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FEATURE ‌ Mr. Smith Comes to Charleston

Mano a mano with the Gibbes Museum's new top dog

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Step into the Gibbes Museum of Art this summer and you'll find a layout that hasn't changed in a long time. In roughly chronological order, the Museum leads visitors through Charleston's artistic heritage with a few side trips to Europe and Asia to give different perspectives on the art.

Despite the Gibbes' long-maintained atmosphere of poise and calm, there's been a whole lot of shaking up going on behind the scenes. New posts have been created, staff members have left, and others have come on board. This upheaval has coincided with the appointment of new Executive Director Todd Smith, filling a void left last September by the departure of his predecessor, Betsy Fleming.

Smith, who spent the last three years as the go-getting executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, was chosen unanimously by the board of directors of the Gibbes and its operating organization, the Carolina Art Association. His appointment was a no-brainer: straddling the worlds of fine art and business, he's as happy discussing Romantic painter Washington Allston as he is the books of business guru James Collins.

With so many people leaving the Gibbes, Smith hasn't had to play axe-man. "People happened to be leaving at the same time I turned up," he says with a wolfish grin. But he has spent the past four months dealing with staff changes under the scrutiny of donors and patrons alike; like a truck with a "How's my driving?" sticker on its bumper, he's asking for criticism.

Rather than lying low, Smith has wasted no time in restructuring departments. Public Relations and Marketing Manager Kelly Linton has been replaced by Fleming's former assistant, Jesse Hendrix, as a communications manager and also by a new hire, Marla Loftus, as director of communications in a new department created by Smith. In addition to promoting the Gibbes, they'll also revamp the museum's website. Smith admits that it will take a year for the site to reach its full potential, with digitized images from the collection and a more interactive edge.

The Visitor Relations staff now occupy the front desk — "After all, they're the first point of contact the public has with us," says Smith. More changes are on the way, with a renewed emphasis on the Gibbes' educational element, an essential part of the institution's mission that will be developed "mainly to get us out into the community."

The Gibbes is also bulging with an ever-growing collection of some 10,000 artworks. Expansion of the current location is a constant consideration. "We don't have enough space to really fulfill our mission," Smith says. "We own the property behind us, the courtyard, and the art school building on Queen Street, and that's it." For the new director, moving into a larger building is not simply a consideration, it's a must.

Another effort to attract a range of patrons and donors who can help beef up the Gibbes' finances is to offer a wider variety of exhibits, with traditional fare juxtaposed with more cutting-edge efforts, like Now!, a contemporary show programmed for mid-October.

Now! will feature artists who were born in the 1970s or '80s and have a loose connection to the South. The art will be some of the most progressive ever seen in the Gibbes, such as video art by Chris Miner and abstracts by Kathryn Refi that distill the painter's daily activities into colors.

"We need to maintain the proper respect for the past," Smith says, "but also move forward, so we don't just have the same kind of show over and over." Smith intends Now! to "challenge the idea of Southern art," while comforting visitors by retaining the regular exhibits they're used to seeing.

Contemporary shows are nothing new at the Gibbes — as Smith likes to point out, when the Carolina Art Association started its collection in the 1850s, the paintings it picked up were contemporary for the original viewers. More recently, Betsy Fleming pushed hard in a progressive direction, realizing that the museum must acknowledge the shifting tastes of future generations in order to survive and remain relevant.

The current exhibition of barn-themed art by Wolf Kahn is a good compromise. Kahn uses a sunny, innocent palette and imbues his subjects with palpable life. His barn studies have a lot in common with Monet's haystack series — the barns all have similar, boxy shapes, but Kahn catches them at different times of day or gives them remarkable personalities. The artist once described barns as looking "very pregnant," and he develops the concept of structures that grow out of the land.

Barns is just the kind of gentle, undemanding show that the Gibbes usually delivers. There's nothing challenging or controversial here — which should make Now! seem like quite a leap.

"We need to be consistent," Smith acknowledges. "But we have people moving to Kiawah and the peninsula from major cities who've seen urban art and are used to contemporary shows." Time will tell whether Smith's plans to expand the Gibbes' education services and web presence overstretch its limited resources, or his exhibition choices appeal to regular visitors. But those with conservative tastes will leave feeling safe in the knowledge that a more traditional show will replace Now! in the new year.

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