Leepson: The arts in Charleston ‘seriously not thriving’ in pandemic


CP file photo; Cara Leepson took over as Redux’s executive director in 2018

When most people think of the art scene in Charleston, they think of Lowcountry landscapes, artists whose online releases sell out instantly and the galleries in the historic corridor. While these landscapes, artists, and galleries are all certainly representative of the art scene in the Holy City, they offer only a narrow glimpse of the greater arts ecosystem in Charleston.

There is a vibrant, underrepresented arts community here, made up of young artists fresh out of college rich with ideas, emerging artists who juggle multiple jobs with studio time, incredibly talented art instructors dedicated to teaching and to supporting their own creative practices, big-city transplants who come to Charleston for a better work/life balance and non-profit organizations committed to promoting emerging art and artistic practice in the region.

The emerging artists in Charleston had their own deck of struggles before the world shut down in March. Charleston’s notable art patrons tend to be much less interested in non-traditional art; grants for artists and arts organizations are incredibly scarce; and our conservative town is often reluctant to expand its scope beyond institutional settings.

Many artists who work in F&B or have another side hustle lost their steady income source when layoffs swept the nation. Then when public programming stopped, income around town for the already under-funded arts organizations screeched to a halt.

That situation was on my mind when I read “Want a change of scenery? A new perspective? Charleston artists have got this,” an article by Maura Hogan, published on Aug. 1 in The Post and Courier.

After showcasing established artists with robust collector bases, commercial art galleries and the well-funded Gibbes museum, the article implied that the arts in Charleston are thriving as we acclimate to the new-COVID norm. While sales may be up as collectors redecorate their homes, our city’s emerging artists, the non-profit art community, and its grassroots organizers are — to put it bluntly —seriously not thriving.

Sales cannot be the only measure of success because it completely ignores the value of nonprofit art spaces in our communities. The harsh reality is that the underrepresented arts community (artists, curators, and spaces) are suffering deeply as the pandemic has forced us to totally re-evaluate our ability to be publicly accessible.

This has severely limited promoting  artwork and culture including opportunities for outreach and engagement. Public, in-person arts programming is virtually (pun not intended) non-existent. You simply cannot replace an in-person viewing experience with a virtual one.

The Post and Courier article presented a troubling, one-note analysis of how the arts in Charleston are acclimating to life during the pandemic. Worse, it also continues a worrisome pattern of how establishment Charleston avoids concrete arts criticism, which shows how little the city values its arts community, particularly the emerging art scene.

This is part of the focus on revenue-generating promoted by the Charleston Visitors Bureau. This also leads to the question of why the city hasn’t allocated any relief funding for individual artists and organizations — the people and institutions who are the lifeblood of Charleston’s creative community.

The people, that is, who need it most — and are clinging on for life.

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