Past Commentaries

September Issue 1998
Commentary by Tom Starland, editor / publisher
A Melberg Update
Unless you have opened a business in Charleston, SC, it would be hard to understand just how slowly the contractors and the city can move. There are a lot of obstacles thrown in your path that keep you from opening the door for business. It can be a trying experience, but it's Charleston and just one of the things that make up that love/hate relationship that keeps people in that city. I've heard some say it's just as bad in Asheville, NC, but I can't imagine that.
Mary and Jerald Melberg have been living through this unique experience with a pretty positive attitude - everyone else can't wait. Believe me, the Melbergs would like to be open too, but all good things take their time and when that time comes, they will throw a big bash to open those doors.
The current projection is for mid-October. Que sera, sera - what ever will be, will be. But, you're also going to have to wait until our next issue for the whole story on why the addition of the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charleston is a big deal - at least in Charleston.
A Tale of Two Cities
Last month, people in Columbia, SC, who make up that city's art community met for three days to conduct a public hearing on the arts. These people were called together by the Columbia Arts Task Force - a group of well meaning people appointed by Columbia's Mayor, Bob Coble, to solve the problems of Columbia's art community.
I was invited to this hearing, but fortunately I was engaged elsewhere on the day I was invited to attend. On that day, I took my son and one of his friends to tour the guided missile cruiser USS South Carolina. Believe me, my son and his friend got more out of that trip than I would have gotten attending another meeting about what's wrong with the arts. And, after reading newspaper reports of those three days of meetings I was really glad I didn't waste my time by going. It was just another bitch fest about what's wrong with the arts.
I can't wait to read the final report of the Columbia Arts Task Force and compare it to the one the Lowcountry Arts and Cultural Council released in 1996. It was called, "Creating Perspectives - A Vision for the Arts and Culture in the Lowcountry". It was a blueprint to solve all of the art problems in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester Counties in SC. Or better yet, I'll dig out my copy of the, "Ten-Year Plan for the Arts," authored by my favorite state arts agency. This was a plan to fix the arts in SC by the year 2,000. I keep them both in the Fiction section of my archives. These reports make inspiring reading for those who are reality challenged, and they represent what's really wrong with the arts - too many middlemen - too many unattainable goals. These plans also seem to never be followed.
What did the good folks in Columbia come up with at this public hearing portion of the Arts Task Force? Some of the usual complaints were as follows: no leadership, no coordination between groups, audiences that are too small, not enough free publicity in local newspapers, not enough funding - that's free money, and not enough subsidized facilities (in other words, cheap or free facilities for groups to use).
The funniest complaint I read came from William Starrett, director and founder of the Columbia City Ballet. He complained that out of his 2,000 ticket subscribers, only 79 are contributing to the group above their ticket price level. I hope that sounded as stupid to him as it did to me as he read it in the paper in stark black and white. Starrett is another good example of what's wrong with much of the art community - they never have enough. Here's a guy with 2,000 paid ticket holders and he's unhappy that only 79 are willing to pay more to subsidize his performances. Starrett's group also receives government funding, corporate funding, free and subsidized publicity, use of subsidized facilities, and on top of it all - a non-profit tax status. Get real, Mr. Starrett, you should have showed up at that hearing with a big smile on your face thanking everyone in sight for your good fortune, but you could only find your half empty glass. I hope you can hold on to those ungrateful ticket subscribers.
Another thing - about my invitation - I didn't like what I saw. The agenda for the three days was broken up into separate and unequal meetings with Columbia's big arts organizations and then general open meetings with nondescript groups. Was the Task Force afraid to get everyone together to hear what they would say in public - in an open forum? I also didn't see one visual arts group listed for a private meeting or any mention of the commercial art galleries. At the end of the third day one of the Task Force members was going to give a general wrap of the three days of hearings. I also don't trust anyone to interpret people's opinions and complaints for me - I've seen that happen too many times before. I suggest the Task Force meet with the commercial arts owners before they make any final report.
In the end, the process came up with the predictable observations: a need for inclusive, coordinated marketing of the arts; equal access to funding; examining the process for determining who gets funding and how much; developing better leadership; involving more young people; and the real kicker, establishing a city office of cultural affairs - more middlemen. They referred to the person who would run that office as an art Czar, and this is supposed to be an improvement.
Back to the Lowcountry. During the years between 1992 and 1996, the Lowcountry went through a similar process of solving the problems of the art community and coming up with a plan for the future. In Feb. of 1996, the group heading this effort released their plan mentioned above. The plan would be put into action by the Lowcountry Arts and Cultural Council (formerly the Charleston Area Arts Council). By July of this year, that arts council was throwing in the towel, just two years later. Their reasoning? A lack of support and interest. So much for the plan - any plan. And, now the Charleston area doesn't have an arts council.
What about that idea of setting up a city office of cultural affairs? Be careful what you wish for Columbia! Charleston, SC, has got one and it hasn't solved any of the problems mentioned at the Columbia hearings, except the Czar part. In fact, it's one of the reasons Charleston has never had a strong arts council. Just remember that a city run office of cultural affairs can become a political animal, run by the party currently in power. Politics have never been a model for fairness. Before you know it, funding and programing can become based on what brings in the most votes during elections.
When I think of the list of wants mentioned at this hearing I don't get a picture of the Charleston City Office of Cultural Affairs. I've been covering the arts in Charleston for twelve years and I can't remember ever seeing a public notice about applications for city funding or notice of who got funding and how much they got. What I do know is that some groups get everything from the city and others get meetings, and meetings, and meetings - until they forget what they were after in the first place. Some groups get loans from the city and some don't have to repay their loans - it's just another form of funding without an application.
The Charleston City Gallery is the smallest in the Carolinas, yet the city maintains three performance spaces at a loss of $500,000 yearly, and still lets local performance groups use them for next to nothing. The Mayor wants to build another performance space and recently convinced City Council to approve a $1 million donation to the local school system to renovate two more performance spaces so local groups can use them. Yes, an Office of Cultural Affairs can do wonders for some arts groups, but is that what you want Columbia?
The only other observation I have about the Columbia arts hearing is that there wouldn't have been a need for a hearing if the Richland/Lexington County Arts Council was doing its job of serving the entire art community. Frankly, most arts councils remind me of your local chamber of commerce - you pay, you play organizations. If you're a dues paying member you're on the radar screen, and the bigger your dues are, the more attention you get. If you're not a member you're off their radar screen. I always thought that these arts councils and chambers were here to serve the entire community, but most are only interested in serving certain members and their own agendas. It's not as if everything the R/LCAC does is wrong, but they do have their critics in many sectors of the Columbia art community. One thing I have never liked is their monthly community arts calendar - it's not very informative for the public, as it only lists items offered by its members. All other events don't exist.
Columbia and Charleston have similar and different problems as far as their arts communities go, they're not much different from anywhere else in the Carolinas, but none of them are going to be solved by pampering non-profit groups who have already had their glass filled over and over and by bringing more middlemen into the picture. I don't have all the answers, but one thing I know is that nothing will change for the better until the commercial sector of the arts is brought into the picture. These people have already learned to stand on their own and survive in the world of reality. They have developed more opportunities for artists and benefit the community everyday by paying taxes, creating jobs, attracting tourists, and doing it all with their own money at their own risk. They don't have seasons either - they're on the job 365 days a year. And, do you know what happens when they fail to attract a big enough audience or can't pay the bills? They don't get to call a Task Force for help - they go under. Perhaps that's what should happen to some of our non-profits.
We also need to rethink the whole arts council thing. They're not working except in small communities and I'm not sure they're working so well there either. Charleston needs something to replace the old art council, but it doesn't need another arts council -- in the traditional since. It's time for a paradigm shift.
Columbia might need something different too, but folks there should try to change what they have instead of adding more middlemen into the mix.
That Two-Year Shuffle
Some of you longtime readers might have picked up on the habit I have of taking a look at the paper every two years to see how the paper is doing and what changes need to be made. It can be pretty radical and surprising at times. It has meant going statewide and jumping state lines.
For some people it means wondering where they can get a copy of Carolina Arts. After January, we may have to withdraw from some areas that have not been responsive or supportive to our efforts to bring a regional visual arts newspaper to the Carolinas. You know, we're not like those non-profits, our only source of funding is the advertising we receive from the various areas we cover. We give an area two years to develop that support, but after that it's on to somewhere else where folks have been calling for our paper.
I've decided that after twelve years we're not going to be missionaries for the arts anymore. We're into partnerships. So, take a look at the paper and if you don't see any ads from your area, you could soon be looking far and wide for a copy of Carolina Arts and coverage of your area.
If that seems unfair or hard on our part, you can accept my regrets and apology now. I wish we could be everything that everyone wants -- for free, but that's not going to happen. Over the years I have received many a call from someone in an area we once covered wondering what happened to us. Usually what triggers this kind of inquiry is a recent trip by the caller to some city that is still receiving the paper. They thought we had stopped publishing, but we didn't, and now they want to know why we are not covering their area anymore. In most cases, this is six months to a year after we pulled out for lack of support. My question is -- why did it take them so long to miss what they say they are missing? Good question!

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