For the past quarter-century, the Halsey director and chief curator has taken chances, championing the odd and overlooked, and in doing so, transformed a small college gallery into an internationally known hub of contemporary art
It’s hard to forget the Soundsuits. The surreal, oddly gorgeous costumes by Chicago artist Nick Cave took Charleston by storm, and by surprise, in 2010, delivering a head-scratching wow—part haute couture fashion show, part mishmash of elaborate crochet meets African tribal artistry meets some kind of avant-garde furry garb from the Star Wars bar scene.
The exhibit, “Call and Response: Africa to America/The Art of Nick Cave and Phyllis Galembo,” was a cross-cultural celebration of mystical wonder, and a timeless show, it turns out, as resonant today as it was a decade ago. Cave, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, created his wearable, almost shamanic sculptures as a means of masking identity to protect against violence and prejudice—his response to the racially charged 1991 killing of Rodney King in Los Angeles. But even if you missed the subtext, you couldn’t miss the stunning visual impact.
“You expect to find 250-year-old crown molding but perhaps not a Nick Cave Soundsuit here in the middle of historic Charleston,” says Mark Sloan, a master of presenting the unexpected. For more than a quarter-century, the unexpected is what Sloan has sought out and delivered as director and chief curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. He’s exhibited well-known artists such as Cave, Shepard Fairey, and Jasper Johns, as well as many more lesser-known yet equally engaging artists whose works have delighted, challenged, and occasionally mystified viewers.
Consider, for example, the exquisite doilies of salt, laboriously laced across the Halsey’s floors during the 2012 site-specific installation, “Return to the Sea: Saltworks” by Japanese contemporary artist Motoi Yamamoto. Viewed from a specially constructed platform, it was as if Yamamoto was a Poseidon with the most delicate touch, spilling majestic sea foam across the gleaming gallery floor. After two weeks, the artist swept up the salt, then recreated the time-intensive installation as the exhibit traveled to five other locations in California and North Carolina. It was as much a guided meditation as an art show, a testament to process, discipline, curiosity, boldness, and the ephemeral nature of beauty, the otherworldliness of art. In other words, the world of Mark Sloan.
Sloan’s 37-year career in the arts has been a journey of constant discovery—and constant work. As an artist and author, he’s drawn to somewhat off-kilter photographic subjects, such as the circus world which he captured in his 2002 book, Wild, Weird, and Wonderful. As a curator, he’s hands-on, or feet-on, venturing to far and sometimes forgotten corners. His preferred exploratory mode is not scrolling the Web but what he calls his “walkabouts,” immersive excursions to major US cities and to countries such as Ghana, Italy, Bosnia, and Japan. “I spend time meeting people who recommend artists to me; going to shows, studios, and just being open to whatever I encounter,” he says. “It is a very intuitive process for me.”
Nick Cave’s Soundsuits in the “Call and Response: Africa to America” exhibit in 2010
In 2003, he secured a Carpenter Foundation grant to fund a three-week “walkabout” to Japan, for which he had scouted some 300 artists. He interviewed 38 of them with the aid of an interpreter and ultimately brought 10 to Charleston for simultaneous six-week residencies as part of the Halsey’s “Forces of Nature” show in 2006. Yamamoto was one of those artists.
“When I first met Mark in a hotel lobby in Tokyo, I thought he was this really tough, macho American guy, but through talking with him using my rusty broken English and eating Ramen noodles in Akihabara together, I gradually discovered how warm he really is and how passionate he is about his work,” Yamamoto says. After the 2006 group show, Sloan invited Yamamoto back for the solo “Saltworks” in 2012, a pivotal point in the artist’s career. “Had I not met Mark when I did, I would not be doing what I’m doing today as an artist. This is not an exaggeration,” Yamamoto says. “Observing how he communicates with people and how he thinks has taught me so many things. He has motivated me to challenge new things, always do my best, and keep moving forward regardless of what I face in my life.”
Sleepy College Gallery
The “walkabout” approach aligns with how Sloan and his wife, the photographer Michelle Van Parys, landed in Charleston in 1994, 10 years after the college’s art gallery was named in honor of William Halsey, Charleston native and noted abstract painter who was CofC’s first, and for a long time, only fine arts professor. “It was basically a sleepy college gallery,” says Sloan of the two small exhibition spaces that primarily showcased faculty, alumni, and student art. “My wife and I considered ourselves migrant art workers. We came here thinking we’d be here maybe three to five years, then we’d move on,” says Sloan, a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and graduate of the University of Richmond with an MFA in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Prior to Charleston, he had served as director of Charlotte’s Light Factory, then moved west to be the associate director of San Francisco Camerawork for three years, followed by a few years writing and publishing photography books, then a two-and-a-half year stint as director of the Roland Gibson Gallery at SUNY Potsdam. The appeal of warmer weather initially piqued his interest in the College of Charleston job opening. Now, 26 years later, his “itinerant” career has clearly grown roots—and grown the Halsey.
Mark Sloan—on being a curator:
“Our annual program budget was $11,000 when I first got here,” recalls Sloan, who was hired as the gallery’s sole administrator and director, though he split his time between the Halsey and as a faculty member, teaching two courses per semester. Today, that sleepy gallery has evolved from the Halsey Gallery into the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, with an annual operating budget of just under $1 million and Sloan overseeing a full-time staff of six and an internship program. In 2009, the Halsey moved into a new and expanded facility, more than doubling its footprint. Once tucked in the back corner of the Simons Center, the airy centerpiece of the Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts now fronts Calhoun Street, welcoming the public.
“We opened (the new facility) with the Aldwyth show, one of my favorites of all time, and one of my favorite artists of all time,” says Sloan of the now 84-year-old collage and assemblage artist who had lived and worked for decades in relative obscurity near Hilton Head and whom Sloan discovered thanks to a lead from Harriett Green at the South Carolina Arts Commission. When he first visited Aldwyth’s tiny octagonal glass house on the marsh, “It was a bit like walking into Tut’s tomb. A discovery of enormous magnitude. These gigantic collagic works and these beautiful, intricate, delicate assemblage works,” Sloan told the Pittsburgh Foundation, which last year named Aldwyth the winner of the prestigious Eben Demarest Fund award and grant.
Aldwyth’s collages and constructions, like the art that Sloan is repeatedly drawn to, are unusual, highly conceptual, and complex. “He likes art that makes your brain hurt,” says local graphic designer Gil Shuler, who has collaborated with Sloan on Halsey graphics and book design. “It’s all work of the highest caliber, and all a bit edgy—some very edgy. Again and again, the artists Mark has introduced to Charleston challenge the status quo and expose injustice in all its forms and fashions,” adds College of Charleston colleague Dale Rosengarten, a former Halsey board member.
For Aldwyth, meeting Sloan was a game changer. “It was the first time I’d ever had anyone be that responsive to my work,” the enigmatic artist says. “Mark immediately started planning a show with two other collage artists, then in 2009, he offered me my first solo show. It was fabulous, the highlight of my career. It put me on the map,” she adds.
Taiko Charleston drummers perform at one of many unique Halsey openings
“Providing important first shows for emerging, mid-career, and oddly overlooked artists has been an important niche the Halsey has filled,” says Sloan. The sensory immediacy of interacting with art and creating opportunities for unique exchanges between artists and the community excites him. He loves bringing the Halsey’s featured artists to Charleston, often for extended residencies which include educational outreach to area schools. “It’s the opposite of artists parachuting in,” notes Sloan, who occasionally has hosted artists at his own art-filled home.
Early in his Halsey tenure, Sloan says he began to appreciate the “productive friction that you can create by putting contemporary artists in a historical situation.” He wrote grants to expand international programming, capitalizing on Charleston’s backdrop as a port city and cultural crossroads. Every Halsey exhibition includes a constellation of campus and community events.
“Mark’s openings are legendary,” says Geoffrey Batchen, professor of art history at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, and Sloan’s former Camerawork colleague. “When he featured work from India in the gallery, for example, he arranged for members of the local Indian diaspora to create rangoli patterns from rice flower and lentils on the pavement outside. When he showed the paintings of the Chinese artist Hung Liu, he arranged for her to work with an anthropologist at the College of Charleston to uncover the history of the local Chinese community. She then reproduced a ghost version of a 1924 King Street laundry in the gallery, borrowing objects from The Charleston Museum.” The opening featured authentic Chinese food, music, and a lion dance.
Creating this unique exchange between artist and the community energizes Sloan. “I love seeing the ‘aha’ in people’s eyes. Through artist talks and lectures, we try to get at the very nature of what it is to turn a thought into a thing. That’s really what the Halsey is about—demystifying the creative process,” says Sloan, who also, it can be said, loves throwing a good party. There’s a spirited playfulness, a sense of “I’m game,” at the heart of much of the art one encounters at the Halsey, and so too for its events. In addition to opening nights, the Halsey’s annual member appreciation Moon Party, as well as its famed Groundhog Day Concert showcasing local musical talent, tend to be among Charleston’s “don’t miss” affairs.
Go behind the scenes of Aurora Robson’s 2017 Tide Is High installation and workshops with College of Charleston studio art students:
“Mark puts in about 100 percent more time and energy than he actually needs to. This kind of dedication has led to the Halsey Institute’s national profile,” Batchen says. Over and above hosting five to seven exhibitions a year and their related events, the Halsey under Sloan’s direction has excelled in publishing exhibition catalogues that serve as tangible and enduring resources both for the artist and for the audience, and for elevating the Halsey’s stature. In the Halsey’s Biblioteca, a cozy non-lending library, one can find all of the 29 Halsey publications, in addition to a wide array of art books. The Aldwyth catalogue, Aldwyth: Work V./Work N. Collage and Assemblage 1991-2009, edited by Sloan and designed by Shuler, won the American Alliance of Museums award for “Best Museum Catalogue” published in America that year. “After that, a lot of other artists and institutions started paying attention to us,” says Sloan. The Aldwyth catalogue got picked up by an international distributor and is sold in the Whitney and Guggenheim museum stores, among others, as well as internationally through artbooks.com.
This past year, Sloan and the Halsey won the prestigious 2019 Alice Award, an annual $25,000 prize for “superior illustrated books,” for the 389-page catalogue, Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South. “We were up against a publication by the Getty Museum—a David and Goliath story,” says Sloan, who raised more than $500,000 in external funding to present “Southbound.” The 2018 show, which Sloan co-curated with CofC political science professor Mark Long, was the Halsey’s most labor-intensive production to date, featuring 220 photographs by 56 documentary photographers, as well as 15 accompanying videos, a commissioned soundtrack of contemporary Southern music, ekphrastic poems by National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney, and an interactive GIS mapping component. The show, now traveling to museums across the South, “was a triumph of concept made real, a kaleidoscopic portrait of a Southern region of space and mind,” Rosengarten says.
“By stepping up our international profile by bringing in artists like Jennifer Wen Ma from China, Indonesian shadow puppet artist Jumaadi, and Afro-Cuban artist Roberto Diago, the Halsey has become the de facto international contemporary art museum for our region,” says Sloan. “There’s nothing else around that does the kind of thing we do. The Halsey’s canvas is the world.”
For local artist Colin Quashie, it’s also “an international doorway,” Charleston’s visual art gateway to the world. “To have this resource, and see what artists from Japan or Italy are doing, to be able to attend lectures and sit and talk with them, has been a tremendous help to my art career,” adds Quashie, who has been a Halsey featured artist three times, including an early 1994 show, one of Sloan’s first, and almost the new director’s last. That show included an large-scale work called “Strom’s Song” which featured the face of Strom Thurmond superimposed with images of two lynched Black men, with prominent politicians who were supporters of the Confederate flag over the Statehouse in the foreground. “Mark told me years later that one almost got him fired,” says Quashie, whose most recent show was the provocative fall 2019 exhibit, “Linked.”
The 2017 exhibit “The Tide is High” by Aurora Robson transformed plastic refuse, including detergent bottles, into dramatic mobile-like sculpture. Sloan at the opening with Halsey supporters Courtenay Cone and Pam Fischette
As Sloan approaches his 26th year at the Halsey helm, he can point to an impressive fundraising track record. Thanks to Sloan’s successful grant writing and donor cultivation, the institution has garnered well over $6 million in external funds during his tenure, enabling its growth and bold programming. Less than 40 percent of the Halsey’s operating budget comes from the College of Charleston, according to Sloan.
“We have been intentionally outwardly facing. We’re located on a college campus, but our embrace is so much larger than the college and even the Charleston community. Because many of our shows travel nationally, our footprint extends well beyond Charleston. I often find that we’re better known outside of South Carolina that we are known here, which is an interesting paradox,” he adds.
Beyond the campus, Sloan provided the impetus that pushed the City of Charleston to create a publicly funded exhibit space for contemporary art—the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. For the Medical University’s Ashley River Tower (ART), which opened in 2008, he curated the Contemporary Carolina Collection, more than 870 works by 54 South Carolina artists—the largest permanent collection of contemporary art in the state. “No one, in my opinion, has had a more profound impact on the arts in Charleston in the new millennium than Mark Sloan,” says Rosengarten.
On campus, Sloan’s colleagues laud his gift for connecting intellectual dots. “He channels his own voracious thirst for knowledge into art exhibitions that inspire an essential lateral thinking. Mark evokes what the liberal arts is all about,” says Long. “He’s a tremendous risk taker, planning out exhibitions far in advance. Then he systematically takes these chances and is prepared to put everything on the line to make sure it comes together.”
Long points to the Shepard Fairey murals installed across town as a component of the 2014 “Power & Glory” show, as one example. Six years later the murals endure as iconic works of public art. “Thanks to Mark’s expansive vision, his ability to see the significance of a work and present art in a way that makes it compelling and accessible, the Halsey becomes a conduit for ideas and conversation across campus and beyond,” Long adds.
Step into Jennifer Wen Ma’s 2019 installation, Cry Joy Park—Gardens of Dark & Light:
Quashie, too, has been awed by Sloan’s steadfast vision. “His long-term planning was just immaculate. I initially didn’t see a role here for the Halsey. I thought Mark was too far afield, that Charleston wasn’t ready, and the tourist art economy, the cash-and-carry watercolor society, would always rule,” Quashie admits. “I was skeptical. Had I been a betting man, I would have lost,” says the artist, who occasionally plays poker with Sloan. Instead, the Halsey’s growth has elevated all ships, much as Spoleto has done for the city, suggests Quashie. “Charleston has become an international venue, and the art was right there waiting.”
Quashie, Aldwyth, and Yamamoto are just a few of the internationally celebrated artists who credit Sloan and the Halsey for being pivotal in their careers. According to John Jacobs, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Halsey has earned a reputation among its peer institutions as “a kind of treasure chest and incubator for the dissemination of great art and ideas. It’s a remarkable and visionary achievement, no less visionary as an institution than its artists, some of whom have had career defining exhibitions there.”
Sloan’s unique gift, Jacobs adds, has been to “balance his international knowledge of art with his love of the obscure and the highly localized. He has an incredibly expansive yet deeply personal understanding of art in relation to place, place in relation to experience, and experience in relation to the creative impulse.”
Perhaps that’s a Smithsonian way of saying “right place, right time,” or just more affirmation that Mark Sloan’s quarter of a century in Charleston leaves a Picasso kind of mark—indelible, bold, quixotic, beautiful.