income from art sales, is ready to throw in the towel after the past year of juggling events and concerts in order to keep his real interest, progressive art shows, viable. His frustration is directed more at the city of Charleston itself. According to Elder, "Charleston wants to be seen as very welcoming to the arts, but it's totally different when you're in it. The authorities never supported me. It's more like them against us. Why aren't they saying 'How can we help you?' 'How can we support you?'" A prime example, Elder continues, is when "Shepard Fairey — a modern day Warhol — did the mural outside. Here we have this famous artist, who I really think will be as big as Warhol, and the city didn't comment at all. The Office of Cultural Affairs has never approached me, never wanted to work with me." The Office of Cultural Affairs did not respond to requests for comments.
Elder is, however, quick to point out that the Charleston arts community has supported him from the beginning. "That community support is the only reason I've stayed seven years. I couldn't have done it without the support of the artists, interns, or volunteers," he says. "I offered an unobstructed view of art. And people thirst for that."
Which brings us back to Tivoli. Tivoli, like Redux and Eye Level, offers that unobstructed view of art — of "art in the raw," says Rebekah Drysdale, a local graduate of Sotheby's Institute of Art. It's run by artists, for artists, but for the public too. It's a space to show and sell art, but it's not a gallery, says Roberts. "We don't even like to use the g-word."
Tivoli — which differs crucially from Redux in that it is not a nonprofit — is changing artists' relationship with their art and with the way they make their living. It's helping to paint an exciting and optimistic vision for Charleston's contemporary art scene, along with many other forward-thinking local artists and the businesses they are creating. Rust, for example, is a new artisan pop-up shop on Spring Street that combines studio space and retail space. SCOOP is exploring ideas for future pop-up shops as well. Newcomers to Charleston like Andy Natusch, of Spring Street's Artisan Tees, and Tivoli painter Kate Barton work on both canvas and T-shirts, bridging the gap between contemporary art and the appreciative younger crowd who can't shell out $1,000 for a painting, but will snatch up $20 T-shirts with abandon.
This urge to innovate, to embrace collectives and mixed-use spaces, will only continue to progress as the success of such endeavors becomes more visible. Most of the artists and art professionals contacted for this piece don't believe the gallery will ever entirely go away, but it is probable that gallery owners will have to rethink their model, as the space that they occupy begins to be taken over by newer, more elastic types of organizations.
With all the new developments and all the energy, it's no wonder Roberts has such great expectations for what's to come. "There is no better place than here, at this moment, for a contemporary art mecca to develop," he says. And as that mecca begins to take shape — which it surely will, with or without support from local government — Roberts and his gang at Tivoli will be plugging away. "Make art affordable, reach out to the community, give as much to the community as you can, and that's how you make it work," Roberts says. "We create the culture."