Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Redden’

Truth Be Told About Spoleto Festival USA – Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

spoletologo

I found these two quotes from Nigel Redden in an interview from the Reuters News Service about funding cuts to the arts on the internet. They are the first quotes I’ve seen with some truth told about the festival mixed in with a little wishful thinking.

The first quote is the wishful thinking on the financial impact of the festival: “Those cuts have come despite the fact that the Spoleto Festival brings between $55 million and $70 million to South Carolina each year,” Redden said.

$55 to $70 million – that’s quite a spread there. But, if this was true, the hotels, restaurants, and airlines should put up most of the $7.5 million budget for the festival – they’re the ones that would benefit the most. But those numbers come from economic formulas – not hard numbers. It’s economic guessing.

The second quote was the truth part: “The festival draws 25,000 to 35,000 people to the coastal city, and they buy 73,000 performance tickets and spend money on hotels, food, merchandise and tourist attractions,” he said.

Finally, we get the truth about how many people the festival attracts each year. They used to repeat this phrase until every reporter had it ingrained in their vocabulary when talking about Spoleto. “The Spoleto Festival attracts 100,000 people each year to Charleston and generates $70 million in economic impact”.

One year I called the box office after the festival was over and asked how many tickets they sold. The answer was around 70,000. Very interesting.

Unless 30,000 people were getting free admission, that was a long way from 100,000. There are a lot of folks who get given free tickets, but you have to be someone of fame, power, or at least have influence over funding. I knew there were very few people who come to Charleston to just attend one event. I also knew that a lot of locals go to Spoleto events. So, it wasn’t hard to figure that the real number was closer to 25,000 people coming to Charleston for the festival and it could even be less than that. It could be as little as 10,000 people coming from out of town to attend Spoleto events and if you start thinking about how many people come from towns and cities not too far from Charleston, but are in-State residents – the number could even get smaller.

There is a good reason Spoleto starts its festival every year during the Memorial Day Weekend. Charleston will be full of people that weekend and it makes it look like they’re all here for Spoleto, but if you ask people on the streets if they are here for Spoleto, 9 out of 10 won’t be and 7 of those won’t even know what Spoleto is. The festival has contracted the College of Charleston to do surveys, but what that means is positioning students in front of Spoleto venues before performances and asking folks going in the doors if they’re here for Spoleto – it’s very scientific.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re lucky to have the Spoleto Festival, but it has been over-sold for years as far as its impact on the economy and the city of Charleston. And, 10,000 well-off folks spending money in Charleston is nothing to throw away. But the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, a visual art event, says they attract the same number of people, if not more, and have the same economic impact, if not more – and it’s an extended weekend compared to the three weeks of Spoleto. Of course its audience might be considered a little less refined. But they spend big bucks all the same.

Frankly, all events like this embellish the numbers on attendance and economic impact – they have to in order to attract donations and sponsorships. It’s the American way. We can’t be happy with reality – we have to be BIGGER than life.

It was refreshing to see the truth said for once – even if it was in an interview not seen in any local or regional papers. They’re all still repeating the original phrase of 100,000 visitors/$70 million impact.

Of course Spoleto could improve those numbers – if they actually put a visual art component back into the festival. But because they have no place they can present such visual arts and charge admission – they’re not interested. But it would attract more donations, more press coverage, and more people interested in visual art events.

Of course without the Spoleto Festival USA there would be no Piccolo Spoleto Festival – the “little” festival with its overkill of 700 plus events. And, without Piccolo there would be no cover for the City of Charleston to inject more funding into local performing art groups – who are paid to participate – here, there, and everywhere.

Talk about affirmative action and art welfare – Piccolo Spoleto is the poster child for propping up art groups who operate in the red constantly. And after June 11 – they will disappear until September when and if they can afford to present a “season” once more. I think of them as the part-time arts community, but with benefits. Except for the underpaid musicians of the Charleston Symphony who have to be the cheapest professionals on the planet – I’m not sure you should be able to call yourself a professional when your income is way below the poverty level.

So what’s my point in all this? It’s very simple.

The visual art community in Charleston is the real economic engine in this area and they get very little support or respect from the local, state, and national government sectors. They’re offering the arts all year long – in most cases for free. There is no “season” for the visual arts community. Sure, some times of the year are busier than others, but the show goes on no matter what.

So, maybe it’s time to concentrate on giving the visual art community some support, which will deliver a bigger economic payoff for the community, instead of pouring money down a black hole in trying to support arts groups who will always be a drain on the resources of the community.

But, then again, when I think that we have the same leadership in the arts community that we’ve had for the last 20-30 years – I know nothing is going to change.