CofC degree dispelling ‘starving artist’ stigma
by Ashley Heffernen, Charleston Regional Business Journal
When Erin Nathanson graduated from the College of Charleston in 2007, her bachelor’s degree in arts management focused heavily on the nonprofit sector, public administration and performing arts.
What the degree didn’t prepare her for, though, was her future as a business owner, an element that leaders in the program now realize is missing.
Shortly after college, Nathanson landed a job planning and curating exhibitions for Charleston’s City Gallery at Waterfront Park. But over time, she realized her true passion was for visual arts — specifically contemporary, emerging art from Southern artists — and the need to curate it independently.
“Charleston should have a space that supports it, and not just in a nonprofit, museum atmosphere, but in a commercial space,” Nathanson said. “It’s important for artists to see that they can have a career as an artist, and they can make money by producing art. It doesn’t have to be the starving artist all the time.”
She and her husband, Justin, opened The Southern, a contemporary art gallery at2 Carlson Court in downtown Charleston, in January. They spent two years saving money and planning for the gallery before opening it in the building behind the Pizza Hut on Meeting Street near the end of Interstate 26.
Renovating the space, which Nathanson said was initially an empty cinder block building, involved reinforcing the walls to ensure they could hold heavy art without mounting on a stud, and investing in LED lights that don’t put off heat that could damage the artwork.
“You think of a gallery as being a simple white box, but just as a restaurant has to go through so many inspections and think about different equipment, for us, our equipment is our walls,” she said.
The details of starting an art business are not taught to arts management students; so to launch the gallery, Nathanson routinely called former professors and curators in town to ask them questions and leaned heavily on her husband, who has his own small business, for advice.
“A lot of what I’ve learned has come through really reaching out and not being shy and asking questions of people who are doing it,” she said.
Nine years after Nathanson graduated, the arts management program is now being revamped. Arts entrepreneurship is being added to the undergraduate curriculum; a database of the state’s arts businesses is in the works; and a graduate degree is being developed, according to Karen Chandler, associate professor and director of CofC’s arts management program.
Ultimately, Chandler said, she wants “students to know they can be the manager of the band, they can be a drummer in a band, they can do fundraising for a museum — that they’ve got a number of options as artists and as managers but also as business owners.”