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Artistic Port

by Sarah Miller | photos by Arielle Simmons

artwork by Laura Dargan

Every day we see colossal ships make their way along our coast and into the Cooper River. The 5 o’clock somewhere crowd raises their voices over the whistle of trains on the patio of Royal American. Those of us lucky enough to cross the Ravenel Bridge during rush hour watch cranes come to life against a hot pink sky.

Nearly every part of Charleston is impacted by the South Carolina Ports Authority. The subtle hum of this booming industry brings economic growth to our city.

Port II by Kate Hooray Osmond

Originally colonized for the nearly perfect natural harbor, a bustling 1700s Charles Town would have seen a dozen or so tall ships a week. Fast forward to 2019 and a recent study from the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business estimates that the SCPA has a $63.4 billion annual economic impact on our state. Responsible for 10% of the entire state’s economy, including $1.2 billion in state tax revenue, there’s no denying the port’s intricate part in the expansion of our beloved Charleston.

Station 28.5 by Maersk Surabaya

A year before opening my gallery, I started an art consulting company called Canvas Charleston. After many days of strolling South of Broad with curious collectors, I realized that Charleston wasn’t quite large enough to make a living finding art for a mantle or a 700 square foot office. It was very much to my surprise when last summer an architectural design firm asked me to submit an art consulting bid for a new project. They were kind enough to send over the floor plans. 80,000 square feet later I was even more surprised to find myself staring at the SCPA’s new headquarters at the Wando Wench Terminal. Did I see that right? They want me to fill an 80,000 square foot building with art?!

artwork by Fletcher Williams

Sure, some art consultants might have warehouses full of neutral giclées ready for the next U-Haul drop, but that isn’t me. It pains me to see anyone with even a small budget selecting artwork from a big box decor store for their walls. It’s a misconception that all art is expensive. Any of us in the game would be happy to help you find pieces that work within your budget. But I digress.

Eighty thousand square feet. As I read through the request I saw I had a mere five days to get my proposal together. Excited, nervous, and feeling a little out of my league, I took out my notebook and began sketching out my vision. If I managed to win over the SCPA design committee with a locally-sourced line up of artists, this wouldn’t only be my biggest project to date but it may just be the largest corporate collection of Lowcountry artists in the world.

artwork by Emily Brown

After 10 years of working in the Charleston gallery industry, I’ve managed to create a pretty thick mental Rolodex of artists. My approach to a well-rounded collection is “high, low.” When pulling for the high I looked to the local, contemporary big-timers: John Duckworth, Mary Edna Fraser, Kate Hooray Osmond, and Fletcher Williams are some of the established artists that made the pitch. Emerging artists are just as important as big names when creating a representation of the creative fabric of our community, so I turned to gallery websites and Instagram as a resource. The George Gallery’s Heather Jones and Charleston Artist Collective’s Emily Brown added a perfect amount of bold minimalism. Jason Ogden’s drone photography packed the hyper-real punch needed in some of the common spaces. I knew Mitchell Hill’s Stephen St. Claire and local photographer English Purcell’s images of nature would bring serenity to rooms that called for a breath of fresh air.

The Journey by Sarah Miller Gelber

As the saying goes—well, kind of—it takes a village to fill the Ports Authority. Hopeful artists quickly answered my requests for quotes. A presentation came together seamlessly with the help of Charleston’s creative collective consciousness.

A few days later the bid was accepted, and artists were given the green light to create artwork for this monumental project. “From the conception of the project, one of our guiding principles was to embrace our regional impact,” explains Mary Beth Richardson, Director of Financial Planning and Analysis at the SCPA. “Sarah did a beautiful job of blending our core function as a port with our South Carolina roots in a meaningful way. Once we realized the talent that we have within the Charleston area, there was no doubt that this was the direction we would take.”

As Long As The Seagulls Sought The Sea by Marina Dunbar

To date, there are over 90 pieces of original artwork on the walls of the SCPA headquarters. Their decision to support artists and galleries in our community results in impressive statistics, but the impact holds a higher truth. The SCPA shared their strength. Individual lives were impacted. A sculptor supported a local business when buying supplies, which in turn supported another. They helped pay down a school loan. They gave a gallery hope during a slow season. A painter sent her daughter to art camp. A season of rent on studio space was taken care of.

artwork by John Duckworth

Their willingness to utilize the creative talent in their own community is a model I implore other businesses, large and small, to exercise. In a time when it’s frighteningly easy to have all purchases dropped at our door with a click of a button, it’s important to remember that there is a soul behind every piece of original art. That unique soul is connected to others, and, in the end, we’re all connected—bringing to light the SCPA’s motto: The World Connects Here.

Lone by Kate Hooray Osmond

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Posted in Visual on November 15, 2019 (Issue 44: Fall 2019) by Matt Mill.

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