State of the ArtWest Ashley’s art scene is also experiencing revitalization
February 16, 2017
By Lorne Chambers | Editor
Recently, Mt. Pleasant City Council voted 4-3 to have a mural by a renowned international artist removed from the exterior wall of a locally-owned business. It wasn’t the only piece of public art that council targeted either. So as Mt. Pleasant continues to whitewash its public spaces, West Ashley is proving to be the cooler, edgier brother to downtown, whose art scene is bolstered every year by the presence of Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto. But some of that “fancy” downtown art is making its way across the Ashley River where there is an underground art scene flourishing as galleries and theatres have popped up in the most unlikely of places — back alleys, shopping malls, coffee shops, and downtrodden storefronts.
The word “revitalization” is often used when talking about West Ashley these days. But when mayor John Tecklenburg spoke to the West Ashley-James Island Business Association (WAJIBA) last January, shortly after being sworn in, he used the word “renaissance” for the West Ashley area. By definition a renaissance is a “cultural rebirth,” or “revival of art, architecture, literature.”
The Renaisance Era was a period in European history, from the 14th to the 17th century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. It was defined by shifting views on art, architecture, and politics. Having a mayor who is actually from West Ashley certainly represents a shift in politics. For 40 years prior to Tecklenburg, former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. helped make downtown Charleston a cultural hub that is now considered one of the top cities in the world. But some of that came at the neglect, if not the expense of the other areas of Charleston, particularly West Ashley. But as the 2016 winner of Nobel Prize in Literature once famously said, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Not only is Tecklenburg a West Ashley resident, he’s also a musician with a stong appreciation for the arts and for bringing more to West Ashley. This January when he returned to speak to WAJIBA, he talked less about an idealistic, philosophical shift for West Ashley and more about real changes the area was experiencing. He touted the first-ever TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) district created specifically for West Ashley, which will pump nearly $40 million into the Sam Rittenberg Boulevard corridor over the next 20 years. As part of that plan, he talked about creating a city park on the property where a proposed gas station was met with resistance by residence. He said he hoped to see concerts in that park, where people from the nearby neighborhoods could walk over and hear live music and other performances.
On Wednesday, Feb. 22, WAJIBA explores West Ashley’s art scene even further by hosting a panel discussion about the state of West Ashley’s art scene. The panel will include Geoff Richardson, founder of chART (Charleston Outdoor Art Initiative), Susan Irish, owner of Fabulon Gallery and Center for Art and Education, Jason Olson, executive director of 5th Wall Productions, Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts, and Scott Watson, director of Cultural Affairs for the City of Charleston. The event is open to the public and will be held from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. in the banquet room at Bessinger’s BBQ, located at 1602 Savannah Hwy. Cost $is free for WAJIBA members and $20 for non-members and includes a buffet lunch.
Bradley Adams was born and raised in West Ashley and now serves is the president of WAJIBA. He is also co-owner of A&A Insurance on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and has several friends who are artists living in West Ashley. He sees West Ashley’s fledgling art scene as a sign that the region is changing for the better. “We don’t want to be like Mt. Pleasant and paint over our public art installations. We want to celebrate them,” he says. “But we also need to plan how to nurture the art community moving forward as the region continues to grow.” And that is the focus of WAJIBA hosting the “West Ashley State of the Arts” panel discussion. Adams says the discussion will look at the importance of the arts in the revitalization of West Ashley and what is the future of art in West Ashley.
Richardson will lead the discussion. He’s a veteran of the local theatre scene and owner of Lava Salon in the Avondale Business District. He is also the driving force behind the mural gallery behind his and other shops in Avondale along Savannah Highway. He has been paying close attention to the mural battle in Mt. Pleasant.
“The great irony is that because West Ashley has been largely ignored, we’re not as bound by as many rules as Mt. Pleasant,” he says. “West Ashley wants this sort of stuff, it is part of our identity. chART is an example that West Ashley wants it. Fabulon is an example that West Ashley wants it.”
Since opening on Wappoo Road in the summer of 2015, Fabulon has become one of West Ashley’s cultural centers with its owner, Susan Irish, taking an active role in cultivating the arts in West Ashley. She helped start the West Ashley Arts Initiative (WAAI), a group of artists and proactive citizens wanting to bring more Arts to West Ashley and highlight the things that are already here, like Fabulon, the chART mural gallery, and 5th Wall Productions, West Ashley’s only theatre group that operates out of a space in the Citadel Mall.
It is efforts like WAAI that is spurring the local art scene in West Ashley. “It is part networking and part planning,” says Irish about WAAI. “First we made a list of what was here and what was needed. Then we set to try to bring some of the wish list to a reality.”
Scott Watson, the director of Cultural Affairs for the City of Charleston says it’s more than just bringing art to an area. “We can drop talent in, parachute it in, but we would rather cultivate art from the community,” he used the success of the West Ashley Farmer’s Market as an example. “It wasn’t because people didn’t have access to kale, it was because it was a community thing that people came out and support it,” says Watson, who says art has to come from the community in order for a city to have a vibrant art scene. It is culture building through community.
While a community must build it’s own art, art also builds a community, says Irish.She says if we’re revitalizing the region and don’t take the needs of the people, the arts, and artists into consideration we are missing an opportunity and would not be demonstrating fiscal responsibility.
“Economically, the Arts have proven to bring tourist dollars. This may or may not be a West Ashley priority but it is fact and a goal of Charleston on the peninsula. So it should be in West Ashley’s planning, too,” she says. “It will have an impact on West Ashley one way or another.“We should have a say in just how it impacts us, ideally in a positive manner. We don’t want to be the parking lot for Downtown or be ignored because the peninsula gets all the funding and infrastructure priorities.”
Watson, whose department organizes Piccolo Spoleto every year, says he’d like to see more official art events West of the Ashley. For the last two years chART-O-Rama has taken place in Avondale as part of Piccolo, bringing a host of art-related events to that area over the course of several days. Last year, a simulcast of the live Spoleto performance of Porgy & Bess was broadcast on a giant screen at West Ashley High School; it was the first time anything Spoleto has taken place in West Ashley.
Mike Gibbons, execituve director of the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts, sees art as a key component of an area’s revitalization. “From the look of the architecture and public artwork to the general energy that comes from a vibrant performing arts scene, a community that embraces an artistic resurgence will be so much more healthy and robust,” says Gibbons. “Find any thriving community in the country, and you will find a growing and dynamic arts scene.”
Irish agrees with Gibbons. “It is a proven fact that the Arts — public art as decoration, outlets for expression, classes, places to display, places to work, places to buy, attend performances, see at low cost, experience outside of own culture or comfort zone — are a basic human need,” she says. “The arts gather people and offer opportunities for sharing across socioeconomic and educational lines. The arts can offer educational opportunities and West Ashley has a chance to offer experiences in the arts for the demographics of West Ashley. We must acknowledge that there is a diverse structure here and we have an obligation to meet the needs of all West Ashley citizens.”