Rebekah Jacob's passion for fine art keeps her gallery at the top of Charleston's art scene
By JASON A. ZWIKER
When her car broke down in Mississippi, she bought art. It was what she was there to do.
This is what you must understand about Rebekah Jacob. She does not stop. Throw an obstacle in her path and she’ll simply size it up, find a way around, and keep going. So while the mechanics did their work, she did her own.
And, truth be told, when your passion is for the photography that tells the story of the American South, the Mississippi Delta isn’t such a bad place to find yourself stranded. To picture the scene, close your eyes and let your imagination soften the lines between long ago and now just a little, like a photograph intentionally left slightly out of focus. That fertile crescent of black alluvial soil remains the same. It’s just the names and the faces of the people that change over time.
Mississippi is home to Jacob. She grew up in Clarksdale, surrounded by a wealth of musical heritage and agricultural tradition. She went to Ole Miss for her education, earning a B.A. in English and M.A. in Art History. That’s where she fell in love with the work of author and photographer Eudora Welty. The sincerity and strength of those images, scenes from rural Mississippi, left an indelible impression on her.
“It’s a window for people to see what Mississippi is and how the people live,” she says. “The photography really is timeless.”
Welty’s work, along with the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans and the soul-stirring portraiture of Doris Ulmann, became the inspiration for a lifelong passion. She sought out the work of Civil Rights era and Cuban revolutionary photojournalists. The power of an image to capture the imagination and inspire change is something she understands well.
“Photography is immediate,” she says. “The photographer has to get a little bit lucky. These photographers were travelling, documenting a story in a very truthful, matter-of-fact way. The camera is very honest.”
“I want to be the Diane Sawyer of the arts,” she adds with a laugh. “I need to dig deep and see the authenticity behind the work for myself. If I can’t, it won’t be shown in the gallery.”
This work ethic is a large part of what has kept Rebekah Jacob Gallery consistently at the top of Charleston’s visual art scene. She’s always on the move. When she is not in town hosting an exclusive art event at RJG, she’s very likely acquiring, appraising, or lecturing in key cities such as New York City, Houston, Palm Beach, or Washington, DC. That mobility is essential to her business strategy.
“She’s not just sitting here in Charleston with a catcher’s mitt waiting for the artists to show up,” says business strategist Baron Hanson. “She’s jetting where she needs to be to find the artists, to meet the collectors, and to learn what is happening behind the scenes.”
That tenacity has taken her to some amazing places. She’s travelled to Cuba to see firsthand the work spaces of the revolutionary photographers she admires. Many of them were developing out of their kitchen sinks and, just the same, creating prints of phenomenal quality.
Defining Jacob is a daunting task. Imagine a top-tier curator, fine art appraiser, and Indiana Jones all rolled up into one person. Then take into account that she is a dedicated runner who often plans exhibits down to the finest detail while the miles slip by under her feet. On top of all that, add in the fact that she’s still amazingly young for someone so accomplished.
“That’s the exciting part: to have someone as young as her who can actually acquire such rare and high-valued collections,” says Hanson. “She’s come to the point, within eight years, where she can show a work like ‘Red Ceiling’ by William Eggleston.”
To put that into perspective, consider this: in the spring of 2013, copies of ‘Red Ceiling’ were held by the Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum (not currently on view), and Rebekah Jacob Gallery, in Charleston. That’s not a long list.
Eggleston’s work was part of RJG’s 2013 spring show “Somewhere in the South”, a powerful exhibit that featured some of the most notable Southern photographers, including color photography pioneers Eggleston and William Christenberry.
“Every artist I represent here has some connection to the South,” she says. “Another point is that they are all seasoned, professional artists.”
This is perfectly in line with her vision for art in Charleston. She wants nothing less than for the city to be recognized as a national hub for fine arts and photography.
RJG features diverse works including paintings and photography, all at the highest level of connoisseurship. Each artist represented is world-caliber, having been exhibited across the globe, and has works in museum and corporate collections.
In addition to her work in the gallery, she also offers appraisal services. The formal appraisal process is necessary for many purposes, including resale, estate planning, and insurance, and Jacob has the experience and credentials to handle this with the utmost professionalism. She holds a certificate in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts from New York University and is a Certified Member of the Appraisers Association of America.
Keeping all of this in balance requires constant effort. Travelling around the country isn’t just a perk of the job, it’s absolutely essential. “There’s a lot of movement in different markets right now,” explains Hanson. “Things that were once considered unattainable are starting to become available.”
When that once-in-a-lifetime grab surfaces, either you’re right there, ready to acquire it, or you’re not. Rebekah Jacob makes it a practice to be there. 843.697.5471, rebekahjacobgallery.com.