Charleston, SC: Gaillard Center Arts Precinct

Artist rendering of a large classical style building
Photo courtesy of David M. Schwartz Architects, Inc.

How can the transformation of a neglected open space help to create a civic destination that supports artistic activity?

For Charleston, South Carolina, a culturally rich city with a diverse array of indoor arts and culture venues, the renovation of a large performance hall, the Gaillard Center, provided an opportunity to reimagine an adjacent open space into an innovative outdoor venue. Doubling as a public park, the new exterior space will allow the community to stage outdoor performances and films, making art more publicly accessible to the whole community.


The coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, has a distinguished cultural landscape. As the state’s oldest city, it's home to many cultural organizations and artists. Each year, the internationally acclaimed Spoleto Festival USA draws dancers, musicians, and actors to Charleston for a 17-day arts festival, underscoring the significant role of the arts in the city. In 2015, the Gaillard Center will reopen its doors following an extensive renovation, returning as a significant performing arts venue.


Because of its well-established arts venues and organizations, Charleston has a committed audience for the arts. The transformed Gaillard Center, originally built in 1968, will enhance the quality and capabilities to attract a wider range of performance events, offering a 2,734-seat theater and exhibition hall in addition to an outdoor venue. Given the Center's proximity to adjacent residential areas, local residents were key stakeholders and sometimes voiced concerns about the nature and number of possible performances and events. On the other side of the conversation, the local arts community was also active in voicing enthusiasm for the project and the additional performance opportunities it provided.


Even though Charleston has a well-developed and diverse set of cultural programs and performances, there was a need to make art and culture more accessible. With so many venues across the city with committed audiences, it was important to bring the arts into the public domain, introducing new audiences to different cultural opportunities. There was also a priority to mark the reopening of the Gaillard Center, framing it as an amenity for the community and inviting Charleston residents to visit the new space. Project managers also knew that an outdoor venue would help to complement the city’s many indoor performance and art spaces and provide for the larger need for more public open space within the city.


The City of Charleston determined that it would build an open-air performance space directly adjacent to the Gaillard Center. They would transform a neglected and underutilized outdoor space into a civic amenity. This new space would expand accessibility to arts in Charleston, and it would also provide added public space year round. As Michael Thomas Maher, the Director of Charleston Civic Design Center (CCDC), said, “by creating an opportunity for outdoor performances in the public realm, the arts will be made more accessible to all.” Calling it the Gaillard Center Arts Precinct Project, the city envisioned that it would become an important new anchor for arts. "It starts to open up whole new ways people think about what can go on in the city,” Maher said. “You could have an afternoon jazz in the park lunch concert or an evening pre-event for the Gaillard, might be an evening string quartet.”

IT STARTS TO OPEN UP WHOLE NEW WAYS PEOPLE THINK ABOUT WHAT CAN GO ON IN THE CITY. - Michael Maher, Director of Charleston Civic Design Center


The City of Charleston originally conceived the vision with the full support of its mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., the 'Dean' of American mayors. The city managed the process through the Charleston Civic Design Center, a department of its city government focused on enhancing the quality of life in Charleston through good urban design. With the CCDC’s design and outreach expertise, it was well-positioned to lead coordination of the design and construction efforts for the park and manage future arts programming decisions. Several nearby schools exist that the city wanted to serve with this new space, so it also worked closely with the Charleston County School District to better know its needs and priorities.
Spoleto USA, the popular arts festival, was consulted as a way to ensure that the Gaillard design and programming dovetailed with the festival’s agenda and enhanced the festival’s capabilities; and the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, an organization created to raise funds for the Gaillard Center, also contributed to the outreach to a broader community.


The Design Center hired a landscape architect, a civil engineer, an electrical engineer, a lighting designer, a public art consultant, and a cost estimator. The team prepared initial schematic designs and masterplans in conjunction with public design workshops. After getting input from the community, the team developed the designs and prepared construction documents. Because the park project happened at the same time as the Gaillard Center renovations, the two teams were in constant dialogue. “The project is closely associated with another project that is under construction,” said Maher, “so the design team, the donor foundation for that project and the City and its capital projects team all were active in the design process for the grant project.” Once built, the city will carry out an assessment to gauge the effectiveness of the project.


The project produced an open space masterplan and a landscape design for the Gaillard Center Arts Precinct. They have put shovels in the ground and begun construction, which is set to be finished in early 2015. Organizers already report improved economic development and commercial activity in the immediate vicinity. CCDC will monitor the number of performances and programs and will track attendance at each event. This tracking will allow them to learn about how to use the new park in the best way possible. Many of the conceptual objectives have already been met. “The project,” as Maher said, “has indeed reached its primary goal of showing how the design of public space can improve the vitality and creative energy of a place.”



The project encountered resistance from adjacent communities that were concerned it would produce undesirable outcomes within the neighborhood (crowds, litter, etc.). Hence, the Center maintained an active community outreach program for keeping stakeholders apprised of plans, making sure that all stakeholder input was heard. At the same time, arts organizations were engaged to advocate for their visions and to help demonstrate how a more vibrant use of public space could enhance everyone’s quality of life. During the design and renovation process, some design ideas were set aside to allay concerns and to strike the right balance between a high-end performing space (from a programming and use standpoint) and a daily community amenity.


Gaillard Center

Often proposed projects can worry adjacent neighbors for fear of increased activity to the area. It is important to keep the conversation with community members going forward in a consistent manner and to focus on the positive potential for change.