Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art #NEAFall14

The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art may be housed in a modest suite of gallery and office space on the College of Charleston campus, but its reach far exceeds its physical footprint. With a primary focus on artists “in the margins,” as Chief Curator Mark Sloan puts it, the museum shines a spotlight on artists who, given the depth, quality, and imaginative impact of their work deserve to be much better known. As we learned when we spoke with Sloan by telephone, the Halsey deploys a number of strategies to support the artists it shows. Artists receive not only time and space to work at the Halsey in an artist residency, but the considerable resources of the College of Charleston faculty and staff as well as the Charleston community-at-large are available to support the artist’s vision, whether that means technical expertise, help in the studio, participation in conversations with the artist and other events, or even a place for the artist to live while in town. In addition, the organization produces high-quality educational and outreach materials around the artists and their work, including short films, catalogues, and an expansive online presence on the Halsey website. The Halsey recently received an NEA grant to support an exhibit on the work of visual artist and musician Lonnie Holley. In his own words, here is Mark Sloan on the Halsey’s artist-focused curatorial philosophy, the museum’s plan for the Holley exhibit, and how the artists they feature are a little like snowflakes.

Black and white iPhone digital painting of Mark Sloan

iPhone portrait of Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art Chief Curator Mark Sloan by artist David Stern.

On the curatorial philosophy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art…

We have an eclectic program, focused on showing the work of emerging and mid-career artists. We have developed something of a sub-specialty of showing the work of older, oddly overlooked artists. I think a way to characterize our program is that we’re shining a light in the margins where no one else is really even looking. We don’t pay any attention to who’s hot at Art Basel Miami or who’s selling. We’re happy to look at artists and look for artists who are producing really interesting, challenging, difficult work, but that exist outside of the mainstream art world. That’s not to say that we don’t show artists with art-world stature such as Jasper Johns, Shepard Fairey, Leslie Dill, Nick Cave but by showing those artists alongside artists like Aldwyth or Pat Potter or Don ZanFagna or Aggie Zed, we’re bringing attention to and I’m actually raising the level of appreciation for this work.

I like to think of us as being a generative facility. We very rarely take traveling shows. We originate everything we do. And I think that’s unusual for a university gallery of our size. What we do is we generate collaborations. We’re in it for the long game, and hope that the work we do will contribute to the global conversations about contemporary art.

On choosing artists to show at the Halsey…

I don’t work in a vacuum. Though I’m Chief Curator, I don’t just say by executive fiat, “We’re going to do this.” I’m in conversation with a lot of people, a number of colleagues, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally as well, certainly, my staff, my board. The very best source for me for artists that I end up showing are artists that I’ve previously shown or worked with. I do an official ceremony after they’ve shown here. I deputize them as adjunct curators of the Halsey and their job is to find and root out the very best artists there are and to let me know about ones that they think might be good for our program. For example, through an artist named Marcia Cohen, I found an artist named Patricia Potter who is in her late seventies and lives in a tree house she built in the wilderness of northern Alabama. Her work is a little like Joseph Cornell on steroids. It’s incredible work. And, again, she’s never really had much exposure. Her January 2015 show here will be her first solo museum exhibition.


On curating with artists…

I have a sliding-scale curatorial hand. What I mean by that is there are certain shows where I need to help the artist discern which of their many works we’re going to show in the exhibition and they need help with editing themselves. But typically, I work with the artists and it’s a conversation. We together decide what should be in the show and what’s not, and why. It’s all about collaborating and working together to present the work in its best possible light. We like very much to give artists the keys to the castle. We put the emphasis on the artist and the art as opposed to pedagogy or the curatorial voice.

I think there are two ways of thinking about working with artists. One is to give the power to the artist and have trust in them. And the other is a willingness to understand that artists are not always the best judge of their own work. And so there is a little bit of a tightrope that needs to be walked because you give up a certain amount of power. But at the same time, you have to be willing to step in and negotiate if something seems to be going slightly awry. It’s a delicate balance. There is no cookie-cutter approach here.

When we work with artists we really want to be in a supportive role. We say the Halsey is “artist-driven” and we’re here to help. We have incredible resources in the community that we can pull from. And we’ve needed engineers and other professional skills on occasion. Artists have worked with physicists and graphic artists and videographers and all kinds of people that we’ve pulled into the mix where we’ve needed it. We do, when possible, try to create a set of conditions where the artist can do something that they’ve never had a chance to do. For example, Taiwanese artist Long Bin Chen created the largest installation of his career during a two-and-a-half week residency. We gave him 24-hour access to the College of Charleston’s well-equipped Sculpture Studio, and three full-time assistants—two sculpture students, and one sculpture professor.

On demystifying the creative process…

Every exhibition we do, we always bring the artist here. Typically, we ask that they give what we call the evolutionary lecture: “This is who I am as an artist. This is my career trajectory. This is the work I’ve been doing that’s led me up to this point.” And then the next day they do a gallery walk-through and talk more intimately and informally about the work that’s actually hanging on our walls. So that’s part of our educational program.

And then, of course, we do videos and catalogues for almost every exhibition we do and we incorporate some of that same information through these platforms when it seems appropriate. The goal is to provide keys to understanding the concepts and ideas behind the artist’s work because people who come in and see the work may not have any concept of who this person is or what their background is or what the work is about. And so the video is really intended to be a kind of seven- to ten-minute introduction to this artist’s world. One of the pillars upon which the Halsey program is constructed is demystifying the creative process.

We bring in artists who have the capacity to convey their life’s work or their passion with our community in a way that shows that it’s a practice, that it is an ongoing process that they’re involved in. And we provide the community points of contact so that they can actually see them working on this. So we put Jumaadi [a multi-media Indonesian artist] at the Charleston Farmers Market one day and people came and made shadow puppets with him. It was fantastic. We also put him into the academic magnet high school. They produced a shadow puppet performance, a one-evening performance just of student work. Jumaadi and Geoffrey Cormier, a local shadow puppet artist, were the advisors and producers of that event and the students did a beautiful job. Again, the residency program is designed to provide a lens through which our community can look at the creative process.

There’s a wonderful book by Twyla Tharp on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of the principal tenets of that book is to dispel this notion of the artist living the life of a lone creative genius and just only creating work when the muse strikes. And she says she goes to the gym every morning at five o’clock and she gets into the studio at seven and is in there doing work, and that it’s the doing work where the inspiration occurs. It’s by practicing the craft constantly and repetitively that the real breakthroughs happen. That book really spoke to me, because that’s the basic premise of the Halsey program, too.

A young man looks at a wall display of colorful drawings by Don Zan Fagna

Pulse Dome Project--Art + Design by Don ZanFagna, October 19-December 8, 2012

On engaging with the College of Charleston academic and student community…

I program for smart undergraduates. That’s my whole program. I bring things here that I think if I were a smart undergraduate this is something that I think I would want to have encountered. I have an incredible freedom because we’re in an academic institution and we do have K-12 tours and things like that but we’re not a municipal museum and we don’t have the burden of showing the collection of 17th-century porcelain. I’m marketing something that’s quite different. I’m really marketing creativity.

When I book projects for the Halsey I think about the way it will fit within the matrix of other liberal arts offerings that we have here at the college. For example, we did a huge project, which was funded by NASA, having to do with the moon. So we got a $200,000 grant from NASA to produce an exhibition on mapping and exploration of the moon from Galileo to Google Moon. And we completely involved the School of Science and Math--geology and astrophysics and astronomy faculty and students were very involved in that.

We also did a show called Cellblock Visions that was a collection of art work made by prisoners across the United States. The guest curator was art educator Phyllis Kornfeld who teaches art in prisons around the country. We brought Phyllis here and we paired that show with the work of Deborah Luster who is a New Orleans-based photographer who’s photographed prisoners in Angola and two other state penitentiaries in Louisiana. She did a big collaborative project with the poet C.D. Wright, which resulted in the book One Big Self. They interviewed prisoners and photographed them and did these beautiful portraits. We worked with sociology professor Heath Hoffman who teaches courses in criminology and justice. We brought in several sets prisoners in to see the exhibition, some of whom were in orange suits and chains with guys with guns monitoring them. Talk about outreach! And we had a panel discussion on juvenile justice utilizing the expertise of the liberal arts faculty here at the College of Charleston. We do that sort of collaborative programming on a regular basis.

Periodically we present [the upcoming schedule] to the faculty interested in learning what we’ve got going on. We also work with the First Year Experience program, Honors College, and faculty advisors to help integrate some of these things into the curriculum at the college itself. That’s a very, very big part of what we do. And as I say, my first audience really is the smart undergraduate.

On the Halsey’s NEA-supported exhibit of work by Lonnie Holley…

I first learned about Lonnie Holley in 1995-96 when I was putting together the book Self Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments. He’s a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and he had built this four-acre environment out of found materials, what other people might call junk. I didn’t meet him at the time but I had seen hundreds of photos of his sprawling environment which was really quite spectacular. I kind of followed his career and kept up with him, and I would see sporadic sculptures of his or reproductions of his work in a magazine or something. And he was just one of those artists’ whose work I really admired.

I eventually got in touch with a friend who I knew knew Lonnie and put me in touch with him. I went to Atlanta to visit with him last spring, and he was performing that weekend so I got to hear him play his music. He said he had never been in a situation where he was able to actually make music and make his art at the same time. They’ve always been two totally separate things. I thought maybe the Halsey could create an opportunity for him to do both. Lonnie Holley creates assemblage out of found objects, and each of these objects has its own history. Through his art, he creates powerful new narratives, and the story he tells about everything he makes is an integral part of its reception. And so I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate both the narrative and performative aspects into the exhibition itself.

For our exhibition [in fall 2015] we’re using works that Lonnie has produced since the mid-1990s. I had over 250 sculptures to choose from and we photographed 110 for potential use in the catalogue. I’m going to show about 70 works here, but the catalogue may include additional works. Though he has made paintings, prints, and sprawling installations, we’re focusing on his assemblage work. One of the reasons for that is he is a narrative artist in the sense that narratives animate his soul. It’s like he uses these objects to tell stories that he creates. So I felt that it was important to draw attention to that component of his work.

I’ve put together an absolutely amazing all-star team of people to collaborate with the project. In addition to my curatorial essay, we hired the historian Theodore Rosengarten to help Lonnie tell his life story, an amazing life story. We’ve commissioned Leslie Umberger who is the Curator of Self-taught and Folk Art at the Smithsonian, and she’s writing the primary essay about Lonnie’s work, situating him within the broader contours of contemporary art. And we’ve also commissioned Bernie Herman who is a professor of American Studies and Folklore at UNC Chapel Hill to write about the performative aspects of Lonnie’s work. Videographer John David Reynolds will create a short video about the ideas that animate his art. Lonnie’s music will also be heavily featured in the video.

Lonnie Holley fits in the Halsey program because he’s exactly what I mentioned earlier, that oddly overlooked older artist. Because his work defies easy categorization, and we really don’t have a name for it, it has fallen through the cracks. We really don’t have language to go with the kind of work that he does where it’s both show and tell at the same time. And so we’re trying to create a set of circumstances where we will highlight both his art and music, with a strong dose of his poetry and philosophy. He has so much to say to us as a culture.

Installation of lines of scripted text on draped fabric panels as well as on the wall

Lesley Dill, Poetic Visions--From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, January 25-March 9, 2013

Last words…

One of the things that was said about the poet Jonathan Williams that I really liked was that he was a “custodian of snowflakes” and in a sense I’ve sort of embraced that concept because I feel that the artists that we pay attention to and that we provide this treatment for are each a snowflake. They’re delicate and fragile and wondrous in their own way. I have the great opportunity, the great job of being able to present this to the world in a way that is a unique production. We create what I call the 360-degree approach for our artists where we approach it from the different platforms we have--whether it’s the website or the educational brochure, the catalog, the video, the residency. All of these together combine to create something that one hopes has some kind of long-term benefit and resonance with the people who have the opportunity to encounter it. 

Visit the NEA News Room to read more about our fall grant announcement and stay tuned for more stories on #NEAFall14 grantees.



Submitted by Joycelyn Adams (not verified) on

Great article.

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