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Charleston's Southern Hospitality

Charleston’s historic Queen Street.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

The exquisitely curated Spoleto Festival brings, for two-plus weeks every May, top music, dance, and performance to the city, as it has since 1977, and has settled into a comfortable middle age; it’s no longer the all-consuming social phenomenon it was in the 1980’s, when Charleston was smaller, but nevertheless Spoleto is a large part of why the city has risen to become such a tourism powerhouse.

Tourism has, in fact, been the number one industry in Charleston since the 1980’s, and, as ever, residents can be overheard in polite company grousing about the hordes while bragging about their own house’s placement in the upcoming house-tour season. (It’s complicated.)

The latest flash point for debate, though, centers on the cruise ships that anchor at the very heart of downtown. Can our infrastructure handle the strain of an all-inclusive, 1,000-room hotel mooring at the foot of Market Street? Can the valuable fisheries offshore handle the effluent? Charleston owes so much of its aesthetic appeal to having been an innovator in preservation law in the 1930’s; can we lead the country in sustainable cruise-ship practices?

On a recent wintry Monday, Celebrity Cruise Lines’ Mercury was berthed, its double black chimney looming above the steeples of the city. But we were headed to the Restoration on King, an intimate new boutique hotel that itself embodies the story of recession-era Charleston. The site, two 19th-century storefront buildings on King Street, was originally developed for luxury condos but by the time the renovation was complete, the market for seven-figure apartments had vanished. Instead, the investors converted the property into a completely new kind of accommodation for Charleston: 16 modern, apartment-style suites that embrace the texture—weathered brick walls; expansive windows—of early-American commercial-district architecture. Looking out over the storefronts on King Street, we had a sense we’d been in the place before. And then it dawned on us that we had: just a few years ago, our rooms had been part of our friend Will Milner’s painting studio. Back then, Will had borrowed an entire floor of the building, rent-free, from a friend in real estate.

If the time when a friend might loan a painter 3,000 prime square feet in downtown Charleston has passed, the climate for visual artists working in the city has steadily improved. One incubator for the new art scene here is Redux Contemporary Art Center, which offers subsidized studio space and printmaking and darkroom facilities to local artists of all stripes. On a recent Saturday, an open-studio day, the place was a hive of activity, each artist having turned his or her modest studio into an exhibition. Gallerygoers visited with artists, gathered pensively around a sculpture by Greg Stewart featuring wheelbarrows and trophy bucks, and attended an impromptu class in screen-printing handmade cards.

For much of the 20th century, the successful artists in town were painters in the tradition of Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and Alfred Hutty, whose Japanese-influenced watercolor landscapes and genre scenes defined the style of the Charleston Renaissance (and whose prints were once the ne plus ultra in souvenirs). Hutty’s most talented student was William Halsey, who became an abstract painter over the course of his career, and for whom the recently completed Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is named. A number of small independent contemporary art galleries—Eye Level Art and Rebekah Jacob Gallery—have opened in the past few years, concurrent with the rise of Charleston’s most acclaimed artist of recent vintage, Shepard Fairey, the creator-provocateur behind the Obama hope poster. We knew him as “Shep” back when he built a skateboard ramp on the sidewalk in the historic district, blasted Agent Orange cassettes on a boom box, and applied goofy stickers (andre the giant has a posse) to lampposts around town.

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