December Issue 2001
by Tom Starland
Buy Art for the Holidays
Every year, I make my annual suggestion for readers to buy art for the holidays. This year, more than ever, artists and art dealers - a.k.a. commercial galleries need your support. I can't think of anything that can move your status from an occasional art purchaser to major art patron than walking into a gallery right now and putting your cash, check or plastic down on the counter and walking out the door with art. You will become an art angel.
My wife Linda (the real power behind the throne) and I have purchased more art since Sept. 11 than ever before - original art, fine art crafts, fine art prints and reproductions. A lot of this art is for ourselves, but just as much will be holiday gifts. My own brother in the past has even heeded this annual message and I've been on the receiving end of my own suggestion. That was a nice surprise. So surprise someone you know - show them you have the excellent taste of giving art for the holidays.
A History Lesson
At the beginning of the 1990s, yellow-crowned night herons in massive numbers began making Washington Park in Charleston, SC their new home. Why Washington Park? Well, some thought it was the result of overdevelopment of SC's coastal areas, while others pointed fingers at dredging activities in Charleston harbor and the disposal of dredging sludge on Drum Island - a popular bird rookery located in the harbor. The tree pruning by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 may have played a part too. Whatever their reasons, the birds that is, their new attraction to Washington Park was making one annual event there a nightmare.
Beginning in the late 1970's and all through the 1980's, Washington Park had been home to the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Show - for 17 days in May and June each year. This was where Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley came up with the idea of giving local artists an opportunity to show their creative talents to visitors of the international Spoleto Festival USA and its local counterpart, Piccolo Spoleto, which featured the talents of local and regional artists - performing, literary, and visual arts. It was one of the best things the Mayor has ever done for the visual artists of Charleston - there is not a long list.
But that support for the local visual artists changed in the 1990's beginning with the battle of the yellow-crowned night herons. At first the City tried doing something to discourage the birds, but soon gave in to the heat provided by environmentalist. If you don't grasp the problem - let me draw a picture for you.
Let's say you just came from one of the chamber music performances at the historic Dock Street Theatre and you strolled over to Washington Park to view the outdoor art show, in your best cultural attire. The temperature is in the mid-90's, but you're holding your own and in the shade of the grand live oaks of Washington Park - you still think it's a pleasant day. While admiring a painting by one of the local artist, you notice that the ground you are standing on is covered in a white looking - whitewash substance. If you're a local resident, your mind might click in time for you to move on to safer ground, but if you're a visitors you might be moments away from experiencing something you'll never forget - a midday shower in an enormous amount of bird feces.
OK, with that picture in mind - the City decided to move the artists instead of moving the birds to a more natural habitat than the middle of Charleston. The artists didn't know it but they were about to become Piccolo's nomads - the band of wanders. Their first new home was King Street - that's right, they were moved to the sidewalks of King Street, or as the artists refer to it - gasoline alley. That was 1992. The only benefit to this location was the actions of an art thief, who gave the art show the most publicity it has ever received from the local press. In 1993, the artists moved to Marion Square - it was no Washington Park but it also wasn't King Street. It was better than nothing - at least you would think it was.
It took several years for Spoleto's annual visitors to find the artists at Marion Square, but eventually they returned and then the City started a major water drainage project which would go on for years. The park became a major dust bowl and storage facility for construction equipment. The artists were moved from one side of the park to the other and even split in two once with groups at either side of the park. There were threats of another move - to the College of Charleston campus, Waterfront Park, or even the Maritime Center parking lot. There seemed to be no end to the lack of respect for the artists and what these constant moves were doing to their show.
For the last two years the artists have been
moved temporarily back into Washington Park. So why not stay there?
Well, the problem is no longer the birds so much as residents
who live near the park. A few individuals are so upset at having
the artists park their cars in front of their homes (for 17 days)
that they have caused more problems with City Hall than the birds
ever did. And now, we have the renovations to Marion Square, where
the designers have filled every square inch of the space where
the artists used to pitch their tents - even after the Mayor -
the Honorable Joseph P. Riley promised that their would always
be room for the artists in the shade of the trees at Marion Square.
It's no wonder the artists are nervous wrecks about where they
are going to be this year.
Can you imagine the City changing the locations of your polling place every election? You wouldn't know where to go each time. After all, we're creatures of habit.
Well, the message here seems to be - no matter what the problem - birds, irate neighbors or overly landscaped parks - the artists always are the second if not the last consideration. What was once a noble act on the Mayor's part has become a political annoyance. I guess the Mayor is just not as powerful as he once was. There was a time when his word was gold. If the Mayor wanted an aquarium built on a toxic landfill twice the size research called for - so be it. If the Mayor wanted a costly new baseball stadium to serve a few thousand folks - so be it. If the Mayor wants to hold up a half-a-billion dollar bridge project until he has put his design finger print on it - so be it. And on, and on, and on...but, if the Mayor makes a promise to some artists when standing on the soapbox - well - he might not have that much power.
I have a theory that the real problem is that the City wants to move the outdoor art show to another location - a location which desperately needs an increase in public traffic. And there is only one place on Charleston's overdeveloped peninsula which doesn't seem to attract a crowd and that's the aquarium complex - including an IMAX theatre, the Fountain Walk development, the Fort Sumter tour facility, and of course the failing aquarium. People who have visited these places once don't seems to be inclined to visit them again - go figure.
We've seen this method of urban engineering before. When the City wants people to pay attention to one of their projects they schedule Piccolo Spoleto events there. That's how the Piccolo Spoleto Juried Exhibition ended up at Joe Riley Stadium one year - art at The Joe?
Who knows what's going to happen this year - and that's the point. With Spoleto just six months away no one seems to know just where or how the outdoor art show is going to take place. And, I guess I'll just have to keep wondering "publicly" until someone does know.
The Melting Down of Trust
There is another event taking place in Columbia, SC, which I would like to talk more about but I'm not yet up on all the facts. Well, I might never be - it's one of those she said, she says things. All I know is what I read in one of Columbia's alternative newspapers, even though you would think it's the kind of item you'd see in the daily paper - it's very juicy.
Apparently a Columbia sculptor was commissioned to produce a work to commemorate the AIDS Quilt which was to be placed in front of the Koger Center in Columbia by the head of the local arts council. A design was prepared, approved and produced, but never placed. What happened? Well, it is alleged that the artist was going to donate their services to the project, according to the arts council person. Gee, that's unusual, I don't know many sculptors who would do that. I'm sure there are some and it has happened - but on a local basis. Arts councils shouldn't be asking artists to donate art - they're supposed to be helping artists make a living. At least that's what all arts councils say when they ask for public funding. The arts council person claims the council just doesn't have the money to pay the artist for such a public project - so she couldn't have promised a fee. But, this is where I get real confused - is this the same arts council that organized a sculpture project which recently raised almost $200,000 for further public sculpture projects? What is that money being used for?
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