Past Commentaries

July Issue 1999
by Tom Starland

Thanks For The Letters

First off, thanks for all the letters in response to last month's request to update our good letter file. Unless you have a burning desire to add yours to the collection - we have enough. I was surprised at some of the authors, including folks whom I didn't know read the paper, much less the commentary. Thanks again. Really!


I have always said that one of the best things that could happen to an artist is to have someone steal some of their work. Throughout history the theft of art has provided some of the biggest news headlines. It's almost like a bank robbery. The thought of daring thieves breaking into a highly guarded facility and making off with valuable art is startling and adventurous at the same time. Not so, when it happens to you. And, that's what happened to Rhett Thurman. Some bold person walked into the entrance of her King Street studio in Charleston, SC, and walked off with three oil paintings. Check out pages 16 & 31 to see the stolen paintings. Call 843/577-6066 with info.

Spoleto Spin

Well, I survived another one. I hate to say it, but the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival has become something to endure instead of enjoy. I guess after 20 years of exposure, yes, I didn't much pay attention at first, so I missed a few years, my own personal cultural benchmark has been lifted to a level so high it takes a lot to get me excited about participating. I'm not saying there wasn't a lot of really exciting events to see this year - I just couldn't get in the proper mood.

Now, when I talk about the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival, I'm talking mostly of the performing arts festivals. I saw 99 percent of the visual art offerings. I say 99 percent, as I'm sure I missed something. I even saw the 10 percent effort Spoleto made this year. I'll have to give them a "C" for effort, but in my book a "C" isn't a passing grade.

The City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs didn't score much higher. It may have passed for some kind of effort, but I just wish they would stop trying. As I said last month, I liked the Pernille Dake exhibit and poster, but from there, the exhibits went mostly down hill. And, I'm not talking about the exhibits presented by others, such as the Outdoor Show at Marion Square and the Craft Shows. At the top of the heap was the pathetic attempt at another two-state juried exhibit. Look, I don't really have a problem with any of the art presented - the artists at least made the entry deadline and the cut by another experiment at selecting a juror for this show - a job I don't wish on any self-respecting art enthusiast. When you select a performance artist as a juror, you have to expect a performance - good or bad.

My basic problem with this show is that the Office of Cultural Affairs keeps trying to do it. Stop! Please stop! For an exhibit that should be the most important visual art event in the state - due to the exposure to the Spoleto audience - it is the worst juried exhibit in the Carolinas.

Let me state my reasons - short entry notice, too high entry fee, too low cash awards, no consistent exhibit space, poor jurors, little if no promotion of exhibit, and all this organized by people who know nothing about visual arts, and care even less. If anyone cared at the City, it wouldn't have gotten this bad after 20 years of trying.

So, I've come to the conclusion that something else has to be done as far as the visual arts go and the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival. We need a new visual arts consortium to handle visual art activities during the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival. We need better vision and leadership, and independence from the other festivals.

Charleston's commercial visual arts community is doing just fine on its own, the Gibbes Museum of Art is doing fine on its own, the College of Charleston will do fine on its own and much better after its short-lived relationship with the City has ended, and the rest of it all will do much, much better once it's in the hands of people who know and care about the visual arts.

The way things are going, next year's juried show will be taking place at the SC Aquarium, if it opens in time, or should I say, can afford to open the doors when the time comes. And, the juror for the show will probably be Captain Nemo.

It would be easy to say, just let the Gibbes head it up, but that would be putting too much emphasis in one area. We need people from the Gibbes, the College of Charleston, and the commercial sector to form this all to important body of vision and leadership. And, I don't think it should be just a Charleston thing either. These shows are too important, or at least they should be important to the entire state of SC and the Carolinas for that matter, to leave it up to the City of Charleston to continue to embarrass us each year and wait for Spoleto to decide if they're doing visual arts every three years or every three or four years - as was stated this year. Translation - no Spoleto visual arts next year.

When there is no visual art component to the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival, art critics and writers don't take notice and the national visual art audience doesn't show up. And, that's not good for the visual art community as a whole. Something different has to be done and soon.

Now, on to a few comments about another visual art offering - Edith Kelman's Fiber & Light 1999 and the LOCUS Center for Contemporary Art.

It took longer to flip through the press packet LOCUS sent me, two months late, than the actual light show lasted - 10 or 12 minutes. I doubt that most people who paid the $3 admission for the short performance knew that one group of ticket holders actually got to see a dancer interact with the fiber and light. Hey, what about the rest of us. Also, it was suggested after the showing I viewed that many people have been coming back and back to sit in different parts of the room to see an entirely different show - right.

If you're too young to remember the sixties, than you might have been impressed with this show, but since this is the end of a century of technological wonders - a light show using noisy (unmuffled) slide projectors is just too much to take seriously in 1999. The only impression I left with was the annoying sound of that projector cramming the next slide into the beam of light. According to the press packet, this show is also fairly old. It may have impressed the LOCUS Board member who paid for this show to take place, but I don't think it answered the questions of - what is LOCUS and do we really need LOCUS.

At this point I've given up hope that LOCUS will ever have a contemporary art center, except in its name. I feel sorry for the folks who have put an awful lot of work into trying to start such a center, but after four years and only three exhibits, they need to cut their losses and throw in the towel. I know what it's like to try and make something from nothing, but it just doesn't work. This paper was created out on my failure to establish a fine art photography center and gallery in Charleston. My advice to LOCUS' backers is to move on. No one will say you didn't try.

My final comment on the Spoleto/Piccolo Festival. Apparently, someone asked the question of who founded Piccolo Spoleto? I don't know if anyone really asked this question, but someone was really trying to get their answer out there. I just kept hearing it repeated that we should remember that Ellen Dressler Moryl founded Piccolo Spoleto, but my research didn't turn up any such fact. When I checked out the beginning of Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, what I found was that a series of Mini Festivals had been created to give local arts groups and local residents who could not afford Spoleto ticket prices a way to participate.

These Mini Festivals are the basis of what Piccolo has been for its 20 years, except that the Mini Festivals were free. The Mini Festivals were just renamed Piccolo in 1979 and taken over by the newly formed Office of Cultural Affairs, of which Ellen Dressler was the head. In 1977, Becky Hannum, was Spoleto's Program Coordinator for Daytime Activities and Mini Festival Program Coordinator. Local Mini Festival Coordinators were Mary Dean Richards, Mollie Ravenel, and Paul Figueroa. I searched everywhere to find Ellen Dressler's name as Founder, but I couldn't find it anywhere in Spoleto's Official Program or the programs for the individual Mini Festivals. Even in Piccolo's first Program Guide it plainly states that the City was just taking over the Mini Festivals and giving them a new name and expanding the program - the end of totally free programming.

Frankly, I don't think it matters one way or another if someone founded Piccolo or not. Ellen Dressler Moryl ran Piccolo from the start of when the City took over the Mini Festivals, then she left Charleston for a while. During her absence, Piccolo and the Office of Cultural Affairs was run by Diane Abbey. Then Dressler returned and soon after Abbey left Charleston and Dressler became head of Cultural Affairs again. Some say Abbey was better for the visual arts. Some say Moryl is better for the performing arts groups. I've dealt with both and wonder what it would be like to have someone heading the Office of Cultural Affairs who had no preference for any particular medium of the arts. Do you? I know a lot of people who are.

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