In Charleston, we believe art is the difference between merely existing and being truly alive.
In 1888 Charleston James Gibbes bequeathed funds for the founding an art museum in the city of Charleston. His vision for what would become the Gibbes Museum of Art was to create a cultural touchstone for the war-ravaged city. In the late 1800s, when Charleston was reeling from the Civil War and young people were leaving in droves, Gibbes saw a way forward in art and education. The Gibbes Museum of Art opened its doors to the public in 1905.
Today the Gibbes remains the edifying underpinning of this thriving Southern city. Its mission has expanded to tell the story of American art and to connect Southern artists to the national narrative. Its outreach is vast and multifaceted, with education at its core. Boasting over one hundred programs a year—from panel discussions to film screenings, from lectures to food festivals—the Gibbes is the beating heart at the center of a vibrant and robust artistic community.
Art is the lifeblood of any society. “Look around the world and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a thriving city without an accredited art museum,” says Angela Mack, executive director and chief curator. “They are temples in their own right.” Art is the identity and cultural expression of a place and people. Art institutions, especially those as dynamic as the Gibbes, are one of the great keystones of community. The tone set in the lectures and hallowed hallways of a city’s beloved art museum reverberates out to the larger cultural mien, affecting the quantity and quality of live theater, dance troupes, art galleries, and even innovative restaurants.
At its inception the Gibbes boasted two grand gallery floors while the bottom floor was dedicated to studios for working artists. In the 1930s, the first floor was converted to gallery rooms, and for nearly a century this configuration remained. But in 2016 the Gibbes underwent a major renovation on its bottom floor, reinstating the artist studios that served as the foundation for James Gibbes’s original vision. Today, the Gibbes Museum hosts visiting artists for two weeks to six months. “This program offers us an opportunity to reengage with living artists,” explains Mack. “People are so interested in understanding the creative process.” You can actually drop in on visiting artists, watch them work, and ask them questions about their process. It is this kind of authentic rapport between institution and community that makes the Gibbes so special—no ivory tower of long dead masters but a dynamic, living body, striving for relevance and connection.
This philosophy also lives at the heart of the museum’s lecture and event programming. “Our themes often center around conservation and the environment, health and wellness, innovation, and social justice,” says Mack. “We choose topics we think Charlestonians will be interested in. We want to get people to see things differently through the visual arts.”
In November the Gibbes hallmark Distinguished Lecture Series will feature Fred Wilson. Wilson has been the United States representative for both the Venice and Istanbul biennials and recently joined the Whitney Museum board of directors. In past years the Gibbes has hosted the likes of Jeff Koons, Olivier Picasso, and Leonard Lauder. The lectures sell out and are the cornerstone of the museum’s annual calendar..
This fall the Gibbes will also host two concurrent exhibitions. The first will feature the work of Robert Rauschenberg, a photographer and multimedia artist who came to Charleston in the early 1980s. The museum actually exhibited his photographs in 1981. In the following decades, Rauschenberg incorporated these photographs into larger mixed-media pieces. “Rauschenberg in Charleston will explore what type of eye he brought to the city,” says Mack. “He was attracted to the textures and juxtapositions, and his work asks you to look at Charleston in a very different way.”
Influence and Inspiration: The Art of Jill Hooper, Ben Long, and Frank Mason will also open in early September. This lineage of realist painters are connected by decades of friendship and mentorship. Frank Mason taught Ben Long who mentored and taught Charleston artist Jill Hooper. “These long, deep professional relationships underscore the importance of collaboration among artists,” says Mack. “Which is something we try to foster at the Gibbes.”
Governed by a board of forty-three and an administrative staff of twenty four, a fleet of smaller boards and committees also support the Gibbes. Five standing committees help manage the nonprofit in the areas of finance and governance, while several additional ad hoc committees curate specific events. In addition, two large auxiliary groups assist with event planning, fundraising, and scholarships.
The Gibbes offers countless interactive programs, partnering with local schools and the College of Charleston. And they provide summer camps and after-school programs for kids ranging from kindergarten to high school age. Even the casual young museumgoer can check out a special backpack to guide a scavenger hunt through the museum. At the college and post-graduate levels, the Gibbes offers a comprehensive internship program and has seen its alums go on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The Gibbes Museum aims to connect Charleston within the larger context of the canon. “Our desire is to tell the story of American art from the perspective of this region,” says Mack with a smile, “while also including that perspective into the story of American art.” It is in this way that the Gibbes acts as a sort of cultural liaison between the oeuvre of Charleston and that of the nation. In the words of Pablo Picasso, Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Art is the very thing that makes us human.