Bridging the Gap Between Old and New"If you walk into my gallery as it is now, you wouldn't know you're in Charleston, South Carolina."
Thoughts of Charleston often swoon to the Lowcountry romantic side: trees dripping Spanish moss onto historic cobbled streets plied by horse-drawn carriages. Mike Elder is debunking those stereotypes, bringing the raw, unapologetic contemporary art aesthetic one might associate with New York City to the heart of the South.
"If you walk into my gallery as it is now, you wouldn't know you're in Charleston, South Carolina," he explains. "I only bring in art I personally like, mostly up-and-coming artists on the verge of getting discovered." Though a lot of his artists are still making a name in the art world, a recent show by the California-based artist known as Bigfoot sold out, illustrating that even though Charleston has a firmly entrenched traditional art scene, the city doesn't shy away from embracing upstarts.
When Elder, 35, opened Eye Level Art in 2002 on historic Queen Street, it was a tiny 400-square-foot gem nestled among galleries and boutique shops. People lined up outside to catch a peek. Now he's in a former warehouse in Midtown, a developing neighborhood popular with college students and stalwart locals. Elder describes his current space as "traditional Charleston, with a contemporary twist."
Just as his 5,000-square-foot gallery bridges the gap between old Charleston and new, so to do his shows, drawing in an eclectic crowd. "If you came to one of my shows, you could meet someone from another part of the world, a professor who teaches art, a hipster who wants to be in the scene," he says. "The vibe here is natural, it's genuine and organic."
With Charleston's contemporary art scene still in its infancy, Elder likes to support fellow pioneers who are building a place for modern artists in the city. Robert Lange Studios is just one example. Elder thinks artistic energy is tangible in the Charlestonian culture, emanating from institutions like The College of Charleston, and the almost weekly festivals. Most notable among the latter is Spoleto, the U.S. incarnation of the renowned Italian celebration of music, theater, dance and visual arts. That festival takes over the city for several weeks each spring.
Spoleto was drawn to Charleston because of the town's charm; it's an easy-living city that sets its clock more by the tides than an alarm clock. For that reason, it seems to cultivate artists who "do art for art's sake, not because they're trying to get rich," says Elder.
Elder, a native of New York state who came to Charleston by way of Boston, is still adjusting to the hot Southern summers. When he wants to relax and cool down with his 11-year-old daughter, they head to Alhambra Park across the bay from Charleston. Situated right on the water, it's a great place to catch the sea breeze, relax under the massive oak trees and tackle the monkey bars.
"Boating and being on the water is a big part of the South Carolina experience," says Elder. "I was on a friend's catamaran recently looking out over the boats in the harbor — you can't replicate that anywhere else."
Check out Mike's Charleston.