A cloud pink building stands on an attractive stretch of Queen Street, its rich red doors inviting passers-by to come in and see the art.
It is the newest and third locale from the Corrigan Gallery. Over the past 17 years, the gallery has moved first from another location at 62 Queen St. and then to 7 Broad St. Now she’s back at 38 Queen St., where she wants to stay.
Fresh from its recent renovation, the chic new space honors the building’s past as a mixed-use property, comprising a ground-floor gallery and an upper-floor residence.
It also paints a rosy picture of the potential for Charleston’s future. In ethos and design, form and function, the new company exemplifies what home comforts in Charleston could look like in the future. Property owners with an eye on the local and an investment in their location can take such strategies down to the street and into the larger community in a way that matters to all.
With its proximity to Church Street, the Corrigan Gallery is the little art shop around the corner. A showcase of a century of local art, it features the work of both contemporary artists and the early 1900s Renaissance artists of Charleston who helped transform a declining city into an international cultural hub.
A new home and homecoming
On an August afternoon, gallery owner and artist Les Corrigan showed off her new home, purchased in January 2021 for use as a professional and private dig site. The first floor will house the gallery and the second floor will be their eventual residence after initially being rented out.
As Van Morrison filled the light-filled air, Corrigan led me from one room to a second and third. In the first, a mixed group show by artists with a contemporary bent, shapes, colors and images splattered across the soothing walls. In the second, these passed to others, including works by Charleston Renaissance artists. Most pieces have a local connection, and many find inspiration in the Lowcountry, with nods to the locale that are always different and often subtle.
There are the whimsical works of Mary Walker, often inspired by literature and history, the politically motivated works of Kristi Ryba, the abstracts of Emily Jenkins – a Corrigan newcomer.
A pair of paintings from the Michael Tyzack estate, grouping delicately colored squares, held a space between two front windows. Nearby, a windowsill was dedicated to African sculptures by a collector who had recently reduced in size. Corrigan’s own work is also featured, including a densely textured oil painting of a blue crab hopping solo in deep blue water.
“You can walk through the gallery from 1900 to the present day,” Corrigan said, adding that she will continue to explore this avenue to project this into the future. In the second room, she points to Charleston scenes by legend Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, as well as vibrant, energetic performances by acclaimed abstract expressionist William Halsey.
In the third room, many works bridge the past and present, including works by Manning Williams and Bill Buggel, who first caught the attention of the art world in the 1970s with his groundbreaking Carolina Red Clay creations. Discreetly tucked away in a wall of cabinets is even more art, primed to be pulled out when the conversation calls for it.
past, present and future
The gallery brings together Charleston’s past and present through its refreshed yet historic structure and its blended forms of local artistic expression.
Corrigan’s own past also comes up. Her parents once lived in the house next door, on the corner of Queen and Church. A black and white photograph of the artist as a young child shows her sitting serenely in the very courtyard she now calls home.
The neighborhood kid should become a permanent fixture in the neighborhood. “It’s a good, lively area without being crowded,” Corrigan said. “The only thing missing is a corner store,” she said.
She is by no means the first art world luminary to be drawn to the French Quarter, a term coined in recent decades to refer to the area’s early French Huguenots who lived within the borders of the Cooper River, Broad Street and Meeting Street and Marktstr.
It’s hard to travel half a block and not stumble upon culture. The mother ship, the Gibbes Museum of Art, sits majestically at 135 Meeting St. At nearby 17 Chalmers St., the Pink House once laid claim to the studio of Charleston Renaissance icon Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. The Meyer Vogl Gallery is located in the northeast corner of Queen and Meeting. The Atrium Art Gallery and Robert Lange Studios highlight other venues and the meeting of Principle Gallery Mans.
The performing arts also have plenty to offer art lovers with the Dock Street Theater on Church St. and the Footlight Players a block east on Queen Street. Nearby churches such as the French Protestant (Huguenot) Church, St. Philip’s Church, St. Michael’s Church and the Circular Congregational Church join in the cultural action through choral music and more.
There’s even a café to add to the cultural slugfest. The Harken Cafe at 62 Queen St., where the Corrigan Gallery began, is the perfect place for a lively culture gossip à la café society.
A way forward
Contemporary art also offers a good opportunity to show how Charleston can best move forward, especially when presented in historic buildings and neighborhoods.
Like art, the building has long bridged both uses and epochs, offering a continuum. It’s a mixed bag, with its front from the 1800’s and its back from the 1940’s or 1950’s. It was previously only intended as a gallery for commercial use, a precedent being set there by a former gallery in the 1960s.
Corrigan was keen to honor the historical integrity of the original structure while giving it a contemporary vibe befitting many of the artists it represents. As much space as possible was also needed for the storage of art. She hired Whitney Powers of Studio A Architecture and Huss Construction for the task.
“There was a lot being done in the French Quarter that was kind of half-baked,” Powers said of the additions that hinted at Charleston’s earlier, cash-poor eras. “We found that it was simply built against the building next door. It had no wall.”
Powers came to the project with a strong understanding of mixed-use buildings, both historic and new-build. A recent project included the design of the exterior of the Off Line Court at 84-88 Line St., Charleston Development Co.’s apartments and retail space in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood which includes affordable housing units.
In the development, a towering iris blossom mural by artist David Boatwright climbs a southeast wall. Diamond-shaped wooden railings, inspired by a Spoleto Festival 2016 project conceived by artist Jonathan Green, reference the historically black district.
Such artistic thinking has shaped the Corrigan Gallery. Powers determined how existing windows could be reused to bring in as much light as possible to best showcase the art. For the exterior, they swapped out the stucco for limewashing, a technique introduced in the late 19th century that is more environmentally friendly, if more time-consuming. They contained Corrigan’s favorite shade of pink.
Inside, rooms start out more formal and then loosen up as they move into the third, which houses cabinets where art can be placed casually.
In particular, the Corrigan Gallery and its owner will be an integral part of the neighborhood.
“Especially in terms of reading, their business, their gallery, their residence, it represents a huge commitment to the community,” Powers said, noting that the ubiquity of LLCs has all but eliminated local owners, making the connection became anonymous. Responsibility and commitment to the community.
“We need to cultivate expectation,” Powers said, emphasizing the value of engagement on the street, especially in a city built on commerce and exchange rather than absentee landlords and chain stores who deny the legacy of what is fundamental to Charleston is.
As for Corrigan, she remains hopeful and positive about the city’s future as a place to showcase local art, citing artists like Fletcher Williams III and his work with picket fences. It is, after all, a new narrative spun from the local, as is the case with many of the artist’s works. These home-oriented wooden slats could only build a future.
Whether outside or inside a gallery’s walls, these picket fences can serve as a medium of exchange to revitalize Charleston’s streets. Powers quotes urban planning author Jane Jacobs, who posited that street life is first and foremost about people.
“If you’re ignoring that, you’re ignoring a very important part of city life,” Powers said.
For the architect, the French Quarter promises even more cultural offerings as there is still scope for interpretation of the Charleston experience. First, however, Powers emphasizes that those in Charleston must unite to forge that expectation.
“If we expect it, it will happen.”
For Corrigan, the gallery owner around the corner, it happens right at home. For more information on the Corrigan Gallery, visit corriganallery.com.