Monday, August 10, 2009

Walking the walk

A few days ago, I went to Greenville for the gallery crawl in the Pendleton Street Arts District.
I haven’t spent much time in Greenville recently and when I have it has been to see exhibitions at the Greenville Count
y Museum of Art or Hampton III Gallery, see a performance at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts Center or go to the Bob Jones University art museum.

A few years ago, I went to the Art Bomb, a former mill town community center that is now filled with artists’ studios. Since then the rest of the area around Art Bomb has turned into an emerging arts area.

During the recent cr
awl, about 30 galleries, studio/galleries, artists studios and slightly more retail-oriented, art connected businesses open their doors. (The crawl is held the first Friday of the month most of the year.) The quality of work in the studios and galleries varies greatly. Some is highly commercial representational work, some very amateurish and some quite well-done and engaging. Along with the individual galleries and studios, Upstate Visual Artists also has a space, an old house, giving the area an institutional anchor.

One of the artists in the area is Mark Mulfinger, a long-established and very accomplished printmaker and painter. His cramped space (left) is piled high with art covering just about ever surface with paintings leaning on one another and against everything.

Artist Gle
nn Miller has a clean open space (top right) and he’s working on a series of large paintings of South Carolina musicians which will be part of an exhibition (and performances by some of the players) at the Pickens County Museum.

Angie Carrier-Schmerbeck, who re
cently moved back to South Carolina, has a shop where she makes, shows and sells paintings as well as clothing.
The Light and Art Gallery has a wide range of things – from paintings to vintage furniture (and on the recent night, Columbia writer Janna McMahan signing copies of her novels.)

If not all the art was great, the setting sure is.

Pendleton Street is a funky mix of the newly-arrived artists bumping up against barber shops, a bright yellow and green diner where you order at the window and eat on a bench outside and a faded, but fully-occupied shopping center.

This is a prime example of an emerging art district pre-gentrification. It reminds me of North Davidson Street in Charlotte circa 1995.

Take Pendleton back toward downtown you’ll soon be in the West End area of Main Street which is all pretty darn fancy these days, although not too many years ago it was a lot like Pendleton Street.

The redevelopment of the West End and the central part of Main Street started about 20 years ago when the Peace Center opened and really took off when Falls Park on the Reedy River was developed and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities opened nearby.
I was walking around with a friend who lives in New Mexico and she noted about how reasonably priced much of the art was. I told her that wasn’t just Santa Fe and Taos talking – the prices were fair for the South Carolina and North Carolina market.

The same night a Columbia artist, Susan Lenz Dingman was in Asheville for the gallery crawl there. That’s in the old heart of downtown with everything from the high-end, long-established Blue Spiral Gallery to a bunch of artists’ studios/galleries in the former Kress and Woolworth stores. All the places are within walking distance of one another and unlike Pendleton Street it has plenty of nice places to eat and drink. (If that green and yellow diner had been open, I would have been art the window.)

The arts are very much part of the definition of
Asheville, so they don’t always get driven out by the gentrification they started.

“The quality was good and there was interesting use of materials,” Dingman told me. “There were things I was tempted to buy.”
Dingman writes on her blog “Art in Stitches." (See the link top the right.)

"Quite affordable work was on display in both the refurbished Woolworth and Kress buildings. These old structures were subdivided into individual artists’ booths. Though the quality varied, the creativity was remarkable. Recyc
led materials stood beer carton books (from $6.50) and the soft sculpture toys at Canoo (made from socks and sweaters, each individually names, and none over $37).”

A few days before I went to Greenville, I was talking to someone in Columbia about various things, when the subject of gallery crawls came up.

She couldn’t understand why Columbia doesn't do more than two a year in the Vista. Actually, there’s only one.

Vista Lights once had a strong art component, but now it is mostly a prelude to holiday shopping.
Artista Vista was created about 20 years ago to fill the art gap and during its early years had lots of art that spilled out of the galleries onto the street and into vacant buildings.

As the Vista began rapidly developing, most of the art moved back into the galleries. (Despite the view from construction cranes and bulldozers there are still plenty of empty buildings in the Vista and some are buildings that used to be occupied.)

I expressed the same concern to gallery owners and artists in the Vista many years ago. They told me, the gallery walks are labor intensive and expensive and they had no interest in doing more. Others say the galleries can never agree on what they should do and just do something and get it over with.

Looking around Columbia, the only place that lends itself to a gallery crawl is the Vista, where there are about half-a dozen galleries of some sort, as well as the State Museum. Only those in the core of the Vista (City Art, if Art, Vista Studios) are within walking distance of one another. So many non-art places in dominate the Vista that even during a gallery crawl the non-art crowd outnumbers those there for the crawl. (Just like how homeless people outnumber others on Main Street during a good portion of the day.)

The time to add more gallery crawls in the Vista has passed.

So, I wonder, why hasn’t a new art area emerged in Columbia? We saw some possibilities a few years ago in the area of Rosewood where residential gives way to industrial, but that petered out.

The Olympia and Granby mill villages with their cheap rents have always attracted artists and when the former mill town community center was turned into Gallery 701 in the late ‘90s, it looked like that might all take off. But then the roof of the building collapsed and it was empty for years.

The center has now been reborn as 701 Whaley, the second floor of which houses
The 701 Center for Contemporary Art. While a few businesses and office are located in the building, it is not full of artists but wasn’t intended to be.

Even though there are still plenty of cheap houses and buildings in the mill villages it is getting scarce. A decade ago a big apartment complex was constructed between Granby and the River and in the last couple of years two huge apartment complexes have gone up on the Assembly Street side of Olympia. The USC fraternity and sorority village and the Colonial Center have eaten up all the industrial parts of the neighborhood and the university recently built its mega baseball field on the river just a couple blocks away from 701 Whaley.

For urban pioneers that land is gone, gone, gone.

The benefit of living in a university town and capital is you get a lot of cool things you don’t have to pay for directly (concert halls, museums, theaters), but those entities eat up a lot of land leaving few opportunities for the little guy.

The other logical place for an arts area is in West Columbia around State Street with its mini-Main Street. Some of those attractive storefronts are vacant, but there are also some long-established businesses there that make it appealing. And just around the corner on Sunset you’ll see a couple of empty buildings that look prime for studios and galleries as long as you don’t mind smelling the chicken plant, as well as an old shopping center with a store where all artists I know shop – the Habitat for Humanity resale shop.

It may be too late for this area as well with the McMansion development along the West Columbia/Cayce Riverwalk and the construction around the old brickyards near Knox Abbot Drive.

North Main Street was in play a number of years ago, but it never took off. A committee formed by the city about five years recommended developing an artists village around the Township Auditorium as it was renovated. The large plan didn’t go far (and also kind of killed the North Main proposal.) While there has been some art movement in that area, again, much of the land is tied up and most of the former houses there occupied by businesses.

This area abuts the State Hospital grounds before long will be up for redevelopment. If you want to know the role the arts will play in this, just head down to the former Central Correctional Institution site. That former prison site and once publicly owned land is located in the Congaree Vista overlooking the Columbia canal and the Congaree River and is sandwiched between the State Museum and EdVenture and the Marionette Theatre.

The land is now filled with high end condos and townhouses.

So one might ask, is there a place in Columbia for an arts community to take the place of what the Vista once was? I’ve been thinking about the options and they don’t look good.
But maybe I’m missing something. I hope so.


  1. There's also the visual arts village that Clark Ellefson was working on behind the One-Eared Cow on Huger. That appears to have stalled with the economy.

    I'm hoping to open up my own dance and circus arts studio in the next year or two, and looking at Columbia real estate has not left me with a definitive answer of where to put it. I want to add to the arts community with my location, and also benefit from having other artists, coffeeshops, etc. nearby. I wish we had affordable live/work lofts like the dancers and artists in downtown Asheville do, but developers here seem to have put all their money into expensive condos that sit empty. If I win the lottery....

  2. Not only that, Jeffrey, but CanalSide managed to have less character than CCI did. No way I'd pay that amount of money (if I had it) for something so antiseptic.

    Do arts districts happen on their own and become that or are they forced into being? Chicken/egg all over again.

  3. Jeffrey, your point about there not being a natural or central arts area is well taken, but that doesn't preclude the gallery crawls we were talking about.

    In Portland, OR, for example, there are a number of separate arts areas (it's Portland, after all), and they still manage a thriving monthly crawl. Folks just move from one area to the next. In fact, there are some nights when Columbia realizes something of a mini-crawl itself, as patrons hit the Vista galleries, swing by Main Street then drive on over to Whaley. It's not ideal, but at least it's happening. And certainly Mark Plessinger's efforts to bring working artists and their easles to Main Street is a step in the right direction, making artists visible to folks who might not know they are there.

    The answer to whether arts districs happen on their own or are they orchestrated is that they typically do result from a gentrification process during which artists reclaim low-rent areas, spruce them up and are eventually forced out as the rent rises. But that doesn't have to be the case. Concerted efforts on the parts of artists and patrons at the grass roots level is evident all over the country. It can happen here.

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