I came to the Charleston, SC, area from Michigan in November of 1974. I liked what I found here and have found no reason to leave since – although I eventually moved 45 miles away to Berkeley County – a place where I could afford to do an arts newspaper and own a home. And, maybe 35 more years or so from now – I might own that home one day, if I live that long.
I came, so many years ago, as an adult. And I only mention this in the context that when dealing with many people in the art community these days – I’ve lived and dealt with Charleston’s art community – long before most were born – some in Charleston – most from somewhere else.
I mention that last bit about coming from somewhere else because I’ve been and still consider myself part of Charleston’s working class. We’re the folks that do stuff – offer services, create new – well, everything. That’s the way it’s been in Charleston for the most part – the people that built up the community come from somewhere else – first from Europe, then Africa, and now from other parts of South Carolina, the South, and America. Most, not all, who were born here are connected to a heritage of leadership and consumers – they’re the deciders and users. Both are vital parts of any community.
That was most evident at a recent meeting of arts people gathered together for a mid-June lunch at the Gibbes Museum of Art in downtown Charleston – to get to know each other. Most were relatively new to Charleston, some were what I consider very young and a handful were seasoned veterans of the Charleston art community. I myself, carry my scars of past battles (culture wars) and am easily frustrated by the enthusiasm of these newbees – in that they are going to change Charleston. I find myself more interested in deeds, not words. In fact, it is very hard to get me to go to one of these gatherings anymore. I still make the effort if I can see reason or opportunity, but as I said, I’m not impressed by words. I make my living dealing with words and I know how easily they can be offered without anything to back them up.
I’m a realist, I play the devil’s advocate, I’m pessimistic at times, I’m what my high school German teacher called facetious, but I’m also an optimist – I have to be – I publish an arts newspaper in the Carolinas. I could have done a newspaper about NASCAR and probably made a lot of money by now. But I love the arts. I’m focused on the visual arts, but I like it all – well most of it.
What I don’t like is being asked from time to time to join other folks to step into a big hamster cage and take a spin on the big wheel. I’m too old to ride that wheel anymore – spinning around and around just makes me dizzy. And, I find I don’t get much work done when I’m dizzy.
And spinning in place is what has drawn me to my computer today. ThePost & Courier newspaper has just offered another – State of the Arts article subtitled, “How are Charleston arts organizations weathering the current financial drought?” in it’s Weekend section (7/16/09). It’s as if they don’t even read their own paper – what did they expect to find?
I’m not familiar with the author of the article, (I’m a daily subscriber to theP&C) but I can only guess that it was a young person, fairly new to Charleston’s art community. No veteran would have written what was offered. The article was about a page and a quarter of a regular newspaper page, so expectations were very low to begin with. It’s not like this was considered a major subject for a series.
And, I’m not coming down on the Post & Courier (this time) – many other newspapers have gotten around to offering this same, limited look (more like a peek) at the state of the arts in their community. I’ve seen them in the FreeTimes in Columbia, SC, and the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, NC – they’re all the same – a cursory look at how bad things are in the arts during this economic downturn. Duh! At least in this latest look at the state of the arts no one from Charleston said they depend on making people feel guilty to support them – as one arts person said in Columbia, SC.
Most of these articles are just another plug for a few nonprofits hoping to gain a few more donations, some like this latest version by the P&C were based on national surveys – this one was a National Endowment for the Arts 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Guess what – it’s down.
Another darn survey of the arts!
Here’s a truth. No amount of survey results is going to change my thinking based on my own experience and I imagine that’s the way it is for most people. We are after all creatures of our environment and experience – knowledge based on anything else is hard to accept. We can do it, but it doesn’t come easily. Otherwise how would you explain that there are very large numbers of people in this country – educated under the same system that most people were in America, who believe the earth and the universe is only a few thousand years old. The rest, what most of us call history and science, is all made up by people who just can’t accept their way of thinking or their beliefs.
Surveys are not scientific – they’re just another form of advertising or wishful thinking on most people’s part. And, I’ve never seen one done about the arts that I could believe or that is anywhere close to my own experience – based on the last 35 years. And why is that so?
Most people in the arts don’t participate – that’s the truth. They don’t like the questions asked and they don’t see what difference the survey results will make. That’s even if you ever are offered a close up look at the survey results. Most of the time the only thing offered is someone’s interpretation of what those results mean. They don’t want you to see the raw data because it’s ugly, it might not show the organizers of the survey in a good light, and people who take the surveys plan their answers to project certain results. But the big problem is most people won’t participate. Surveys are no better than opinion polls. You can get any results you want by cooking the questions and selecting who you ask. Make people sign their names to a survey and tell them they are going to be made available for public viewing and I bet you would get entirely different results – if you could get them to take the survey under those standards.
Most of the public doesn’t care about survey results either – they’ve been offered survey results too many times that were just manufactured to project a favorable point of view by the folks paying for or organizing the survey. It’s unfortunate, but true. So, why do so many arts organization believe that doing a survey will change the public’s mind or at least the minds of people making decisions on who gets the money, on how valued the arts are to society? You got me. Look, they either get that point by now or they never will.
In today’s world, I think most people are like me – they want to see deeds, not hear or read words about what the arts are doing for them or how it can enlighten their lives. Show them the deeds and they’ll show you the money – if they have any to spare.
The Charleston Arts Coalition is conducting a survey. You can find it at on their website. The cut off day to participate is July 29, 2009.
Should people in Charleston’s art community take this survey in view of everything I’ve just said? Yes, but only if they are going to be honest and willing to work towards the goals that survey suggests – otherwise why bother? The Charleston Arts Coalition doesn’t just need your 2 cents worth, it needs your participation.
I first offered comments about this group at the very beginning of this blog on May 26, 2008, after going to one of those art community gatherings – this time it was about the lack of affordable space in Charleston for artists. Back then at the end of my blog entry I said, “Most things they want are possible and possible with the help of the community – once the artists – like commercial gallery owners – are willing to put their own money and futures on the bottom line. Money makes the world go round and it’s the mother’s milk of the arts. Once artists stop waving around pumped up economic surveys about the impact of the arts in front of the community and adopt a healthy respect for other people’s money, they will find that many are willing to become partners with them on sound projects. Don’t continue to delude yourselves or insult the intelligence of the public. The call for this movement – if there will be a movement, should be – get real, get serious and you might just get what you want. Carolina Arts will do its part – if presented with a sound proposal, but then we have to fight to survive everyday to keep what we have.”
Since then the Charleston Arts Coalition has been formed, they have a website, a blog and have created another website called Charleston Culture, launched May 14, 2009. The focus of the group seems to be on spreading information about the art community. The lack of space issue has faded into the background for some reason.
I have not found a lot of participation on any of these sites or the blog. Not many people are joining in or offering comments.
I’m still hopeful about this group, but somewhat frustrated with where they seem to be going and at this point – it seems to be the big wheel – in my opinion. Participation is the key and at this point I don’t see a lot of signs of it. A few folks are probably working a lot on this project, but they have yet to gain the attention of the greater Charleston art community. Time will tell and that’s always the case. I’ve seen so many efforts like this come and go – not just in Charleston. Getting the arts community together is like herding cats. I’m stealing that from Christopher Rico an artist and blogger in Clinton, SC.
Getting a large art community together – like Charleston is near impossible. Charleston is small and can’t support such a large art community, which makes for rough and tumble competition for funding and resources. Trust is low and based on past experience.
I’ve taken the survey, I’ve plugged the survey, and I’ve looked at the Charleston Culture and organization’s websites and am trying to figure where and if I fit in. I was trying to participate in a roundtable discussion, but the schedule was during my delivery time for Carolina Arts and that comes first. I don’t live in Charleston so I’m not in the social loop of this group.
I haven’t joined the organization because I’m not sure what I’m joining and where my membership dollars would go. Besides being part of the local media, I’m not sure you can be part of something and comment on it at the same time, and be honest. It’s not an easy thing to do. My best contributions my be as an observer from outside the group.
Either way, build or fade – this group’s efforts depend on the art community’s participation and past experience tells me – they’re not into it – right now at least. What will make them change their minds? I’m still working on that 35 year survey of trying to figure out Charleston’s art community. I’ll let you know when I have it figured out. I haven’t found a lot of logic at this point. But I do know they are not keen on participation, or working on goals where the payoff is in the future, and they have a hard time overlooking self interest for the good of all. This makes them not much different than art communities anywhere else or other people in general.
Now, one thing’s for sure about the Charleston Art Coalition – they have lit a fire under some other groups in Charleston that are supposed to be serving the public. Ever since the Coalition started talking about plans for a cultural website, the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs has stepped up work on their efforts to promote Charleston’s cultural events. Even the Coastal Community Foundation suffered an uproar when it stepped in to just help a few groups suffering in the art community over the holiday season. They tried to promote a Charleston Art Alliance to make them look more inclusive, but they learned the art community is bigger than their usual myopic vision.
So if anything the Charleston Arts Coalition has stirred things up some, but time marches against them. People will lose interest – even those involved now, if they don’t see their time and efforts build on something – something not already being offered – something everyone in the art community can be a part of – whatever that is.
But, then again – I’m just one of the old farts of the Charleston art community who has grown tired of spinning in place and sees the negative side of things much more than those who seem to see only the positive future – unknown territory to most of us old veterans. Please, make me wrong folks. I want to be wrong on this subject. I won’t mind it at all.