Past Comments

August Issue 2004
by Tom Starland

I Went To The Arts Commission

As I said last month - the SC Arts Commission called together a few commercial gallery owners to talk about the role for-profit galleries play or could play in the greater overall visual art community in SC.

I don't like that phrase. It sounds like the for-profit sector is a minority player, but according to the SC Arts Commission's own economic study on the impact the arts make in SC, it states that the for-profit sector amounts to about 50% of the overall impact. So, I don't think we're the minority player here. But, it must have sounded good to the Arts Commission when they wrote the invitation to those gallery owners. And, when you count the impact made by individual visual artists - we commercial folks out perform all sectors on the non-profit side of the impact study. And, we don't get our start-up money from the taxpayers either.

Well anyway, I went to the meetings - there were two, and I sat and listened to what was said by all. I spoke only once at each meeting. Do you know how hard that was? So what happened?

Here's how I saw the event. I use the word event as that's how the gallery owners seemed to think of the meetings - like it was a cold day in hell when they would find themselves invited to the Arts Commission to chat about things. That's an event.

Now I'll admit right up front like I did last month - I'm biased - I see things through my own experiences. And, I'm sure the Arts Commission will make a report expressing their view of the way things went - so to each his own. I personally can't wait to see a copy of that report.

The meetings were very friendly and cordial. The gallery owners were asked to introduce themselves - they did. Then the real meeting began in that familiar form of a facilitated meeting. People say things, they get written down on large sheets of paper and then the papers are put on the wall. I've seen it a million times and just when someone gets on a good track, someone points to the paper and says. "Let's get back to the list." The list is all important. I hate those kinds of meetings.

The gallery owners were asked to come up with a list of what they offer by their existence. They were asked to come up with a list of challenges facing them. And, eventually a list of what things the Arts Commission could do for them. This took two meetings and it all boiled down to three words.

1. Information, 2. Advocacy, and 3. Education.

That was the ending point of the two meetings - three words you can really sink your teeth into. I don't know how those words are going to be transformed into any positive results - on the side of the gallery owners. But who knows. I look for deed not words. So time will tell.

What really struck me about the meeting was the frustration level of some of the gallery owners. They would offer ways in which they could be helped - with no funding needed from the Arts Commission - but they were only offered in return excuses as to why these ideas couldn't work. They never offered any solutions to problems - just glances back and forth at each other - concluding that they couldn't come up with any way they could participate. In some cases they were too short handed and in others resources just didn't exist. I can only imagine how the gallery owners walked away from those meetings.

Fellowship Awards

There was a day when an artist who received a Fellowship Award from the SC Arts Commission really had something - $7,500 - ships each year, one for craft and one for visual art - that's $4,000 total. And they also announce two alternate (backup) artists, who get no money, but the knowledge that they came in second. It's a status thing I guess.

You can find an article about this year's SC Arts Commission's Fellowships on Page 12. I also wanted to mention to all those interested in applying for the 2006 Fellowships - the deadline is Oct. 1, 2004.

Now for the downer. On Page 14 there is an article about an exhibition at the Hickory Museum of Art in Hickory, NC, featuring the work of 14 of the current NC Arts Council's Fellowships for visual artists. That's right - 14. Of course they only do this every other year, but that's still 10 more than SC does every two years. And, here's the kicker. The NC Arts Council awards $8,000 for each Fellowship. And, I think they're still working in the same economic times that we are in SC. How do they do it?

Frankly, I don't know how they do it, but I think they value their artists more than some people do in SC.

I think I know why SC's Fellowship Award has shrunken to such a small amount - it's the overhead of the SC Arts Commission. At almost 50% of their overall budget, it's no wonder they have to make so many cuts in services. If you want to maintain one of the largest state arts agencies in the nation, you have to make sacrifices somewhere and there is no better place to start then with the people you're suppose to serve - the artists.

I mean what do you do when the state keeps cutting your budget - cut staff or services? It's a hard decision but many other state agencies in SC decided their mission was to serve the public - not themselves.

In my opinion the staff of the SC Arts Commission is fat. I don't mean they are overweight - there's just a lot of them - compared to other state art agencies in the US.

The SC Arts Commission has 30 staff members. They used to have more, so they have cut staff members and have left some positions unfilled, but they still have 30 employees and they have cut a lot of programs and services.

Why do I say this agency is fat? Well let's just look at our neighboring states. The North Carolina Arts Council has just 26 staff members and the Georgia state arts agency operates on a staff of 10. Wow, how is that possible? Georgia is the largest populated state of the three.

Now most people know SC is a small state and according to a recent report, our state is holding the second largest amount of state debt - only second to South Dakota. So, we're poor. Everyone should know that.

People should also know that North Carolina is larger than South Carolina. They have 100 counties compared to 46 in SC. NC has many more major cities resulting in more population and many more art organizations - more non-profits receiving funding from the NC Arts Council. And, of course the citizens of NC through the leadership of their state representatives gives the NC Arts Council more money than SC gives the SC Arts Commission, but not as much per person. Actually SC gives more for the arts per person than NC does, but how much of that money reaches artists and the community in SC - with such a large staff.

I know it's hard to believe that SC legislators give more money per each and every citizen than NC does to their arts community - per each and every person in NC. If you know anything about the two states it just doesn't seem possible - it just doesn't compute. The numbers don't lie, NC and GA both have about 8 million people and SC has 4 million people.

Now if you know anything about the art communities in North and South Carolina - there is not much comparison. I mean you can make comparisons, but most of the time SC will come out on the short end of the stick.

I love SC and I choose to live here, but it's not hard to look at NC and be envious of what is going on there in the art communities and when you focus on the visual arts - it hurts.

Oh, I know some of the artists and people in NC are not happy with their lot in life, but if they ever lived in SC - they would get over it. And, I'm not saying the folks at the NC Arts Council are saints. I've heard lots of complaints on that side of the Carolinas too. But, NC is doing a better job in promoting, developing and supporting the arts and with less money and fewer people. So, why shouldn't I and many others in SC be unsatisfied with the performance of the SC Arts Commission? They haven't given me many reasons to be satisfied, much less happy or even proud.

Here's another problem with the SC Arts Commission's budget - about 50% of the total budget goes to overhead - staff salaries, benefits, and agency expenses. That doesn't leave much left to go toward artists and serving the public.

On Page 14 we offer an article sent us by the Arts Commission about how much money they are granting artists, art organizations, schools and other arts related programs - about $1.4 million. That's just a little more money than what is equal to the Arts Commission's staff salaries and when you add in benefits - it could be less. You got that? The amount the Arts Commission distributes in funding is about equal to what they pay themselves or the state pays them - or better yet - what the taxpayers of this state pays them.

And, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that they are over paid. Suzette Surkamer, director of the Arts Commission is paid $79,634. It may seem like a lot but it is less than an assistant university professor at one of our state universities or less than an engineer at the highway department is paid. The problem is that with such a large staff and overhead the Arts Commission is using up half of their total budget on administrative costs and the amount they distribute to artists and the art community is only equal to the salaries of the staff - that's not very efficient. (You can see more details about these numbers on our website version of this commentary.) And, some money which comes from other sources is mandated to go toward specific programs. So that money is tied to certain funding and is not available for general distribution.

And, the sad fact is that most of the money the Arts Commission distributes goes to other arts councils and art organizations that use a portion of that money on their administrative costs - so that once the money eventually trickles down to the artists who actually produce art in SC - it is very little. Two Fellowship Awards at $2,000 each equals $4,000 each year toward the top award an artist can receive for achievement in SC.

Of course the Arts Commission would tell you that the money they give is matched by money from the community resulting in more money going toward the arts. We're talking about their money and, where it goes.

I think it might be better if artists just sold their work instead of concentrating on receiving grants or awards in this state. But that's my opinion - biased as it is.

Complaints, complaints - what about solutions. Well, I don't usually complain about something without offering a solution or two.

First off, there needs to be an overall review of the SC Arts Commission and I don't mean an internal review. They don't think they are doing anything wrong.

After the mess is cleaned up, we need to see about getting more funding for the arts - funding that reaches into every part of the arts community - whether it is favored by agency staff members or not. The program in NC is more grassroots oriented than a program mandated by a central governing body. Let the people in the communities decide where and to whom the money should go.

And, finally the Arts Commission needs new leadership - at the staff level and at the Commission Board level. They haven't been doing a very good job. I hope the Governor's office takes a close look at this agency now that they have been made aware that things are not going peachy there.

Closer to home - I think individual artists in SC need to get organized as do the commercial galleries - for several reasons. They need to lobby the leaders of this state for better assistance in helping make SC an arts destination, for communicating with each other, and sharing experiences toward healthy development and growth. The current Arts Commission is not our friend and it may be years, if at all, before changes come. So we need to start making needed changes ourselves. But it doesn't mean we have to forget about demanding better service from taxpayer funded state agencies. Same goes for the folks in NC if they are not happy with their state arts agency.


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