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Oh, For Art’s Sake

Can anyone spare a gallery?

Susan Irish of Fabulon is searching for a new home for her West Ashley art studio after the her current location on Wappoo Road was recently sold.Susan Irish of Fabulon is searching for a new home for her West Ashley art studio after the her current location on Wappoo Road was recently sold.

February 8, 2018
By Bill Davis | News Editorl

West Ashley’s nascent art scene is taking a hit, as one of its most ardent supporters and exhibitors is losing her space on Wappoo Road.

Almost three years ago, artist and educator Susan Irish took a big risk and opened Fabulon, an art and education gallery in a simple building in the midst of a commercial and manufacturing area.

It was like a real, downtown gallery, except that the artists working and exhibiting there didn’t have to sell their souls for that luxury.

Last month, she found out that the owner of the building had sold it to her neighbors, a biotech firm. She has until the end of this month to find a new home.

And that’s not turning out to be easy at all, especially for an art center with slim margins and a mission to educate.

Again, a problem vexing the peninsula – finding space for the arts – has found a home in West Ashley, along with traffic, parking, development, gentrification, you name it.

There’s just “too big a gap” between what corporations want for their spaces and what community businesses can pay, says Irish. A lot of the development and property companies want “triple net” leases, where she would have to come up with not only rent, but also pay for the spot’s insurance and taxes, says Irish.

Irish has gotten some support. Last month, she reached out to the city to see what they could do, and Scott Watson has done what he could.

As director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Watson has a unique vantage point to see what’s happening in the local art scene. And what he sees isn’t a bucolic landscape.

“It’s daunting,” says Watson, who wishes the city had a portfolio of prime properties with visibility, location, and parking to help create artists’ lofts and galleries.

Additionally, Watson says, the arts have a tendency to improve any area they move into to the point that they can no longer afford to stay there.

He’s seen it on Upper King, where theater companies struggle to keep a toehold, and he’s seen it in New York City, where the term the “SoHo effect” was coined to describe the very same conundrum.

Watson recently shepherded a $1,000 grant into Irish’s art center, to help promote and support the “I Love West Ashley” photo exhibition and contest there. But that money won’t help Irish find a new spot.

In some ways, Watson believes Fabulon’s “simple cinderblock” building was a perfect home for an art center in West Ashley, as it wasn’t even going to become a destination a downtown celebrity chef or an expensive retail boutique would consider moving.

That being said, neither Irish nor Watson know where, or what, Fabulon’s next move is going to be.

“The pressure is cranked up as high as it can go,” Watson says of the local commercial retail space market.

Irish has reached out to the new owners of Citadel Mall, and is working on being able to display some of the artists she’s working with there. But the money is tough on both sides.

The mall’s new owners need to get paid to cover the millions they’ve spent buying the facilities, says Irish, and she worries that if she were to wrangle a permanent space that it might not attract art lovers and buyers. Most people, she worries, think velvet posters at Spencer’s when they think of art that can be bought at a mall.

“How many people went to the model train space in the mall,” asks OCA’s Watson. “And people at the mall aren’t necessarily looking for an art immersion …, an immersion blender maybe.”

There have been some recent success and major expansions of the arts in West Ashley. Charleston Stage is continuing to work on what will soon become their rehearsal and small-event space in Ashley Landing shopping center.

Located in a former CVS, the space will include offices and a black-box theater.

Ironically, the art expansion in Avondale, long City Hall’s model for the future of West Ashley, almost seems old now. Led by salon owner Geoff Richardson, the back alleys of shops there have been transformed into an outdoor spray-painted mural space.

Watson points out that “funky, quirky” Avondale may be too pricey for Irish, as one businessman who’d turned the shared lobby space of his company there into a gallery space, has already had to scrap that model.

Local architect Mateo Rapallini recently reached out to Irish as a potential new home for her efforts. Rapallini is the owner of StudioMa, a contemporary architecture office along Magnolia Road in a renovated auto body repair shop in the historically black Maryville neighborhood.

The job he and his wife Merced put in at the former shop has since garnered national attention, as it was recently featured as an editor’s pick at Dwell magazine, an honor that would trill any local turtleneck-wearing architect.

They want to build a separate building next door with offices and a space for a café/gallery. Both think that would be a perfect home for Fabulon.

But … that is just in the planning stages, with financing, design, approval, and building yet to be tackled.

Irish promises to soldier on until she finds a permanent space, curating her artists’ works at local shops and banks.

My landlord says we have until February 28, and I’m taking that as up to midnight of the 28th,” says Irish, who has scheduled a teaching class on that date and an event five days before.

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