Mary Jane Jacob arrives at the airport from Chicago around noon. She's in town for a weekend to jury the CofC School of the Art's Young Contemporaries exhibition. She'll grab some lunch, unpack her bag, then dig in to her task. But first she has a stop to make.
"I have a thing at two," says Jacob, a professor and executive director of exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's at the Borough Houses."
Jacob is driven to the Ansonborough neighborhood, where two small, quaint white houses stand resolute near taller modern structures like the main county library and the Gaillard Auditorium.
The main house on Calhoun Street was built in the 1850s by Irish immigrants. Many people pass by the houses; some even read the new historical sign — Jacob is attending the dedication. But few know or remember the part these houses played in Evoking History, a Spoleto art event. In 2002 the house became a community meeting place filled with references to the family histories of past residents. Live and taped oral accounts gave a sense of the importance of the neighborhood to local culture and the people who lived there.
Now Jacob is coming back, her black hair cut no-nonsense short, wrapped in a white jacket slightly crumpled from her flight. Unlike most independent curators, who will work on a project then move on to the next one without so much as a fair-thee-well, she has kept in touch with the Borough owners and has taken an interest in its upkeep. The stop-off is no mere publicity task; she's genuinely concerned with the fate of the houses and the people connected with them.
The three-year-long Evoking History was just the kind of art project/community outreach program that Jacob excels at. Beyond the houses, there were art installations, a Youth Fellows Program, sculptures, and writing projects. Eleven years previously, Jacob curated Places with a Past, also for Spoleto. That show, which used local sites in Charleston as backdrops for art examining the city's history, was so costly, conceptual, and non-traditional that the festival's founder and artistic director Gian Carlo Menotti threatened to resign over it. (Other circumstances led to his ultimatum, such as friction between Menotti and General Manager Nigel Redden. At the same board meeting, Menotti withdrew his threat.)
The group of 17 critically acclaimed installations is still talked about to this day, and its remnants can still be seen downtown. On the southeast corner of America and Reid in the Eastside of the peninsula is "House of the Future" by David Hammons, a sculpture in the form of a skinny little house. This and the more recent "America Street," a park on the northwest corner were "pivotal," says Jacob. "Built with the community, it was a very pregnant signal for what we all hoped this art would do and can do — speak about issues, transcend them, and sometimes unite people into a common dialogue."
Presumably, Jacob will look for a sense of place and identity when she serves as guest juror for Young Contemporaries. She knows how important progress and dialogue is to the students submitting work. She hopes that they will share their sense of history gained through living in Charleston and "the things they see that are very nearby."
This is a benchmark year for the show, open to all current art students. It's the School of the Arts' 20th anniversary and the first student showcase in the pristine new Cato Building. This is a big chance for the entrants to have their work seen and purchased in a well-respected gallery setting.
It's also an opportunity for them to catch the attention of Jacob, who admires the artists and other folk who take the initiative in what she regards as an "energized and still connected community." She also notes of the entries, "Some work was of [Charleston]: its landscape and people. But in looking at about 500 works, many were also of human subjects that transcend place and time, while others were individual expressions — and all of these kinds were in the show."
Although we doubt whether her selections will have even a whiff of the controversy of Places with a Past, we look forward to some extraordinary choices from this high-profile fan of Charleston and its culture.