Steps away from the center of activity in Downtown Charleston, gallery owners Robert and Megan Lange lead the charge toward cementing Charleston’s status as a thriving art community
In every community, there are individuals who are able to see what is only beginning to reveal itself. Often, it is the outsiders, observing unburdened by bias, who are able to take stock of the landscape with fresh new eyes. Of course, Charleston is a city full of visionaries from both near and far, but among the upper echelon of its most impactful dreamers are Robert and Megan Lange, artists and owners of Robert Lange Studios on Queen Street.
Robert and Megan were both born and raised in New England—him in New Hampshire, her in Maine—and their paths eventually crossed during the two semesters they shared at the University of New Hampshire. During their freshman year, Megan mentioned Robert, whom she had seen around campus, to a friend who shared an art class with him, and said matter-of-factly, “I am going to marry a guy just like that.” The friend introduced them, and they began dating shortly thereafter. They continued their relationship long-distance when Robert moved to Providence, Rhode Island to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, and as graduation approached, the pair began to consider where they wanted to move together.
“I was at RISD and watched so many of my older friends head off to New York City after graduation,” remembers Robert. “I did some research and found that 10,000 painters a year move to New York. It’s crazy, because every gallery is filled to the brim with artists; there aren’t all these huge empty spaces just looking for new art to grace their walls. Overall, getting your work exhibited in galleries seemed to be a lot more about networking and politics and not as much about the narrative of the art being made.”
Megan and Robert decided to find their own post-college paradise, and headed down the East Coast in search of a place to call home in 2003. Fond of the cobblestone streets and European aesthetic of College Hill in Providence, the couple immediately fell in love with the same qualities in Charleston, and promptly chose to pursue a future in the Holy City. After settling in, Robert began visiting art galleries, showing his portfolio of artwork all over town.
“Nearly everyone said, ‘I don’t think this work will succeed in Charleston,’” recalls Robert. “They said that people here mostly appreciated regional art. Megan and I saw it so differently. We saw this whole city evolving, growing, and coming into a renaissance. It just seemed to be on the precipice of being this amazing art scene: it had all of the ingredients for it already, it just hadn’t fully happened quite yet.”
Energized, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands, and found a 900-square-foot space on East Bay Street up for rent and in the middle of a renovation. They were 23 years old and had no financial history to qualify for a lease, but they swung for the fences anyway. They sold “literally everything they owned,” according to Megan, pooled together some money they had made selling a couple of paintings, and approached the landlord.
“We knew that they were going to put in carpet and fluorescent lighting,” says Megan. “We offered to put in quality gallery lighting and rosewood floors, and said that if we couldn’t pay the second month’s rent, he was free to kick us out, and he’d have a more valuable space because of it.”
The landlord took a chance on the Langes, and they set to work preparing the space. On opening night, the pair anxiously awaited the verdict. Was Charleston capable of supporting a gallery that offered more than regional oceanscapes and marsh scenes? Would the public even visit, let alone purchase enough paintings to pay their rent? On the opening night of Robert Lange Studios, the couple posed a question to the Holy City, and its citizens answered in a big way, purchasing 11 paintings between them all. It was time for an art revolution.
Right away, the gallery became a popular spot for art lovers across the city. They could only represent four young artists in their small space, but the Langes did it with gusto, passionately sharing the work and the space with each and every member of the visiting public. Robert set up shop, painting constantly, while Megan handled guests and managed the gallery. For five years, they were a fixture on East Bay Street, bringing contemporary and progressive art to locals and tourists, steps away from the historic City Market. Then, in 2009, a Queen Street gallery closed, and Robert and Megan were the first ones in the door to speak for it. The elderly owner of the building required an interview before she would allow a new tenant, intent on making sure the gallery that once featured her husband’s artwork would remain a space for art. Robert and Megan fit her qualifications perfectly, and with a handshake and an agreement on a fair rent, they were the new tenants of the first floor of 2 Queen Street. Later, they took over the second floor, further expanding Robert Lange Studios from their original 900 square foot rectangular gallery on East Bay Street into a 6,000 square foot dynamic space on Queen Street.
The signs on the door at 2 Queen Street are clear in their communication: “All are Welcome,” and “Art Belongs to Everyone.” The gentle nudge of “yes, you may” echoes throughout the space within: a studio space inside the gallery invites people to sit, watch the artist paint, and ask questions. Younger visitors are given free sketchbooks and encouraged to make their own art within them or at the rock stacking area upstairs. A wooden swing, popular among both young and older visitors, bears lettering that encourages people to use it, and a sign above Robert’s own studio reminds people that they are welcome to watch inside. Even the piano has a note of encouragement: “If you play, please play. If you don’t, please don’t.”
“Everyone who sees that sign immediately knows which category they fall into,” laughs Robert. “So we never really hear ‘Chopsticks,’ just beautiful music filling the gallery each day by talented visitors.”
Now representing 24 artists, Robert Lange Studios is rich with talent, and the community knows it. Opening nights and First Friday events can see anywhere from six hundred people to a thousand, and the guests walking through the doors are a beautiful cross-section of the world: Gala attendees in their tuxedos and gowns, families on the way to grab a bite to eat, tourists happening upon the event, and even a few homeless people, dressed up for the occasion, appreciating the art along with everyone else. To everyone, the Langes offer a welcome and a smile, truly embodying the spirit of their mission.
“We want to inspire people to create.” explains Megan. “Our job is to bring art to the town, not just to sell paintings. We want to share great art with everyone, with as many people as we can. Of course, while doing that, we hope to sell some paintings along the way. But our primary goal is to propel creativity.”
And propel, they do. For years now, the Langes have offered an artist in residency program, inviting visiting artists to use their two-bedroom apartment upstairs at the gallery while they are working in the city, usually at the Halsey Institute, Gibbes Museum, or Redux Contemporary Art Center. Having just hosted their 65th artist, the Langes have seen a wealth of talent from all over the world pass through their doors, and inspiration is often mutually traded between them and their guests, along with the city of Charleston. Robert and Megan have also been curators at the Vendue Inn since it reopened in 2014 as a boutique art hotel, allowing them to bring an even wider array of artistic expressions to the Charleston public.
Now in their thirteenth year as gallery owners, Robert and Megan Lange have both impacted and borne witness to the beginnings of the artistic revolution that they saw coming years ago.
“For a long time, great artists would start succeeding here and would immediately leave to New York or San Francisco,” says Robert. “Now, we are seeing more and more of them staying, because the city is an incubator for the creative spirit. Because young entrepreneurs around here are running their businesses based off of philosophy and ideals first, bottom lines second. Because gallery owners are switching from having mostly regional paintings to mostly progressive and contemporary paintings. It’s really encouraging to see these changes happen, and to imagine where we could be headed together as a city that appreciates their artists.”
Deftly intuiting the nature of Charleston’s shifting visual artistic landscape and passionately representing some of the most talented artists to ever show their work in the Lowcountry, the Langes have assisted the local art community in bolstering the cultural impact of the city. As Charleston grows and evolves, bringing with the changes an ever-increasing number of tourists and transplants, one thing is for sure: Robert and Megan Lange will welcome each and every one of them with open arms.
by Jana Riley