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FIG’S PURPOSE IS TO SERVE OUR COMMUNITY WELL, and that goal would simply be unattainable without the hard work of nonprofits like Aiken Center for the Arts, whose mission to inspire and educate by providing unique visual and performing arts experiences for all ages dates back to 1972.
The then-called “Rose Hill Arts Center” was started in part by Mrs. Nancy Wilds with the purpose of delivering the best available programming and instruction in fine arts and crafts to our region via a non-profit gallery. She acknowledges, however, the role of happenstance in her career choices. “I was very fortunate to live at Rose Hill, which was one of the old winter colony homes, and it had a large stable,” explains Nancy, standing in front of the stained-glass work that has become the hallmark of her prolific 70-year artistic career. “It was my husband’s family home. At first, Aunt Claudia Phelps suggested that I could have the whole garage and an additional room there as my studio and office. And later, when she realized that they were never going to use the stable anymore for horses, she decided to offer it for an art center if I wanted it. And I thought it was a great idea! So, we established the Rose Hill Arts Center.”
In 2000, Rose Hill Arts Center changed its name to Aiken Center for the Arts, and through the “Painting the Future” capital campaign, they were able to complete renovations of their Laurens Street property in 2004. Over the years, Aiken Center has established quite a reputation as a go-to destination for the arts in the South, and for that, Executive Director Caroline Gwinn and her team thank Nancy Wilds and the other founding artists. “We always want to share with Nancy all that they have made possible in our community,” adds Caroline. “It is incredibly rewarding for us all to have her visit and see what is happening in the classrooms, meet the students, and enjoy the artwork in the galleries.”
Aiken Center for the Arts’ 49-year history as a nonprofit tells the very story of creativity in Aiken. Planning, coordinating, executing, and sharing art, music and the creative process always bring in something new, and last year certainly wasn’t an exception. With the coronavirus pandemic redefining the way we all engage with art, Caroline and her team’s creative responses to the limitations of COVID are in and of themselves a cause for celebration. “In March, I felt an incredible responsibility to the 53 artists who were participating in the American Academy of Equine Art’s annual juried exhibition,” illustrates Caroline. “Even though our arts center had been forced to close, we hung the show and created an online gallery with the support of the City of Aiken. The positive feedback from this exhibition was a high point of 2020 because it happened at the intersection of our largest exhibition of the year and the height of pandemic uncertainty.”
Our community arts center continues to look ahead and search for diverse ways to deliver its unique mission to residents and visitors alike beyond the immediate challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic. Making art more inclusive and accessible to everyone is a high priority for the organization moving forward, so more people can gather in the spirit of community and celebrate art as a shared experience right here in Aiken.