Past Comments

April Issue 2008
by Tom Starland

More Endorsements

My latest issue of Rolling Stone shows me that I'm not the only one to throw the weight of a publication behind Barack Obama's run to be president. It can't be long now.

The 40 Anniversary Lists

Staying with our recent theme of looking at the South Carolina Arts Commission's celebration of its 40th anniversary with the posting of - 40 something lists on its website - let's take a look at the lists of the Artists' Fellowships and the State Art Collection.

I know to them this seems like cherry-picking but when I looked at the lists a few things stood out. I've kept my own records on these two lists over the years so I have noticed some patterns.

When looking at the State Art Collection I began to notice that there weren't many works in the State Collection which were created since the year 2000. In fact I only found five works by four artists. None were older than 2001.

Now perhaps they have been purchasing works that were created before then, but I found it strange that here it is 2008 and there are only five works in the collection which represent the 2000 decade. That didn't seem to be very representative. Or did artists stop producing good works in the new millennium?

Not seeing any news in the past few years about recent purchases I have to wonder if any works are being added to the State Collection.

Then when I looked at the list of recent Fellowships I started checking to see if any works by these artists were being added to the State Collection. I found that since 1999, out of the 18 (visual & craft) Fellowships only six had works in the Collection and many of them were purchased before the year 2000.

Now that seemed funny as these Fellowship artists are supposed to be the cream of the crop. Here's what the Commission says about the Fellowships on their website: "For 31 years, the South Carolina Arts Commission's Fellowship program has recognized and rewarded the artistic achievements of South Carolina's exceptional individual artists. Fellowship awards are made through a competitive, anonymous process and are based on artistic excellence only."

If that's the case and I won't dispute it - why have only 6 of these 18 had works added to the State Collection?

When I went back and looked at the 90 Fellowships awarded since 1976 (which includes only 79 different artists due to those winning twice and a few three times) only about half had works selected to be in the State Art Collection.

The Arts Commission has this posted on their website about the State Art Collection: "Established in 1967 as one of the first programs of the South Carolina Arts Commission, the State Art Collection has grown to include 441 works by 271 contemporary South Carolina artists."

That averages to about 11 works a year. Based on that average there should be at least 88 works of art which represent the 2000 decade. I could only find five.

The Commission also says on their website that, "The State Art Collection is the most comprehensive collection of works by contemporary South Carolina artists."

I do have a problem with that statement. And, I dare say most of the visual artists in the state would too - especially 50 percent of the Fellowship artists.

At best, you might be able to say that the State Art Collection is a fairly decent look at works by SC's university and college art professors and their students and a helter skelter jumble of artists who at some point in time were working in SC. It is not a very representative collection of works being done by all of SC's visual artists. It's very obvious that the people who have been selecting these works didn't care for some mediums or subjects - popular with most citizens in SC.

So, it's the Arts Commission's collection.

It's a collection which not many people see - if you don't frequent State buildings. It's a collection which doesn't have a curator, focus, or even much historical context. Most people don't have a clue how these works are selected or who makes the selection.

Now you would think that the Fellowship awards and the State Collection would go hand and hand, but the only thing I see that they have in common is their randomness.

The Fellowships are supposed to represent "artistic achievements", "exceptional individual artists" and "artistic excellence", but the pool which each selection is made from is only full of those artists who apply by deadline. The "anonymous" folks who select this award know nothing of SC's visual art community. They just know what they see in a stack of applications or on a power point slide show.

Of course, the "most comprehensive collection" may be on its way to being irrelevant.

Mark Sloan, head of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, along with an old high school friend who is now head of the Medical University of South Carolina (another state agency) just established the Contemporary Carolina Collection at MUSC's new Ashley River Tower in Charleston.

In a very short time, Sloan and his old friend raised private funding, made a call for artists to apply, and purchased 885 works from 53 artists - creating the largest body of original, contemporary, South Carolina art on permanent display - all in one location - open to the public. (See our SC Institutional Gallery listings for Charleston to see times the work can be viewed.)

Although that collection only represents 53 artists - it's more than double the size of the State Collection that has taken 40 years to assemble. And most of the work is current. They are also soliciting donations for further acquisitions.

Now comparing the two collections is like comparing apples with oranges, but folks - they're both fruits. How could so much be done in such a short time by a few folks here in Charleston, yet the State Art Collection - seems to have come to a standstill in the new millennium?

Now, again, as I stated last month - we should give credit where credit is due and since it is the mission of the SC Arts Foundation, the SC Arts Commission's twin sister, in that they share location, staff and phone number, to raise funds for the Fellowship awards and purchasing works for the State Art Collection. They perhaps are the ones sitting on their hands during the 2000's. The SC Arts Foundation has 31 members from around the state, but apparently they don't have much ability to raise funds - compared to some. And, of course I guess we can't expect the Arts Commission to use any of its $3.7 million budget to purchase works for the Collection.

So, again, I ask - what does the SC visual art community have to celebrate about the SC Arts Commission's 40th anniversary?

When you take a close look at some of their "listed" accomplishments (from a visual art point of view) you'll find that what you discover is that over the past 40 years the Commission has served a few artists - very well and served the majority of artists - not at all. Talk about cherry-picking!

What About North Carolina?

Well, for those keeping score. In NC, much like SC, they give Fellowship awards out to visual artists - every other year, but when they do, they select 12 artists in the visual arts and give each artist $10,000. In SC, it's 4 awards every other year at $5,000 each.

Now, of course NC is much larger than SC and we know they are much more populated with a richer population, but it's the SC Legislature which gives the SC Arts Commission more money per person than the NC Legislature gives the NC Arts Council (the NC state arts agency). So it's not like in this case SC is the poorer cousin. And, as far as I can tell from the NC Arts Council's website, the money for their Fellowships comes out of their budget.

Also, as far as I can see from their website, the NC Arts Council does not purchase art for a collection of works by NC artists. The State of NC from 1982 - 1995 had an Artworks for State Buildings Program where one half of a percent of the cost of new buildings went toward art for those buildings. During that time 100 works by 78 artists were commissioned, including 58 site-specific works. Of those 78 artists selected - 68 percent were from NC or had close ties to NC.

So here, for NC artists - SC may have a better program of buying art that can be moved from one place to another and that it didn't include artists from elsewhere. But if you really took a close look at the artists in SC's collection - you might find some folks who have real loose ties to SC or just spent a year or two in the state.

And, as far as I know, artists in NC are not dissatisfied with the NC Fellowship program or the fact that their state arts agency is not purchasing works of art, but to me the big difference is - I'm not paying taxes in NC. So I'm a little more concerned with what goes on in SC - and I don't hear a lot of bitching from NC artists about the NC Arts Council. But, maybe I will now.

The fact is, when it comes to a state art collection, just like our SC State Museum has a state art collection, the NC Museum of Art has a state art collection. So maybe it's time the SC Arts Commission turned over their "State" collection over to the SC State Museum.

That was my #17 suggestion out of my "40 things I think the SC Arts Commission should be doing" list - found on our website at (, then Feature Articles in either Jan. or Mar. 08.

It's not the kind of list you'll find on the SC Arts Commission's website. Their lists are about things that really matter. Of course you know that my comments come from me. I doubt we'll ever know where the comments came from on their lists. Why is that so?


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