ADVENTURE AND DARING IN CONTEMPORARY ART

by BILL THOMPSON / photography by RICK RHODES

ART, LIKE LIFE, THRIVES WHERE there is a sense of adventure, of extending one’s gaze beyond immediate perceptions.

In the 25 years since Mark Sloan took the helm as director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, the old maxim has been embraced wholeheartedly.

The Halsey is both an enterprising teaching institution and a global showcase of some of the most arresting work in modern art.

Sloan, ably abetted by associate director Lizz Biswell and their staff, continues to cast a wide net, with the rather surprising result that the Halsey is better known (and more esteemed) outside the state than within. Though this is changing.

Whether it is in its cultivation of new talents, cutting-edge exhibitions, award-winning art books or training programs, the Halsey is the institutional complement to Charleston’s wide array of commercial art galleries. Innovation and daring are its touchstones.

ARTWORK BY NAMSA LEUBA

Q: How would you assay the Halsey’s reputation here and elsewhere?
Sloan: It’s true that we are much better known outside the state than we are in Charleston. The same is true for many artists who are better known elsewhere than they are here. There is a certain mind-set about something happening at a university gallery in the sense of, “Oh, how good could it be if it’s at a college? They only show student work.” So, we try really hard to produce exhibitions of national caliber, often with the participation of internationally renowned writers and Emmy Award-winning videographers in programming and documenting our shows.

Q: You originate all your own programming, do you not?
Sloan: Yes. We don’t take traveling shows from elsewhere, though we do have four of our own traveling shows on the road currently. We do not borrow things from other museums. We collaborate with artists, and we like to premiere things. We are an artist-focused, artist-run institution.

Q: How would you characterize the Halsey’s mission?
Sloan: We are a teaching institution, very proudly a part of the College of Charleston, but we also have our own institutional research framework for the staff as well as for the artists who come here to show their work. We often bring the artists in two years ahead of time and set them up with specialists whose fields they are interested in. They then create their work specifically for this place.

Q: What is the Halsey’s role within the larger art community here?
Biswell: Our place would be easier to define if one is thinking regionally. But locally it’s about bringing interesting contemporary art to the community, rather than showcasing interesting
art that happens locally. We want to expose students and audiences to larger combinations of contemporary art.

Q: Are there consistent criteria for pursuing artists’ work for exhibitions?
Sloan: I won’t say there is a particular brand of contemporary art that we show. We’ve done shows with self-taught artists, savants, visionary artists and prisoners from around the country who are artists, as well as with some of the contemporary artists who are mainstays of New York, like Renee Stout. We curate shows by artists from all over the world who are emerging, in mid-career or oddly overlooked. We are most interested in showing artists who explore what it is to be human and alive in this time.

Q: What has you most enthused about your 2020 events?
Biswell: I think I am most looking forward to our Namsa Leuba exhibition, which represents just one of five of her bodies of work. This is her first solo exhibition.

ARTWORK BY COULTER FUSSELL

Q: Do you feel you have achieved, or exceeded, the goals you established originally?
Sloan: Not even close. There is much more we can do and should be doing. We are a unique facility in that for an academic museum we have no (permanent) collection, so we are really based more on a European model. We do contemporary exhibitions that come in and go out. The world is our stage, though we do show regional and local artists.

Q: What can you tell us about April’s Young Contemporaries exhibit?
Biswell: It will be the 35th year, having been brought here by (the late) British artist and College of Charleston professor Michael Tyzack. Many of the young artists we’ve showed in previous years are now some of our best-known artists in town.

Q: Charleston is now a destination city, but do you still feel geographically isolated?
Sloan: You must make the Halsey a destination. Because of that fact, we do extraordinary documentation on our website (halsey.cofc.edu). We have a tremendous amount of traffic from all over the world. So, we’re truly a global organization, which is located in Charleston. As for the locals, once people discover us, it is like an oasis for them. They love coming here.

Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and design.