Charleston's first arts renaissance

With apologies to one of my heartfelt heroes, Spoleto Festival USA Founder Gian Carlo Menotti, the artistic revitalization of Charleston began long before he got here.

During a walking tour led by Lee Ann Bain for Piccolo Spoleto and the Preservation Society, I learned about some of the visionaries that laid the groundwork for the vibrant creative scene we enjoy today. Pointing out places in the historic district, she told us stories of how the artistic community of 100 years ago used their ingenuity to overcome poverty, attract cultural tourists and form institutions that infused the city with creative energy.

When former Mayor Joe Riley brought us Spoleto, he was not the first one to recognize the power of the arts to create prosperity. After Reconstruction, when the devastating effects of the Civil War were lingering and the First World War loomed, Charleston’s economy was in shambles. The Charleston Renaissance grew from that necessity, inspiring poets, writers, musicians and artists to boot-strap themselves and the city out of poverty.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was a widowed mother of two teenagers. With no income and an aristocratic background, she became a largely self-taught artist who worked 12 hours a day to support her family. Experimenting in a variety of media, she became noted for her colorful etchings and later her watercolors. Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, was one of her students. Alice nostalgically depicted the rural life of the vanishing rice plantations, a past when families like hers reaped prosperity based upon slavery. Talk of romanticizing the past follows her work today but back then she said, “It is useless to try and relive the past just as it is unnecessary to discard everything that came before us.” Together with other women artists, she began the precedent for today’s art walks by printing maps of artists’ studios for patrons to tour on Sunday strolls. Their seductive depictions of the Lowcountry drew tourists, just as similar images do today. The women served tea, entertained the guests and gently sold art. Lee Ann explained that no money could be exchanged on Sundays so patrons had to return the next day to transact the sales.

Innovative programs like “Engaging Creative Minds” provide arts infusion to schools here today but they owe a debt of gratitude to Laura Bragg. In 1920, she became the first woman to run an American museum when she was hired as the director of the Charleston Museum. One year later, against the directive of the museum’s trustees, she welcomed African Americans into the museum. Another of her innovative ideas was “Braggy Boxes,” over five dozen hinged crates that opened to display dioramas. They travelled to outlying schools along with instructional materials. Today, her inspiration is evident in the thousands of students who come to festival performances and visit museums, well informed by background information.

Today we celebrate artists like Jonathan Greene, who depict colorful Gullah life, but that road was paved by African American artist Edwin Harleston. A man of illustrious background, he was valedictorian at Avery Normal Institute and earned degrees in chemistry and sociology under W.E.B. Du Bose at Atlanta University. He was also the first president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. He chose to study art rather than accepting admission to Harvard University, but joined his family’s funeral home business in Charleston in 1913. Snatching what time he could from his daily obligations, he became a leading portrait painter and portrayer of the rising black middle class. Despite his talent, he was spurned by the white arts community. DuBose Heyward based a character on him in Mamba’s Daughters without ever meeting him; he lost commissions because of racial prejudice; Laura Bragg was thwarted when she tried to stage an exhibition of his work. But now he is recognized as a cornerstone of the Charleston Renaissance and his portraits are on permanent display at the Gibbes Museum, a change that Lee Ann calls “reclaiming our heritage.”

Lee Ann’s company began when the Preservation Society asked her to develop a tour about the Grimke sisters three years ago. The popularity of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Invention of Wings” about these suffragists made it quite popular, spurring a company that includes a variety of specialized one-mile walking tours on subjects from graveyards to ironwork to the great earthquake. There’s even a historical treasure hunt for students. Before her extensive research on the Charleston Renaissance Lee Ann says she “…didn’t know these people existed and what they did for Charleston and what they did to get Charleston back on its feet.” There would be no Gibbes or Spoleto without these people, she pointed out. Now, as I walk the quaint streets of our city, especially during the Spoleto Festival, I am grateful for their contributions.

Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see

Charleston’s past…

Several Tours will be offered throughout Piccolo Spoleto, to be held May 25 to June 10.

Daniel Island Publishing

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Daniel Island, SC 29492 

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