Past Comments

June Issue 2005
by Tom Starland

Pardon Me!

Pardon me for the twisted trail the commentary takes - this and every month!

No Character Checks at the Arts Commission

It looks like one of the winners of the SC Arts Commission's 2005 Artist Fellowship "lottery" will be using most of his $2,000 award on lawyer's fees - while he's serving time in jail. According to The State newspaper in Columbia, SC, Jack Steve Gerstner, Jr., of Columbia - the 2005 Visual Arts Fellowship recipient may have finally run out of charm.

The State reports, "A Columbia Municipal Court judge sentenced Gallery 701 executive director Jack Gerstner to 30 days in jail on Wednesday for not repairing the roof of his historic Olympia village building. Gerstner, who offered to serve 60 days if he didn't repair the building by a self-imposed Feb. 8 (2005) deadline, will serve weekends starting May 20, his attorney, Will Edwards, said. Also at Wednesday's hearing, Gerstner said he hired a contractor, and work has begun on a temporary, $53,000 roof on the building. Gerstner, an artist and art and music promoter, said he thought the jail sentence was 'unfair.' 'I made a good faith effort to get the roof fixed' by the self-imposed deadline, he said following the hearing."

"Judge DeAndrea Gist Benjamin said Gerstner had had plenty of time to raise funds and fix the roof," The State article continues. 'This has been going on since 2000,' she said, 'and the building is still an eyesore and a public safety and health risk.'"

City of Columbia inspectors pushed for Gallery 701 "owner" Gerstner to be jailed because he failed to put a roof on the historic building by his own self-imposed deadline to avoid fines for letting the building rot.

I don't think Gerstner is actually the owner of the building. He is the executive director of the non-profit organization Gallery 701, which holds ownership of part of the building known as Gallery 701. And, as we know, when the rule of law is handed down - there hardly ever seems to be anyone left standing behind a failed non-profit - taking responsibility.

Gerstner is a master of spinning dreams that never seem to come to pass and spends his days regurgitating days gone by.

Here is what was in the Arts Commission's press release about the Fellowship Awards describing Gerstner: "Jack Gerstner was born in Cheraw, SC in 1963. His family moved to Columbia in 1972 and Jack entered the University of SC in 1981. At USC, he completed a BFA degree in printmaking and drawing and pursued his MFA studies there, focusing in sculpture and installation. Most of his work for the last ten years has focused on installation and sculpture using found objects, tree branches, fibers and interesting environments, usually abandoned, rustic and distressed locations and buildings. In 1996, he founded Gallery 701, a progressive arts center located in a turn-of-the-century cotton mill community center. Gallery 701 features art exhibitions, dance, jazz and classical music concerts, theatre, opera and presentations of Tibetan and Native American culture."

It sounds to me like Gerstner was using the Gallery 701 building as an "art" project. The roof of this building collapsed in 2000. Yet, the Arts Commission statement acts as if the programing described is still going on in that facility. Of course Gerstner probably submitted the statement himself and the Arts Commission just reprinted it as fact. And, they didn't select him for the award - that was done by outsiders and they only look at what was submitted on an application. No background checks at the Arts Commission. Is this the kind of person SC should be hold up as an example - to give awards to?

Gerstner has been trying to raise $53,000 to repair the roof, yet to date all he seems to have, reported by The State, is a matching "pledge" of $25,000 from BlueCross BlueShield of SC and a rescinded pledge of $25,000 from the City of Columbia, made several years ago. Although his website claims more money has been raised - somehow I'm not buying it.

Some involved don't think $53,000 will repair the roof, much less do anything to help the rotting building. Gerstner has refused to allow City inspectors to do an internal inspection of the building. What's that all about? The recovery of the building by outside professionals is estimated to be closer to $500,000 - not $53,000 - which has not been raised.

In my opinion, Gallery 701 - the building and the organization combine to make one of the great black holes of the universe. Any money put toward this roof repair project will only rob other worthy projects of needed funding. It shouldn't have taken five years to raise this money. But, after all, we're dealing with a non-profit that is hiding behind the good reputation of other non-profit groups.

The issue at hand shouldn't be based on what you did in the past and what you will do in the future - if you get funding. It should be based on what you did yesterday and what you will do tomorrow. As far as I can see Gerstner and his Gallery 701 has never done anything without funding from another source, but he spins a good dream. What he probably has done is wasted a good building that at one time had some potential, but is far from recovery. I hope people won't waste another penny on this lost cause, but with an endorsement from the SC Arts Commission, Gerstner will be able to fool many more into giving him more money.

Gerstner's Gallery 701 foundation has been in violation of its nonprofit status almost continually since 2002, according to SC State records. There are too many other worthy causes in the arts to give your money to - don't buy into Gerstner's "pie in the sky" dreams. It all sounds like a "Grimm" fairy tale.

Gerstner's own tale reminds me of the time when the SC Arts Commission awarded a grant to former University of South Carolina president James Holderman, who was going to head up a dying theatre group in Charleston, SC. This group - Chopstick Theatre - winner of the SC Arts Commission's Verner Award eventually left the Charleston community with $200,000+ in unpaid debt. The Arts Commission is proud of the fact that they never gave Holderman any money, but that was after hell was raised when people found out about the award. I did some hell raising myself back then.

And, anyone in SC should know about Holderman's problem with money. For you folks in NC - forget about it! I don't have enough space to go into that issue again. Let's just say the former university president is spending time in jail after taking money from the FBI posing as Russians looking for visas.

But at the time, even after Holderman was banished from USC for his spending sprees, the Arts Commission thought his application for funding was "better" than others - so good, they awarded him a sizable grant. You see, they don't look at an applicant's past - they just go by what someone writes on an application. And, remember, there are no art police and there is hardly anyone looking at "bad" non-profits.

Back then, Chopstick Theatre also had a past to brag on and a lot of dreams for the future. But, the reality was - it was all smoke and mirrors and it cost good people a lot of money.

The City of Columbia and the State of SC should take a very close look at this organization (Gallery 701) and its financial situation. I mean a very close look. And, before awards are granted, someone should be looking far beyond what is written on an application - instead of just taking it for fact.

Staying with the Arts Commission

Judith McGrath asks in her column on Page 3 - "Would the State Gallery of North or South Carolina bypass one of their own fine artists to acquire a work by an Australian sculptor unknown to a large part of the population because the art experts and obligatory accountants say it's a good investment?"

The answer is - they do it in SC all the time. Or at least when they had the money. And, again - the folks at the Arts Commission will tell you - they didn't pick any work - the committee they selected picked the work. They at all times take no responsibility for their own actions - carried out by proxy by their selected panels.

The State Art Collection is full of work by artists just passing through the state. Time spent in SC or connections to it have no basis for selections for the State Collection. And, why should it when "State Collection" to the Arts Commission just means works owned by the State - not representing it.

Again, are these the fine folks who represent the Arts in this state? I guess so.

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