Organized in 1857 by a group of prominent lowcountry planters and factors, the Carolina Art Association of Charleston was officially chartered by the General Assembly on December 21, 1858. Its purpose was the cultivation of the arts and art education. Initial exhibitions and meetings were held on the upper floor of the Apprentices Library on Meeting Street.
The association entered a period of dormancy during and after the Civil War but reemerged by 1878. In 1882, under the presidency of Dr. Gabriel E. Manigault, the association purchased “The Depository” on Chalmers Street and began an art school. Although within two years the school had an enrollment of five hundred students, it closed in 1892 due to a lack of funds. However, the association and the city of Charleston received a gift of $100,000 from the estate of James S. Gibbes (1819–1888), whose will directed that the money be used to acquire a building for “the exhibition of paintings” and the general promotion of the arts. In 1905 the Carolina Art Association moved into a new home: the Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery. In 1932 the association’s board of directors hired its first professional director, Robert N. S. Whitelaw.
The association focused on collecting American art with significant connections to Charleston and the lowcountry. From 1937 to 1950 the association partnered with an existing theater group to operate the Dock Street Theatre. Its community role broadened through involvement with the Civil Services Committee, a group organized and sponsored by the association to study the impact of modernization on Charleston. In 1944 the association published an architectural survey of the city, This Is Charleston, which spurred the creation of Historic Charleston Foundation. For the state’s tricentennial celebration, the Carolina Art Association organized a major exhibition: Art in South Carolina 1670–1970. In 1974 the group received accreditation for the Gibbes Museum of Art from the American Association of Museums. Entering the twenty-first century, the association continued in its mission to cultivate the arts and art education in the Charleston area.
Mouzon, Harold A. “The Carolina Art Association: Its First Hundred Years.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 59 (July 1958): 125–38.