Past Comments

May Issue 2003
by Tom Starland

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

There are good things happening in the visual arts community. During a time of economic uncertainty and war, the commercial art community is holding its own with a strong dose of hope and a glimmer of light that can be seen at the end of a long tunnel. The building bubble of pent up art buying may be ready to burst. Although some galleries have closed their doors, other hopeful gallery owners have opened new ones. Compared to what's going on in the non-profit sector - things are not that bad - it's all relative.

The new shinning star, at least in SC's non-profit sector, is the "new" Sumter Gallery of Art. For a couple of years now I have expressed my amazement in events taking place in this B-list city in SC's midlands. I say B-list as most people only talk or know of the cities - Greenville/Spartanburg, Columbia, and Charleston - the big three. Not coming from SC originally, I don't hold to those home grown biases. Sumter is just fine with me and big enough, but to be known as a cutting-edge, hotbed of contemporary art creativity - that's the surprise.

Something has happened and continues to happen in Sumter that isn't going on in other cities throughout SC - major support for the visual arts and contemporary visual arts at that.

Sumter is the host of the annual Assessibility project which has placed site-specific installations on Main Street by artists from throughout the region and this year by international artists, and now there is the new gallery.

The Sumter Gallery of Art is one of the best exhibition facilities in SC, as well as one of the best arts educational facilities. First impressions in the form of exhibitions offered have been impressive. They also have a great gift shop there expanding the opportunities for purchasing fine art objects for locals and visitors alike.

It's no wonder SC's top curators and artists are drawn to the community - they're being offered a supportive climate not often found elsewhere - even in the "bigger" cities.

I used to deliver papers to Sumter during the middle of the night, but I've changed my schedule to be there during the day when the facility is open and I've enjoyed both shows presented since its opening. I've recommended others to hit the road to Sumter and would encourage others to do so also.

Let's hope the good people of Sumter keep up the support and good things keep coming from the creative and inventive leaders there. They've gotten our attention.

Good News Update

Last month I told you to check back here about a Studio Opening for Corrie McCallum. It's planned for May 16, from 4-8pm. The 89 year young artist will be on hand - as will her Verner Award. Come and buy art.

The Bad

It's that time of year again. The time when the Charleston Symphony Orchestra announces that they are in debt again and could go under without a major bailout from the community. This year they are only $500,000 in the red. The figure isn't important as this group never plans to be fiscally responsible and live within its abilities to generate income or donations.

Charleston's Mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. is quoted in the latest of the continuing articles offered by the Post & Courier for pleas to save the symphony as saying, "If we were not to have a symphony orchestra, or we were not to have a great symphony orchestra, the city's economic recruitment would suffer a tremendous setback as well." Well, the lack of a great symphony orchestra hasn't hurt us yet, I'm not sure what this statement has to do with the current situation of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. But, the mayor has also stated in the past during other pleas to save the orchestra that if we lost the orchestra, "the artistic soul of the city would be lost". Right, without the symphony people would just forget about the Spoleto Festival and the growing theatre and visual arts community in Charleston.

The article in the P&C goes on about how the symphony musician's average salary is less than $21,000 a year and that is where cuts will have to come without help from somewhere. The article didn't mention that the conductor, David Stahl, at one time was paid more money ($100,000 +) than Mayor Riley was and an executive director wasn't paid much less - of course he resigned earlier this year (sinking ships and all that). And, it didn't mention that the symphony has to have two conductors as Stahl works for several other symphonies. He's paid ($100,000 +) and is a part time conductor.

It would be nice to see the symphony's books to get a real picture of their finances. It would be nice to see if they are paying their rent to the City of Charleston for use of the Guillard Auditorium, what that rent is and how it compares to what others are charged for its use. It would be nice to see if the symphony is up on its payments of Charleston's seat tax. The City of Charleston is known for giving some arts groups better support than it does for others - in all kinds of creative ways.

The point is, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has received bail out after bail out and is always in this situation. They get the lion's share of public and private funding for any local arts organization (excluding Spoleto) and it's still never enough. What more can government leaders, corporate leaders, and private contributors give them without robbing from those in the arts community who are more fiscally responsible?

But survival instincts are strong among predators, while the Savannah Symphony Orchestra was also suffering financial woes, Charleston Symphony Orchestra officials went to Savannah city officials with an offer to replace the SSO as a regional orchestra - serving Charleston and Savannah. They were quickly rebuffed as opportunist.

Of course the symphony is in good hands. The current head of the Board is Bonnie Lester. Oh wait, wasn't she the head of the Board of the Charleston Area Arts Council when it decided to dissolve the arts council without asking its membership. Boy, I would be worried if I was a supporter of the symphony. But don't worry, I'm sure Mayor Riley will find a way. Perhaps they can start performing at the Aquarium - that would help both organizations' attendance. (There I got my regular aquarium reference in.)

The Bad

It seems one of the subjects a former editorial, James Holderman, former president of the University of South Carolina is back in the news and back in the pokey. This time its for conspiring to launder drug money and arranging false visas for Russian Mafia members. Added to the list of tax evasion and fraud convictions, Holderman is just your average well connected ex-university president - not.

What really burns me about this guy is that SC is still full of people willing to come forward and tell a tale of how Holderman put USC on the map as a top educational facility - in their dreams or should I say fantasies. Holderman used his position at USC to satisfy his sexual desires for good-looking young men, including students, faculty, and paid guests of the university.

Stripped of power and influence, we are seeing the real person Holderman is - a real low-life. But, to point that fact out is outrageous to some because Holderman and his lawyers have gotten SC medical officials to claim he suffers from being manic depressive or by-polar.

In my first commentary, when I expressed a hope that SC never run out of its supply of lithium -- some said I went too far. As if I was mocking real people who suffer from this problem. Not so. Holderman is the typical white-collar crook who uses medical excuses for their actions - when they get caught. It's an insult to all those who don't commit crimes while suffering from manic depression to offer such excuses for people like Holderman.

Why even mention Holderman here in an arts newspaper. Well, back during his retirement, Holderman tried to take over the helm of a Charleston theatre group, who already had amassed a checkered history of financial shenanigans and the SC Arts Commission had awarded them a hefty grant.

Holderman was supported in his efforts by a shining article written by recent Verner Award recipient, Dottie Ashley, in the Post & Courier newspaper. I responded with a counter editorial and eventually Holderman's past caught up with him. The SC Arts Commission in later defense claimed - well, we never gave them the grant - but they were going to if the heat hadn't been turned on.

The point is - many people in the arts community get grants and awards from arts agencies without anyone checking into their past histories beyond the recommendations of close friends. It's still a state where what's important is who you know and not what you've done. And a heapin' helpin' of who you do things for and to.

Keeping an eye on the Holdermans of the world is important, as some people have short memories and you never know who will show up as a grant recipient.

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