The first challenge is finding a parking spot, but -- let's not kid ourselves -- when you're downtown, finding a parking spot is always going to be the first challenge. Then there's the task of navigating the tide of chittering, backpack-toting College of Charleston students who clog the streets like locusts -- a struggle that, if you're a heterosexual male of a certain age, provides an additional set of distractions all its own. Finding the building itself, if you're not familiar with it, is the next test. Color: university-brown brick. Size: medium, three floors. Geographical identifiers: bounded on one side by St. Philip Street and on all others by parking lots (all full, all strictly limited to CofC types, which you discovered earlier when you were looking for a parking spot). Name: the Albert Simons Center for the Arts, an epithet that's about as descriptive as brown is to dirt.
Cleverly concealed behind a two-way glass wall at one end of the first floor of this building -- situated, where it can be easily missed if you choose to blink, next to a pair of doors leading outside, as well as the entrances to not one but two separate theatre spaces -- is a facility known to its intimate coterie of regular visitors as the William Halsey Gallery.
Its namesake was a Charlestonian whose abstract artworks were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. Halsey was also the first person to teach a studio art course at the College of Charleston. Although he passed away in 1999, William Halsey's name remains quite well known in Charleston circles, and his wife, the artist Corrie McCallum, still lives and paints just a few blocks away. The gallery that bears his name, though, is less recognized. In fact, it's fair to say that the Halsey -- though one of the most active, adventurous, and innovative presenters of contemporary art in the city, if not the Southeast -- is something of an unknown to most Charlestonians.
To fully appreciate the irony in that fact, one need only consider that there are more then 100 galleries in Charleston, and for the overwhelming majority of them the only thing that changes from one week to another is the designer fashions on the tourists who frequent them. The Halsey, though, is actually less a gallery than what director and senior curator Mark Sloan calls a modern European-style facility called a kunsthalle.
"The concept is to do explosive, innovative, temporary exhibits that make a big impression," he says. "They come and go pretty quickly. And the only residue afterward is the catalog or the website, and, of course, what lingers in the viewer's mind."
In this tradition, the Halsey has no permanent collection of its own but instead presents anywhere between six and 10 significant original exhibits a year, many of them the product of its international artist-in-residence program and a visiting artist program. Sloan also presents a regular slate of lectures and film screenings at the facility, manages an ambitious publication program, and makes sure the Halsey's website is as up-to-date as possible, technologically and archivally.
"The word 'gallery' implies that we're located and limited to a gallery program," Sloan says. "But I've curated a number of exhibits at places like the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, where we've done three shows for them. And also with Redux [Contemporary Art Center]. We've put artwork in businesses on King Street like RTW and Magar Hatworks. We take our artists out into the schools. So we've extended our footprint out into the city quite a lot more than a typical gallery."
Despite the Halsey's active community presence, Sloan says that few Charlestonians take advantage of the facility the way he'd like to see happen -- which also means there are fewer patrons supporting it financially. That's partly due to the Halsey's location, he says, with the two-story exhibition space tucked away in a corner of the Simons Center with no street presence at all. But, as he suggests, it may also be a problem of semantics.
The first of those problems is about to become moot with the construction of the new Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts next to the Simons Center, where the Halsey will occupy the entire first floor, boasting a new gallery twice its existing size, dedicated spaces for multiple exhibitions, exhibition preparation, research, and related activities, all with temperature and humidy control. The second problem, the one Sloan attributes to semantics, has already been corrected: the William Halsey Gallery, as of this week, is no more. The facility is now known as the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.
It's all part of an effort on Sloan's part to ramp up promotion for the Halsey and its programming -- and its wide-open membership opportunities.
"We're crafting a new image," Sloan says. "We're rebranding ourselves."
And not a moment too soon, apparently. The Institute has a budget of a little more than $100,000, but only about 30 percent of that -- enough to cover basic programming and the salaries of Sloan and curator Katie Lee -- comes from the College of Charleston. The rest, Sloan says, he must raise himself from outside sources like granting organizations and private individuals. A chief funding source dried up last year when the S.C. Arts Commission discontinued its support, claiming that since the Halsey was already "supported" by a state-funded college, additional money from the Arts Commission amounted to double-dipping.
The CofC funding, Sloan says, while important, has remained flat for the past five years. "In real dollars," he says, "that amounts to less support today than five years ago, because all other real costs to us have gone up a lot over those same five years. So we lost the money from the Arts Commission, and the money we get from college is at a lower level in real dollars."
What's more, individual patrons are scarce; until now, Sloan's membership recruitment campaign has been mostly limited to a donation box (generally empty) in the exhibition space.
Sloan's solution? Throw a party, naturally.
On Thursday, the Halsey Institute will celebrate the changing of its name with a special event they're calling the Blue Moon Bash (see City Picks, page 23). The party starts with a wine and hors d'oeuvres reception and an introduction to the Institute's new Patron Print Program; a chance to become a member of the Halsey; live music; and an opportunity to view the current exhibition Cooperation of Pleasures: the Paintings of Julie Evans and Barbara Takenaga, guest curated by Brian Rutenberg. That'll be followed by a special screening of the film Mana: Beyond Belief in the Emmett Robinson Theatre, with director Roger Manley on hand for a post-viewing Q&A.
"We're trying to change the tide here," Sloan says, with cautious optimism. "We've been giving it away for so long, and so people tend not to value it as much because it's been free. But if people knew how hard we work and how many grants we write and how much sleep we've lost..."
He sighs. "It's difficult because people are used to giving to the symphony and the theatre and the Gibbes and Spoleto, but not to an independent unit in the college. And so I'm trying to change that culture."
Find out more about the Halsey Institute's new name, membership packages, the Blue Moon Bash, and an archive of past exhibitions at www.halsey.cofc.edu.