May/June Issue 2000
Tom Starland: An Interview With Myself
with questions asked by Tom Starland
Well, you didn't ask for this - exactly. I didn't want to do this - exactly. But, it's being offered for your reading anyway. After all, how often do you get to ask yourself the questions you wished others would ask you to respond to? I'm not going to let the opportunity go by. If you're not big into reading, I suggest skipping it altogether. If you're the kind of person who likes getting into the meat of a subject - here's plenty to chew on.
Q: First off, I guess it would be fair to start with the question of all questions. How did you get into this mess - publishing an arts newspaper?
A: I shouldn't be held responsible for all
this. It's all a mistake. I didn't mean for this to happen. OK,
OK, I guess the truth will set you free.
Back in the mid 1980s, I was on my way to being a serious part time environmentalist. It seemed the thing to do with RR being President and his Interior Secretary, James Watt selling off the homelands. I volunteered, yes, volunteered to do the job of publishing the monthly newspaper for the SC Chapter of the Sierra Club - the "Congaree Chronicle". I was an officer of the state chapter, and eventually served as President of the local Charleston Chapter - the Robert Lunz Group. My wife Linda and I owned a custom Black & White photo processing lab called IF Labs - we had been doing photo processing for almost 15 years and were looking for something else to do. Neither of us envisioned ourselves working in a darkroom another 15 to 20 years. We had been using an early Apple IIe computer to do bookkeeping for the business and a newsletter for a photography gallery which we used to own with two other friends.
All the ingredients were there. We were getting first hand experience on how to create and publish a newspaper. We had our first taste of the arts by opening a fine art photography gallery, which failed within a few years. We soon upgraded our computer system with the new Macintosh computer Apple was turning out - unleashing the desktop publishing explosion. And, we were looking for something else to do. The signs were all there - start yourself an arts newspaper!
Q: What! Back up a minute. None of that adds up to that kind of conclusion. You had no background in the arts other than being part owner in a failed gallery - a gallery which only dealt with photography at that. Everyone knew back in the 1980s that photography would never be accepted as an art form until a man photographed a crucifix he put in a jar of his own urine. And besides, you can't even spell. Having a Macintosh computer doesn't make you a publisher. What were you thinking?
A: I know, I know - it sounds a little mixed
up, but if you could see things through my eyes - the way I saw
things then. Well, really the same way I see things today - a
little differently than most people. It really did all add up
to starting a newspaper covering the arts in Charleston, SC.
We really did want out of photo processing, but until we found something that would replace the income it generated, we were still stuck in the darkroom. The insanity of the arts had grabbed ahold of me when we had the gallery. I think it was always there, from way back in college. Closing that gallery didn't sit well with me - I wasn't used to failure. It seemed that publishing a newspaper wasn't rocket science and the Macintosh was, and still is, an amazing machine. Linda and I had built a successful business from nothing before and once I get a plan in my head - well, it just doesn't get out without following through on it. But, there was a little twist to my plan that I didn't count on. I should have known from past experience, but I really didn't understand what I was getting into.
Q: OK I'll bite, what was the little twist that you didn't foresee? The fact that Bill Gates would steal "Windows" from Apple? Was it the failure to foresee that wrestlin' would become America's favored cultural experience? Or, was it the miscalculation that at the same time you would commit to the paper you would also be starting a family? Any one of those would have stopped me in my tracks, but all three. What were you thinking?
A: Actually, the plan was that we would just
be the nuts and bolts behind the paper. I figured like baseball
diamonds - If you build it - they will come. The big "they"
was the art community or people with experience, creativity, and
knowledge. I figured they would fill in the content part of things.
I never expected this to be a 13 year on-the-job training session
on the arts. I didn't count on the fact that other people would
expect to make a living at this too.
I mean, get real, at best the paper would be able to support the two of us - soon to be three. We're talking about a newspaper covering the arts here not fishing or hunting or even boating for that matter. We knew people in the arts didn't have much money. We had already lost our shirts and skirts on playing gallery owners. But I felt that it was possible - on a shoestring - hence the name of our publishing company - Shoestring Publishing.
Part of my thinking was from my own experience. As a commercial gallery, we found that the local media just didn't cover everything you did. They expected you to buy advertising to let people know what you were offering - just like every other business. They were willing to cover the nonprofit arts to some extent, but not the commercial end of the arts. And, the cost of advertising with daily newspapers and broadcast media was unreal. We didn't have a high volume product to sell. And, there wasn't much profit to budget for advertising.
Another factor was that I had come in contact with an arts newspaper which came out of North Carolina - "The NC Arts Journal". Advertising was cheaper, I figured their readership was the kind of people we needed to reach, and I felt we needed something like it in Charleston. We had a growing art community fostered by the success of the Spoleto Festival and the fact that Charleston had always been a cultural center in America, except during the time after the great unpleasantness - the war of northern aggression. That event which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Civil War. You have to understand that I have been living here for over 25 years now - I'm more Southern than Yankee, believe it or not.
So, with the plan that we would provide the nuts and bolts and others would provide content and that Charleston's art community needed such an arts newspaper, we started "Charleston Arts" in July of 1987.
Q: How did you survive the twist?
A: Just like with our photo processing business which we started with $125, we learned to fill in the gaps and make do without - and to be creative and flexible. We had learned the lessons of survival before and how the world of small business works, where if you can't afford something - you learn to do it yourself. Look, before we started the photo lab, we didn't know anything about plumbing, finishing sheetrock, electrical wiring, and a million other things that came up along the way.
Q: So, you did the same things to survive in publishing an arts newspaper. Obviously you have been doing this for 13 years now and "Charleston Arts" is now "Carolina Arts" - there must be a lot of good stories in between. Let's hear some of them.
A: Not so fast. I know I'm long winded and
can talk a subject to death, but we're not ready to just jump
into stories just yet. I hope that isn't what this interview is
all about - a bunch of funny or interesting stories.
Surviving as an arts newspaper isn't the same as surviving as a photo lab. Photo processing is like a science. It's based on chemistry and physics - exact laws of nature. You learn the techniques and get good enough at them and you can do it. I think we were successful because we offered it in a way which no one else did. We were a little more creative than others.
Doing an arts newspaper is like reinventing a whole new universe every six months. Just as you get used to the current one, everything changes and recreation starts all over again. Some things never change, but change is the nature of the business and believe me - the arts are a business - except in most of the nonprofit world - that's a whole different universe in itself. You're dealing with something which less than one percent of the population is interested in. Throw in a mixture of profit and nonprofit, government agencies, artists with big egos, artists with no ego at all, art collectors with big egos, and you've got a lot of invariables to deal with.
I think one of the reasons we have survived is because we haven't had a lot of competition - not many people are willing to do what we do - at the price we do it. We offer a unique service. We try to keep things simple and we don't talk down to people. I have a hard enough time talking up to the level most people in the arts would like me to. And, the fact that I have never taken myself or the arts too seriously. I tell someone almost every day, "Remember, we're not dealing with something that is life or death here".
Q: You say you didn't have competition, but there are a lot of alternative newspapers in Charleston and everywhere you go - they all say they offer coverage of Arts & Entertainment.
A: We had and still have plenty of competition
for advertising support - in that respect we compete with all
media, even the BIG daily newspapers, magazines, TV and radio,
tourist flyers and untold numbers of ways people think of to sell
advertising, but we never had to compete with someone covering
the arts on a local basis. They all say they offer coverage of
Arts & Entertainment - the arts part is mostly the performing
arts sector and the entertainment is anything and everything including,
nightclubs, strip clubs, rock concerts, wrestling, sports, want
ads for singles, and happy hour at every bar in the world.
In most of these papers you can find out which band is playing the third set of the evening at a wayside bar more than you can find out what an art gallery is showing that week or what the local symphony is playing in it's next performance. They sometimes have an arts section and a listing of galleries - the type is so small and they don't give any details. It's not their main business. Take a close look at them - they're in business for the bars. They're trying to get the attention of young singles who have more money to spent on "entertainment" than any generation before. Look at who has the full page color ads in these papers - beer & liquor companies, tobacco companies, and bars promoting the wildest and most outrageous happy hours. That's what pays for the color and size of those other papers - take that stuff away and most wouldn't be able to publish.
I'm not against any of those things. I like to drink some (more in my younger days), I don't smoke, but if you want to kill yourself go ahead, and I can't afford to blow money away in bars - not that I wouldn't like to, but it would be hard having fun with my wife, a 12 year old and a mother-in-law, all in tow. I'm proud of the fact that we have been able to survive without having to take that kind of advertising support and don't think it hasn't been tempting - it's big bucks. Couldn't you just see it - a nice article about the Mint Museum of Art or the Gibbes Museum of Art, right next to an ad for the Marlboro Man or the local wet T-Shirt competition - classy.
The real competition should have come from local daily newspapers. I have always held the position that any day I could be pushed out of business if a local newspaper wanted to crush me. Think of it - they have the ability to give daily coverage, their market is bigger, they have untold resources, wider distribution - they have it all. But, why can't they crush me? They just don't care and they don't see the profit. Art galleries could never afford their prices so there is no money, no profit, in covering the arts. There's a lot more money in printing stories about deadly diseases and getting full page ads from hospitals who say they can cure them, reporting about bad things industries do forcing them to take out full page ads to tell us how good they are to the local community - this is what they're interested in - the bottom line.
Q: OK it's obvious I won't be able to rush you - you obviously have issues and will answer questions not asked. After all, this is your big interview. So, what was "Charleston Arts" like - way back in 1987?
A: Well, if we must stick to the format. First
off, "Charleston Arts" covered all the arts in Charleston
- visual, performing and literary. At times we even included poetry.
We offered our first issue in July of 1987 - just after the Spoleto
Festival USA finished - we didn't want to start with Spoleto and
have it look like we were going downhill from there. I worked
on that first issue for six months and it was still full of typos
and headlines with spelling errors. A couple of the articles were
continued on different pages - different pages than where we said
they would be continued. It was a nightmare as a first effort,
but still good enough to get people to advertise in the next issue.
At that point I was hit with the reality that I had less than
a month to produce another issue.
There are always going to be typos. You can't print 28 to 36 pages of text and not end up with typos. I can't see my own, but I can now see them in everything I read - except things I write. Even the best publishers with the best paid editors end up with typos after the work is printed. Typos don't happen - they just are. Thankfully, we have a lot less of them these days.
Another thing I remember is a question a friend asked me after looking over that first issue. "So, how are you going to be able to keep coming up with things to put in the paper each month after month, before you run out of stuff about the arts?" I was amazed at that question. Did people really know that little about the arts? Today, we only cover the visual arts and we never have enough space to fit everything in. That's why we started the web site - to handle the overflow that wasn't making the cut for printing.
Q: You covered the performing arts - theatre, dance, music?
A: We started out doing that, but eventually
the performing arts were willing to take a free ride. They sent
in their press releases, but very few took out ads. Before long,
our main source of advertising support was coming from commercial
art galleries. The split was inevitable. Then I learned something
that really made me mad.
All along, I knew that the performing arts were getting preferred treatment as non-profits from every sector of support you can think of. The arts agencies give them more funding than they do the visual arts. Cities, counties, states, chamber of commerces, and tourism agencies give them more money and attention than they do the visual arts. The private sector gives them more money. And, then I learned something more about the uneven local support while I was investigating something about a little story I was doing about a little grant the NEA had given the City of Charleston after Hurricane Hugo.
The local daily newspaper the "Post & Courier" has a little Foundation that distributes money throughout the local community every year. There is never a posted notice of when to apply for these funds and you can only see where the money goes by going through a process controlled by state law. I went through that process for several years and I learned who was getting the money and a light blub when off about why I wasn't seeing much funding from local performing arts groups.
You see, the "Post & Courier" Foundation was granting local performing arts groups $10,000, $20,000 and even $30,000. The money was going to the symphony, dance companies, music groups, and theatre groups - all the main advertisers in the arts. With a wink and a nod the deal was - you get these grants and we get your advertising. What a deal! This was another sweet deal for so called non-profits and private foundations. How do you compete with that? Eventually we cast our future with the group that was getting the short end of the stick - the visual arts - both for-profits and non-profits. And, I'm glad we did. I can't stand the kind of begging and crying that goes on everyday in the performing arts - even with all the money they get showered with. Robert Ivey is one of the few performing arts persons in Charleston who I know won't screw someone else to get ahead or get a bigger grant. But, that's a whole story in itself. I'm sure there are others - none come to mind right now.
Q: It's obvious that you have no love-loss for non-profits. Is that why you never turned the newspaper into a non-profit?
A: You're pushing one of my hot buttons now.
Before I explode, I want to offer the following disclaimer. "I
do not think all non-profits are run by evil scummy people. I
do not think that every board member of a non-profit is an irresponsible
idiot. I do not believe that all culture in the world will stop
if one non-profit has to go out of business. And, I don't believe
I've ever met a non-profit where someone isn't profiting very
well, thank you." You see, I don't think non-profits are
all bad. It's just that I've run into a lot of questionable ones
in South Carolina.
After doing this paper for a number of years I remember commenting to someone who asked what it was like to deal with the arts everyday. I told them I now knew more than I ever wanted to or anyone should ever know about the nasty, dirty, underbelly of the arts. Every time I think I've seen it all - every unjustified useless grant in the world - another one comes along. I've dealt with the NEA, the South Carolina Arts Commission, and the City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs and they have all given money - a lot of money - to people who don't deserve it for things that don't deserve to happen. I've caught them in the middle of committing fraud and nothing was ever done. The amount of money just outright wasted is obscene.
Here's the deal. You tell a bunch of artists that because they have gone through the effort of legally becoming a non-profit, (which is just a process of paying a lawyer and filing with the federal government - not many are ever turned down), they will now be wards of the community, state and in some cases the federal government, and no matter what you do, you will be bailed out and be allowed to continue without suffering consequences. You have no responsibility for your actions and are due funding just because of your existence.
The whole concept of a non-profit is a farce. Take the Charleston Symphony Orchestra as an example. They're a non-profit, yet the organization pays its conductor over $100,000 a year (last time reported), its executive director about $80,000 and an assistant conductor which is probably paid about $50,000. (So, the conductor is a part time employee.) This same organization is constantly in debt problems and on an annual basis conducts a crying campaign begging the community not to let our symphony die - "if it did, the soul of our community would die with it". This is a part time performing arts organization that sells donors the names of seats on the stage. Their basic problem is that they can't attract enough people to pay to hear them to justify their existence. Their hands are constantly in the pockets of the community and in the pocket of unwilling taxpayers. There are people sitting in the audience of every one of their performances who paid from $1,000 to $5,000 for their seat with all the extra donations they had to make to hear the symphony play beyond their ticket price. With people willing to pay that much to go to the symphony - why should the community as a whole have to pay for them to play - even when they don't want to. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to go to sporting events, stay in hotels for a night, fly in planes to go a few hundred miles, and to eat a meal which will leave their body in a few hours - why shouldn't people who want to hear a live symphony pay what ever it takes to pay for them to play?
I once saw a theatre group pass a hat during a performance which people had already paid to see. Once you've gotten used to art welfare, you're dependent on unearned income forever.
Q: You call funding of non-profits art welfare?
A: When it comes to the performing arts where
they charge admission to see a performance and receive more than
50 percent of their operating money from unearned income sources
- grants, donations, fundraisers, auctions, memberships, etc.
- what would you call it? These people have no incentive to be
fiscally responsible. If a for-profit operation can't cut it -
they're out of here. These people spent their days thinking of
ways to get funding for things they can offer the public that
the public isn't asking for and the funding agencies keep giving
it to them - it's a vicious cycle.
I could go on and on about examples I've seen, but here's a few of the worst abuses of this free flowing money.
In 1989 Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston and did a lot of damage. Most of the damage done to the arts community was just the loss of an audience. There was no one here who wanted to buy art. No one wanted to go to performances. Galleries closed and artists moved to greener pastures. It was a bad time for everyone. "Charleston Arts" closed down twice within a year after Hugo due to a lack of support. But some people made out like bandits. When some artists and art groups found out how useful public sympathy over Hugo was they dipped into every public fund they could get their hands in. One theatre group claimed to have lost over a half a million dollars in damages. No one ever asked how that could possibly be. You first have to have something before you can lose it. But the good people who were giving the money away weren't asking a lot of questions - all they knew was that the Hurricane had wiped Charleston off the face of the earth. In fact, Charleston did very well due to Hugo - the city never looked better after all the insurance claims were paid. It was like urban renewal all in one year.
Well, one such pot artists and arts groups dipped into was the Charleston NOW Fund. They dove in and swam around and drank and drank until they couldn't drink anymore. This was a challenge grant from the NEA which was supposed to be an emergency fund to bail out people hurt by the hurricane. This was a "matching" challenge grant. That means that money is earned if it can be matched at a certain ratio by a certain date. This was a one year 1:1 grant. That meant that the grantee had to match the amount given during a one year period. The NEA grant was for $200,000 given to the City of Charleston, handled by the Office of Cultural Affairs and then the Trident Community Foundation (now Community Foundation). Money flowed right away to individual artists and non-profit arts groups. What happened to the for-profit arts businesses? Well they went without and some didn't survive.
Two years after this feeding frenzy, I get a call from someone in the art community who to this day will remain unnamed. They asked me to look into the NOW Fund. I'm thinking to myself, this is two years after all that mess, things are fairly back to normal, if there ever is such a thing as normal - what can this all be about? A call to the NEA started a year-long ordeal on my part uncovering fraud by the City of Charleston and neglect by the NEA. Three years after the grant was awarded and the City got a check for $200,000 from the NEA and $100,000 of it had been distributed - here's where the Fund stood. The City had $100,000 in the bank collecting interest, which was in violation of several federal laws. No federal grant money can be used to collect interest and the money should have been distributed soon after receiving it. The Fund had not raised much matching money for the $100,000 it had already given away and none for the $100,000 in the bank. Someone at the City decided they wanted to use what was left of the NOW Fund to help build an arts center in Charleston - three years after Hugo. This was another violation of the grant. Eventually, the Mayor had to write a check to the NEA for $100,000 plus interest and return it. And, the NEA looked the other way on the rest of the violations. I learned that the NEA has "one" inspector and no real enforcement of their grants, much less any follow up on their grants. They didn't even care about the grant until I called and they learned money was still in the bank. This was supposed to be an emergency fund to help out the art community after damages due to hurricane Hugo - not build an arts center three years later. The real kicker is that the City couldn't get any matching funds, even trying to flimflam some corporate people into thinking that it was a 1:3 matching fund and their donations would give three fold. Mayor Riley could have kept the money and done anything he wanted for the art community by picking up the phone and calling a few of his fat-cat supporters. The NEA didn't want it back, but he just wrote the check out - tried to put the blame on me and eventually, within a year, fired the head of Cultural Affairs - after he swore he had full confidence in her abilities.
A few years later I found a similar case with the NEA and the Spoleto Festival involving another challenge grant to build up an endowment fund for Spoleto. Spoleto had gotten into financial problems and dipped into their endowment fund - they actually depleted it and the NEA looked the other way on this issue too. Endowment funds are supposed to sit in a bank untouched and the endowed only gets to use the interest earned on the endowment. Everybody knows that except SC Educational TV/Radio - they think an endowment means spend as fast as you can and beg for more next year.
Follow-up is a big problem in the non-profit world. No one is checking out grant applications to see if applicants have done what they have listed and do what they said they will if they got the grant. A Charleston theatre group one year had a $5,000 grant awarded to them by the SC Arts Commission. At the same time this group was going belly up leaving Charleston businesses with $250,000 in unpaid bills and nothing to recover in assets. When I called the Arts Commission about that grant and asked them if they were aware of what was going on with the group - they said they did, but the group wrote one of the better grant applications. In their words it was "a very competitive application". After I paid to see a copy of the application I found it to be an award winning piece of fiction. No one checks this stuff out. And, what's worst, they don't care on either side of the grant. Later, when I mentioned this case to someone at the Arts Commission they reminded me that the group never got the money, but that was only because they went belly up and their debt was reported in newspapers. But, they would have given it to them because they wrote good sounding grant applications.
Q: So, I guess if I was a non-profit group I wouldn't call on you for a donation?
A: As I said a few hours ago, I'm not against
all non-profits. Many, if not the majority, do good things in
the community. But I've never looked into them at the same degree
as I have some involved in the arts in South Carolina. Perhaps
I'd find things are just as bad, but I'm not looking anymore for
health reasons and the fact that I would like to believe they're
not all bad.
Shoestring Publishing gives a 25 percent discount to many non-profits who advertise with us and over the years we have given many free ads outright, without taking a tax deduction. We treat the non-profit organizations and facilities as an equal to the commercial sector of the visual arts even though the bulk of our support comes from the for-profits. We don't hate all non-profits. Some are just rotten to the core and run by people with no moral fiber in their body.
I also think the whole concept of non-profit funding is ass-backwards. The public would benefit just as much and in many cases more by giving funding to some in the for-profit sector dealing in the arts. These people know how to get more for their buck. They understand the importance of providing services the public wants. They have to or they don't survive. Why should they be automatically locked out of the arts funding picture?
I'm not against government funding for the arts, but I'd like to go back to the WPA days kind of funding for the arts where the public gets back something they want or enjoy for their tax dollars. I truly believe that if the Republicans were ever able to do away with the NEA - eventually they would be the first to fight to reinstate it. It's usually the rich who use the arts the most. They would eventually find out that the NEA funds a lot of good art. But the NEA needs to stop funding bad art and art that insults the public's generosity.
By the way, in answer to your original question - no, if I was a non-profit out there I wouldn't call on me for a donation - I'm a pretty tough sell.
Q: Let's move on to a lighter subject - how about those commentaries of yours. Are you really that angry?
A: Yah know - I came of age in the 60s. It just seems to be my nature to go up against the establishment - I am the angry American. I'm angry because things could be so much better, but there are people out there who don't want things to be better - they just want things to be their way. And, I have to admit that if I couldn't do the commentary every month I just wouldn't want to do the paper. It's one of the few rewards - other than the income which keeps me coming back. And, I could make a lot more money doing something else - just about anything else.
Q: I can just see you at your computer hammering away while the steam comes out of your ears. Does your blood run hot when you write down your feelings?
A: Early on and up to a few years ago, you could have heated an entire community with the steam generated while I was hammering out those commentaries. Sometimes all it took was to receive the latest issue of "Artifacts," the SC Arts Commission's quarterly magazine. There was always something there to get me going. Then, I found that I was getting so angry about things I couldn't do anything about, no matter how much I ranted that it was unhealthy. At first, I thought the solution was to not come in contact with what I knew would get my juices going. I even told the folks at the old Arts Commission not to contact me under any circumstances and even hung up on them once to get the point across. (That was rude and I admitted it later.) It worked for awhile, but deep down inside I knew they were still out there - still screwing most artists in favor of others. My loyal readers were depressed. I underestimated how much they enjoyed me using their favorite art agencies as whipping post. But now, I don't let the anger get to me - I enjoy pointing out what needs to be pointed out. I learned that you can have a smile on your face while still stickin' it to someone. And, the ability to do it is an honor I accept totally.
Q: So, have you ever really blown it with one of your commentaries?
A: Well, I came real close to the edge once
with a comment about James Holderman, former President of the
University of South Carolina. Long story short - old Jimmy boy
was really a complex person. If we knew all that could be known
about this former college president - it would be quite an interesting
tale - but then, someone would have to kill us. Mr. Holderman
was about to step in and take over that above mentioned theatre
group which left our fair community $250,000 of debt. Our art
community needed this like another hurricane. An article was done
in the "Post & Courier" with Dottie Ashley's name
on it making Holderman look like a saint, but most of us who have
read her work before knew she didn't write that article - her
husband wrote it. He was a former professor at USC, and probably
one of Holderman's cronies. This article painted a picture saying
how lucky we were to be having Jim Holderman join our art community.
I wrote a commentary reminding everyone why he was forced to resign from USC and made a wish in the commentary that I hoped the supply of Lithium didn't run out in Charleston. Yah see, Jimmy boy was blaming all his problems on the case that he was a manic depressive person. Lithium is a treatment for such problems. I don't believe Holderman was MD or ever has been MD - he is a lot of things best kept in the closet, but he didn't have a medical problem. But, nonetheless, some people thought I went too far with that comment. It was insensitive to people who really do have a problem with MD. That's the closest I've got to losing my message by what I said.
Look, I've said a lot of things in my commentary over the years that a lot of people didn't like hearing, but they knew I was telling the truth - not my version of the truth - the truth. Before you see a major commentary in this paper you're gonna be sure I'm sure of what I'm talking about. The commentary about the NEA and the City of Charleston and the Charleston NOW Fund - I researched, and combed over documents for over a year before I wrote about that issue. My friend Dottie Ashley tried to do a number on me in the "Post & Courier" blaming me for the loss of the money - when I showed up at her desk the next day with my box of documents - she decided not to do the story she wanted to - knowing I'd sue the ass out of her and her newspaper. And, one call to the NEA and she was told I was in the right on the issue - the City had blown the whole thing.
Q: Which commentaries have been your favorites?
A: I'm probably the only person to remember
some of these, but the ones where I've predicted the future are
my favorites. The overall best was back in 1991 when I said somebody
at Spoleto better get Nigel Redden's phone number, because they
are gonna want him back. (The next one is the failure of the SC
Aquarium project in Charleston.) This guy had just delivered the
best Spoleto Festival to date and they fired him because Menotti
wanted his "adopted son" Chip to take over. We're talking
about the son Menotti adopted at age 30! Mayor Joseph P. Riley,
Jr., really made another bad decision there - not his first and
not his last. He decided to back Menotti and his "son"
while the Festival lost the best general manager it ever had and
most of the board members with money and smarts. Within a few
years the Festival was nearly broke and surviving board members
were begging Redden to come back. Now that he's back, I'm disappointed
that he has abandoned the visual arts - he's still the best man
for the Festival, but he's wrong about the part-time visual arts.
I hounded the Festival for years about their finances that didn't add up and people hated me for it. I was doing what I was doing because I knew the Festival was important to Charleston and didn't want to lose it - but others just saw this crazy mad man who just didn't have his facts straight. I was right about everything I said, yet to this day no one has admitted it or said - "you were right".
One of the examples of the stuff Spoleto was trying to pull off was a financial impact study which the Festival contracted the USC Research Department to do. The report said that the Spoleto Festival USA attracted 100,000 visitors with a $100,000,000 impact on the state. Spoleto was looking for a loan from the state legislators, so they wanted a report to make the asking look like the state owed them the money they were looking for.
I requested the Festival's ticket sales numbers and found that at best the Festival sold 66,000 tickets. That was total ticket sales for all events. Now, I don't know many people who go to just one Spoleto event, and a lot of people who attend the Festival are locals - so in reality the Festival was attracting, at best 10,000 to 15,000 visitors - making the financial impact much less. Spoleto got a loan from the state - which took more time to pay back than they were originally given. This was the kind of numbers game the Festival was playing. The "press" statewide were swallowing everything the Festival was feeding them and to this day they still read off those same figures every time they mention the name Spoleto.
During this period while Redden was gone the Festival went through three general managers and went from making a small profit on the Festivals to losing millions of dollars. The quality of the Festival was also suffering. Near the end, of what I call the non-Redden years, when the truth came out people were in shock of how bad things really were. I had been the only person telling the truth. But, we all know the truth hurts and the part about killing the messenger. It's like Jack Nicholson telling the world, "You can't handle the truth!"
Q: It's true, in most cases people don't want to hear the truth and often they only want to hear "their" version of the truth. Has there been times when you knew the truth, but you held back for one reason or another?
A: Well, that gets into that tricky area of
how much does the public have a right to know about public figures
or anybody for that matter. I don't think the public has a right
to know what goes on in other people's bedrooms, or in dark nightclubs,
unless it's a security risk or breaking laws or hurting someone.
I like to stick to activities taking place from 9 to 5. What people
do after work and on their own time is their business. But, then
again, sometimes these after-hours relationships end up as part
of the decision making process in between the 9 to 5 hours.
There have been times where I knew information which I know if it was placed in the wrong group's hands or printed in this paper, it could have been very bad for an individual or agency. In some cases it would have meant that I might have won a certain battle on an issue - it's called public extortion - using the possibility of publicly exposing dirt to get your way. But, I don't want to win the battle and lose the war. After all, you have to think of me as the loyal opposition - I don't want to bring the arts down all together. I just want to bring it down to a level playing field.
I'll give you an example. I've had a running disagreement with the SC Arts Commission about their regional representatives living in Columbia. Each region of the state has a person at the Arts Commission who is the up front person for the area being covered and the Arts Commission. As a rule, these people all lived in the Columbia area and worked out of the Arts Commission's offices, traveling to their district from time to time. My argument is, "how can these people truly represent their area when they don't live there?" My idea is that they should live in the area they represent and report from time to time back to Columbia. Everyone else is at a big disadvantage with the art community in Columbia. The Arts Commission staff works and lives in that area - they attend more events in that area, they eat, shop and buy groceries in that area - meeting artists and arts administrators of the greater Columbia art community. The rest of the state sees these people on a very limited basis.
The Arts Commission said it was state policy, but it wasn't really and they had made an exception. The rep for the Myrtle Beach area lived in Myrtle Beach. During all of the conversations I had with them about this subject, no one ever mentioned this fact - a bad habit at the Arts Commission - omission of facts. About a year ago that same representative had to resign after admitting he was having a relationship with a minor. The parents of the minor were suing this person. This was public knowledge and reported in several newspapers around the state. I could have really crammed this down the Arts Commission's throats if I was the kind of guy they think I am - out for blood. But, I feel sorry for that person. The Arts Commission can't be held responsible for all their employee's actions. But, there are forces out there that use information like that to win their way.
There are other things like that. You wouldn't believe the things people tell me about all kinds of people in the arts, at state agencies and in arts organizations. All it takes is for one person or a group to get turned down for a grant or a rival group or artist to get more money, and the phone starts ringing off the hook. I don't believe it all and don't even want to know about a lot of it, but it could be used in a battle. Today's "press" doesn't even care if it's a fact or not - if you want to bring someone down all you need is an accusation, and accusations come very cheaply these days. I'd rather fight about policy and not personality. They're all people just like the rest of us - we all have our problems.
Q: I also noticed that you don't have a section for "Letters to the Editor" in your paper.
A: Letters to the Editor - what a fraud! The
public doesn't have a clue as to how controlled those letters
are. Papers who print them get to choose which letters they want
to print - they even edit those letters. They print the letters
that support their views and file the ones that disagree in the
trash or deep down in a place the public will ever see. Occasionally,
a newspaper will print a letter that makes them look bad just
to fool the public. The only people who know how many of those
letters never get printed are those who write them - the public
doesn't know how much "Letters to the Editor" are controlled.
I once had to reprint a letter a State Representative wrote to the "Post & Courier" supporting public funding of the arts. The old P&C editors edited this person's letter, cutting out good points made to support the writer's views, and even changing one word to reflect support for the P&C's opinion on the subject. So, I reprinted the "real" letter sent to the the P&C - the entire letter and the letter they printed showing the changes they made. This was a letter from a State Legislator - it makes you wonder how many times that happens if they'll do it to a powerful legislator.
I don't print them, first because we don't have enough space to print them, secondly, because I don't trust them, and thirdly, I don't want to be tempted to just print the ones that praise me and ditch the others. Plus, I don't think I'd be able to dig a big enough hole in the backyard to bury all the bad letters I might get.
Q: You talk about the "truth" a lot, but was there ever a time you didn't tell the truth? Come on, we can handle the truth. Did you not tell the truth, even once?
A: I confess, I did lie once. I told a lie
once to take the heat off a theatre group who was about to commit
suicide by taking on Dottie Ashley over one of her stupid reviews.
This group had just pulled off one of the best live musicals ever
done by a local group in Charleston. This was back in the early
years when we covered all the arts. Ashley had said in her review
that it was too bad they had to use recorded music since the singers
were so good. She had taken it upon herself to "help"
some groups and "hurt" others - competition is tough
in the performing arts sector. The only problem was that the music
during this performance was live. Any idiot should have been able
to see the musicians in the wings. These people were ready to
go to war with this review, but it would have been suicide for
the group. After one complaint she would have panned all their
future performances - no matter what. I came up with a solution
to save face on either end of the issue. I would fall on my sword.
Our next issue was just about to come out and I decided to insert a second cover page raving about this musical performance stating that it was so good that I was also fooled about the live music - it was too good to believe it could be live! This was the only way to diffuse the situation. To this day I can't believe I jumped on my sword to save a group from critic's hell and to save a little face for Dottie Ashley. She's lost whatever face I saved a long time ago, and we don't even cover the performing arts anymore. I learned that it's not worth your integrity to save a performing arts group or a less than aware newspaper critic. I don't lie anymore.
Q: Speaking of newspaper critics - care to make some comments about that subject or the local folks who do them?
A: Say, do you remember who owns this paper?
I thought we discussed this ahead of time - you pitch the softballs
and I hit the home runs. I didn't agree to any hardass questions
meant to put me on the spot. This interview is way over. My people
will be talking to your people.
Although, the subject you bring up is enticing. That is about reviews in general. Openly talking about personalities who cover the arts in local and alternative newspapers (other than Dottie Ashley) - now that's downright unprofessional. But if they're supposed to be professionals - I don't want to be professional too. Let me address the issue of reviews and chew on the other subject for awhile - let me think about whether I want to run out on that tree limb or crawl slowly. But, before we get too far away from the subject of commentaries, I want people to know that all my commentaries are backed up with my name being offered along with the commentary. Try and get that from your local daily newspaper. They may list a team of editors, but they will never put their name on an individual editorial - they'll all gutless wonders who want to have their opinions and hide behind them.
Reviews done by local people in most of the Carolinas are questionable to begin with. First of all how do you write about and criticize people you deal with on a regular basis? How can you be objective and then look them in the face again? Nobody wants to hear the truth about their art. I'm human too - I don't want to hear the truth about this paper - about me. I'll take it but I don't have to like it. What most artists and galleries think of when they say they'd like a review done of their exhibit is that they would like a great sales endorsement. They want a positive advertisement. They want the kind of publicity that brings people through the door. That's not what reviews are about.
Most people don't understand that a "review" is not a "preview". If you ask for a review you should be able to handle it if someone is willing to give you one. You would hope that the person doing the review is qualified to do one and not just a person willing to do it or who was just assigned to do one.
I can freely admit that I am not qualified to review art. I can give you my opinion - I'd rather not, but an opinion is all I can offer and it's not a very educated opinion at that - so I don't do reviews, although many people ask me to do them. No way! But, is a review anymore than the writer's opinion?
I happen to believe that reviews are nothing but the writer's opinion. Through time, I either choose to value that person's opinion or not. And, even then, I'm not going to let someone tell me what I should like or not like. Frankly, I don't care for them at all and I'm close to not offering them in our paper anymore.
To me, a perfect reviewer would be a person who is educated in all aspects of the subjects they review. They would be the kind of person who doesn't socialize within the community they review - I don't want them to be a monk - they should know their community well, but just not hang out with the people they are reviewing. In each review they would declare whether they liked what they saw or not and give reasons for their feelings - admitting to any prejudices they have. They shouldn't try to imagine what was in the artist's head when they created the work - something that is impossible - unless the artist offers a statement with the exhibit.
Q: You're not asking for much, are you? Under your standards there wouldn't be many reviews being done, would there?
A: And, that's the way it should be. Most people
doing reviews in newspapers in the Carolinas are not qualified
to do them. They are just people who are willing to do them. Some
are better at it than most, but even giving them that much credit
is going too far in thinking that they are qualified professionals.
You know they have schools for this kind of work. You can get
a masters degree in art criticism. How many people do you think
have those kinds of credentials who are writing reviews right
now in North and South Carolina? How many were writing articles
for the sporting section before they were transferred to the arts
and entertainment section? Unfortunately, in the Carolinas we
do with what is available. It's not a high priority at many daily
or alternative newspapers. And, like most things in life - you
get what you pay for.
Q: So, are you going to give your views on some of the people writing reviews? Can you take the heat?
A: OK, I'll walk out on the limb and draw fire
on myself, but here's a warning to people in the future - don't
stand so close to me - you could be hit by stray fire. You ask
the questions and I'll give you my thoughts.
Q: So, what do you think about Jeffrey Day, staff reporter and critic at the "State" newspaper in Columbia, SC?
A: Well, Jeffrey Day, like me, is an angry
person. I don't think he's angry about the same things that I'm
angry about, but he is definitely angry, dissatisfied, unhappy
- whatever you want to call it. And, can you blame him. He works
for a newspaper that doesn't care much about the arts. He has
to cover both visual and performing arts, writing previews and
reviews. Everyone wants the attention - as long as it's positive.
He has no control over what he wants to write about, how much
space he can use, and when stories he writes will be printed or
bumped for an advertisement. I wouldn't work well under those
conditions. But, a job is a job.
Some wish he would be more positive about the arts community he covers - I'm sure people wish I would be more positive about some of the subjects I cover. Anything I could say about him, anyone could say about me, but if I was in the position of giving him a job description - here it is. First, you're working for the "State" newspaper, so keep your coverage within the state of SC - not many of your readers are looking for info about what's going on in New York or Atlanta from your paper. Don't let your personal interest dictate what you cover and how you cover it. As a paper that lives on revenue from advertising, try and give potential advertisers a reason to want to support your paper - don't spend your time giving them reasons not to. Walk a mile in their shoes - try and spend some time seeing things from the perspective of the people you are writing about. Keep everything in perspective - events that people pay for should be held to a higher standard that those that are offered for free. Ask yourself what you can do to lift standards to the level you would like to see them instead of tearing people down for what they do.
All these points are items I could start my day off with to be a better person, but as hard as I try - well, do you give any credit for trying? Frankly, I don't have a problem with Jeffrey Day. There are things I would do differently if I was in his position, but then again I'm different - I've had a different background, a different environment, a different perspective. Why do we expect people to always see things our way? I don't agree with his views on a lot of things, but I respect his opinion (that's all it is) and I respect the work he does. He could just have lunch with someone from the Arts Commission everyday and call his reports in from the local coffee bar.
Anyway, he is damned no matter what he does or says. If he gives some group or artist a bad review - within the week, there will be letters to the editor condemning his "opinion". Loyal followers of those receiving reviews can't take negative reviews - their group or artist can do no wrong - in their opinion. The same thing happens in Charleston - just try and say something negative about the Symphony without catching hell in the letter to editors section within days. It's the same for all reviewers - there is always another "expert" with their "opinion" in the letters to the editor section.
By the way, Jeffrey Day says that "Carolina Arts" is just a bunch of recycled press releases. I can't help it, I think the presenters of exhibits should know more about what they're offering and he must be getting different press releases than me - not many we get are suitable to go directly into the paper.
Q: Care to make any more comments about Dottie Ashley?
A: Sure, no love loss there. When the "State"
newspaper was sold to Knight-Ridder, one of the first things they
did was get rid of Dottie Ashley. Unfortunately, for the Charleston
area, the "Post & Courier" needed a quick replacement
to fill a spot in their features department and they didn't care
what they filled the spot with. I guess she knows something about
theatre - at least she tries to make you think she knows everyone
in the business - personally - from Broadway to L.A. Every time
someone dies she has a story about how they had lunch once or
an early morning breakfast after an awards ceremony - who can
dispute something after the person is dead. But, when it comes
to the visual arts, keeping track of complex figures & ideas,
and knowing whether people are telling the truth or not - she
is lost. In order to be liked by a few fair weather friends in
the arts community she has sold herself to become a personal PR
agent for some groups and individuals. If she knew what these
same people said about her behind her back she wouldn't be able
to leave her house in the morning. She's just lucky that the "Post
& Courier" really doesn't care about being good at delivering
the news. We're probably stuck with her until that paper is sold
to someone too.
Q: Is there anyone else you would like to mention?
A: Oh sure, put the burden on me. I guess I'm
supposed to hang myself. OK, how about Nicholas Drake - the art
critic, writer, artist, master of all things - the guy you either
like or hate in Charleston. Isn't that the way it is with everything,
some people like Fords while others like Chevys. Other than the
times he is buttering someone up to gain a more powerful position,
we're lucky to have someone who cares so much about our local
art community to spend his whole life at it. If you can get past
the fact that he's the most contemporary artist, who did anything
worth doing - first, you'll see that he just wants the best for
Charleston. If not, why stay here and put up with all this stuff.
It's not like he's getting paid for all he does. And, what's wrong
with having confidence - I wish I had some of it at times. The
only problem he has is that he tends to wrap everything he writes
or talks about around himself and sometimes lets criticism be
determined by his past history with someone.
Then there is Teri Tynes, editor and sometimes art reporter & reviewer, of the "Free Times" in Columbia, SC. The art community in Columbia is very lucky that she came along and offered an alternative to Jeffrey Day's voice. Like I said before, she's a different person with a different background and she responds to things differently. Tynes doesn't shy away from pointing the finger at the real bad guys of the art community, but overall is more positive and supportive of the art community. I just wish she'd get fired or pregnant or something where she needed to write parttime so I could hire her to write for us. Of course, one day she may be writing for Knight-Ridder, but I hope not - perhaps the view from the desk at an alternative newspaper gives you a clearer picture of things.
Q: How about the folks in North Carolina?
A: Well, we've only been in North Carolina
for three years. That may seem like a long time to some people,
but I'm not that secure yet about commenting about writers there.
It takes a lot of behind the scenes conversation and observations
to really get a clear picture of where someone is coming from
- I'm just not there yet in North Carolina and not sure if I ever
will be at this point.
Q: Well how about the people who write for you or have written for you?
A: Man! Haven't I gone far enough out on this
limb yet? How about cutting me some slack.
Q: You don't mind commenting on the competition, doesn't it seem fair that you would offer some insight on the people you've offered to your readers.
A: OK, OK! In the past, we had two unique writers
working for the paper. The first was a character called "Constant
Theatergoer" an anonymous writer who will remain so. For
legal reasons I'll take that one to my death bed. This person
wrote a regular column about the theater community. This was back
in the days when we were "Charleston Arts". This person
knew that community inside and out. They wrote their column as
if it was a personal diary or a letter to another well-informed
friend. At times it was very biting and at times so hilarious
it was hard to catch your breath.
I never knew what this column was going to be about or who was going to be the target of the CT from month to month. At the time, it was the talk of the art community. Readers would turn to the page CT's column was on to read it first. Of course this was before my own commentary had sharpened to the razor's edge that it once was. Everyone wanted to know who the mystery writer was and many a guess was made as to whom people thought it was - but they were all wrong.
One month, CT's focus turned to the young lead singer of a local children's community theatre group. Apparently the night CT heard this young singer's performance - he was not in his best voice. The community stopped laughing. People demanded to know who this person was that would pick on a student performer. As much as I presented a case that any performer who stands on a stage where admission is charged to the audience is open to the critic's pen - the public wasn't buying it - they wanted to know who the accuser was. It's a basic American right and I had to agree. The only solution was to pull the plug on CT and make it the policy of the paper that anyone writing for the paper had to use their real name. But, it was too late to go back for CT. How I missed that column, but over time I came to a point where I feel that there is nothing more cowardly than writing under an anonymous name. That policy has cost us many a potential writer over time - too many want to write, but hide at the same time.
The other unique writer we offered was Kristina Montvidas Kutkus. She at one time wrote for the "Post & Courier," before they abandoned having reviewers cover the commercial gallery scene. Kutkus wrote a column called "The Engaged Eye". Here we had someone who actually studied critical writing in college with some of the best, including Beaumont Newhall, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., and Max Kozloff.
The column didn't really review single exhibitions, but much like CT's theatre column, it covered the overall visual art community. Readers got a really clear picture of what was going on, what shouldn't be missed, what if any relationship there was between one exhibit and another. It was a very popular column - so what happened to it? Well, "The Engaged Eye" fell victim to its own popularity. Artists began feeling that they just had to be mentioned in the column. The amount of pressure put on our writer was unbelievable. That's why I feel the perfect reviewer shouldn't live in the community they cover and shouldn't make friends there either - as friends can put the worst pressure on you.
We haven't lost Kutkus as a contributor to the paper totally. From time to time she takes on a special event or exhibit like a major show from Spoleto, but a regular column - no way - the artists just can't resist making pleas for attention. It's a problem with all reviewers until they develop a thick skin or become hated and feared by all.
Many of the other writers we've offered over the years either get too involved in the community or too busy with their own careers to be able to contribute on a regular basis. And, I have always wrestled with the fact that as a monthly paper it is hard to be timely in a community which offers many new exhibitions every month. Also, we pay better than most newspapers and I struggle to find funds from month to month to afford reviews.
At one time, I thought that a project getting good writers from around the state to do reviews was the kind of thing the Arts Commission could fund as a service to the art community and the artists, but as usual they were worried I would make a fortune off the deal - after all I am a FOR-profit. I would offer the space and the writers would get the funding - if anything I would lose on the deal, but it's all based on your point of view. I saw it as a service to the community - they saw it as a way I would get rich. It's too bad a Vulcan couldn't run the Art Commission! We need that kind of logic at that agency. By the way, back in the 1980's the Arts Commission paid the "New Art Examiner," a magazine based in Chicago, to include reviews about SC exhibits. They also paid USC Art professors to coordinate the project, but very few reviews were written and the magazine wasn't readily available in SC. I'm sure the editor's of that NON-profit ran all the way to their favorite Chicago bank laughing.
Q: I can feel your blood pressure going up again. New subject - as a kid did you want to be a cross-country truck driver?
A: For those who don't know, that's a reference
to the fact that I personally deliver "Carolina Arts"
across both North and South Carolina each month. I put in about
3,000 miles a month trucking the paper from one gallery to another
from Black Mountain to Asheboro to Hilton Head Island. It takes
five full days delivering the paper making trips that range from
12 hours to 18 hours a day driving in big circles - very big circles.
And, that's on days in the winter when I leave in the dark and
return in the dark, days when on my first step outside the house
I was soaking wet to the last step getting back in the house -
hot days, cold days, and days in the middle of passing tropical
storms. When the paper is ready it's time to deliver.
On the longest trips I start at midnight and don't return home until after supper time. On short days I get to sleep in until 2 or 3am and can get home as early as 1pm. But on those day I have to wrap papers in bundles to mail off to places too far to drive to.
Q: So we should feel sorry for you.
A: I wouldn't feel sorry for me at all. If
anything, feel sorry for my van. It currently has over 274,000
miles and is still running. My goal is 300,000, but after that
it might just become a challenge to see how far it would go. I've
made those trips as enjoyable and comfortable as possible. I listen
to recorded books on tape - I've now listened to more books than
I would have ever read on my own. And, believe it or not, each
month the trip gets shorter - as long as I don't add any more
Think about it, each month during these travel days from 10am to 6pm I get to see more art galleries and art museums that most people get to see in a year. I've seen artwork from artists all over the Carolinas. I also get to take advantage of everything the different cities I travel to offer as far as shopping, eating, sightseeing, etc. I can get around these cities fairly easily and know the roadways of the Carolinas like the back of my hands. Last year this knowledge came in handy. While thousands of people were trying to escape Hurricane Floyd on I-26 - the world's largest parking lot, my family and I were traveling 55mph on SC's back roads all the way through Georgia to Alabama. My van has a compass mounted on the dash and I know there is always more than one road to get anywhere.
Between listening to books, or music, I get plenty of quiet time to think about things - what the next commentary is going to be, how I want the web site to look, and other important issues like why is the moon sliced in half at times and in the shape of a crescent at others. National Public Radio keeps me informed on politics and the news. And, no, I don't contribute to the endowment fund - I pay my taxes. Plus, traveling around NC, I learned that SC's public radio system is a joke compared to the variety and quality offered on NC's numerous public radio stations - sometimes up to three and four different stations covering an individual city.
There is another bonus. Each month I know what galleries have disappeared since I was last there. This keeps me from listing non-existent galleries in my list of galleries for months and sometimes years after they have closed - like some other newspapers around the Carolinas.
Q: Well my friend - I am still your friend, right? I think we've covered enough ground for now. Is there any last thing that we didn't cover that you're just dying to comment on?
A: Oh sure, after you do you're bit of hardball
pitching you want to tie things up and end this interview. There's
tons of stuff we didn't cover.
Q: Out of all those tons of stuff, is there anything the public would be interested in or are you getting a kick out of hearing yourself talk?
A: You're right! I've probably already gone
too far. Right now I can't think of any major points of interest
we haven't talked about, but I'm sure I will later - on the next
road trip. This is enough. After all, I do have another issue
to turn out.
Editor's Note: If you actually got this far through this interview I admire your endurance. If there is anything you wished our reviewer would have asked - e-mail us your questions and we'll see if we can get you an answer. Others will probably never get this far.
Mailing Address: Carolina Arts, P.O. Drawer
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