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Curators of Joy

BY AMY BARTLETT | PHOTOS BY ROB KAUFMAN

RED PIANO ART GALLERY TAKES EACH PIECE TO HEART

Art has the power to make us feel. At the Red Piano Art gallery in Bluffton, it’s not just the works themselves, but the knowledge and personal passion of owners Ben and Lyn Whiteside that invariably make every guest — from curious to collector to curator — take every piece to heart.

What started as a hand-sized engagement gift to now engaging a “stratospheric social circle” of collectors, the Whitesides’ zeal for great art is the beauty in the brushstroke behind South Carolina’s oldest professional gallery of fine art.

Ben and Lyn Whiteside’s relationship with the gallery, which was established in 1969, began when Ben was delivering picture framing in the 1980s, and Lyn wanted to acquire a piece as a gift to celebrate becoming engaged.

“I called the gallery to see if he had ever remarked about any of the paintings,” says now wife Lyn Whiteside, “and ended up purchasing my first original piece of art — a painting by Ray Ellis which was about the size of a recipe card. I could barely afford it. We had no idea that about a dozen years later, in 2002, we would own the gallery” and still be running it as avid influencers another 20 years on.

As extensive as their reach and reputation have become (the gallery has sold to Oprah Winfrey, Ron Howard and Stephen Spielberg, to name a few), the caliber of art on Calhoun Street can be a surprise to newcomers.

“We’ll have guests who are shocked by the artists we have in the collection — painters like Stephen Scott Young or Jonathan Green. They’ll sometimes ask, ‘Is this authentic?’ to which the underlying question is, ‘Is this fake?’ I ask them if they’d like to see a video of it being painted,” recounts Ben Whiteside, painting his own proverbial picture of the art scene in Bluffton. “It’s amazing who wanders in (like the executive director of the Frick Collection museum in New York), or how we establish long-term relationships we can continue to pour into over the years as collectors and hosts of other artists, in an incredible arts community here in the Lowcountry.”

One of 10 galleries in Bluffton, and with Ben Whiteside serving as President of the Bluffton Merchants Society, he points out the synergy in the artists community.

Lyn adds: “The best part of the Lowcountry art scene is the incredible artists who live and paint here, as well as those who live all over the country and choose to come here to paint the magical natural environment. We are incredibly fortunate to have collectors who have been collecting with us for nearly 30 years.”

The Whitesides speak with a wealth of expertise and enthusiasm but never more so than speaking of the art and artists themselves, provoking a visceral conversation.

“It’s emotional,” offers Ben. “When you have a physical response to a visual stimulus, that response emerges as pure emotion – love, joy, anger. That’s what we do – we dispense happiness and joy. It’s a quality-of-life statement that if you have the interest and means to surround yourself with things that cause joy, why wouldn’t you?”

Lyn echoes, “Art is not only our business but our shared passion and hobby. Ben and I often talk about our business and art over morning coffee. Coming to ‘work’ is different every day and never boring. Meeting art lovers and collectors, working with artists, and helping buyers add to their collection is all truly a privilege.”

Lyn shared that her father once told her to “pick a job that you love.” Because they have both done so, investing decades of incomparable contribution to the art world and a Hilton Head original gallery, they’ve curated an elevated art experience for the Southeast and beyond.

Whether it’s a “new dry brush from Stephen Scott Young out of Bermuda (“The Little Scarf”) or the work of sculptors like Jane DeDecker, who also has installations up the coast at the well-known Brookgreen Gardens (Est. 1932), there is, as Ben Whiteside specifies, “something here to speak to the heart of every lover of art.”