Eighteen years ago, Carol Antman was a young mother who wanted to supplement her children's public school education with extracurricular programs. She had worked as an elementary school teacher, a piano instructor, and a businesswoman.
"My modest seed of an idea was to professionalize arts education," says the Sullivan's Island resident. That seed has grown into Creative Spark Center for the Arts in Mt. Pleasant. "Now we have 30 teachers in a 6,000 square foot space with 400 children attending each year," she marvels. "We teach 50,000 more in schools in the tricounty area with an operating budget of $650,000. We're still growing."
Although the center is best known for its children's programs, it caters to adults too. This broad scope has helped it survive and thrive in a poor economy. Antman is proud of Spark's progress. "We've navigated this storm and come out whole, which is no small thing," she says. "One of reasons we're still surviving is our strong but small administrative staff."
Creative Spark is growing so much that Antman feels she can let her staff take over of the center. "I'll still be working from the sidelines," she says. "I still care a lot. But it's time for me to step aside and let new talent rise to the top."
Brandi Hunter Elkins will be Spark's executive director for what she describes as a "new era" for the organization. "I'm eager to take the reins," she says with all the enthusiasm of a newbie first grade teacher. "I love going to work every day." When she gets sick, she's truly sad that she can't go. "I want to be there. The minute you walk in the door you can feel an energy. That keeps people coming back."
But they have to find the place first. Elkins is surprised how many people don't know about Creative Spark. "Ninety-nine percent of people have never heard of us," she says. She aims to change that with a deal that puts her "in cahoots" with the S.C. Aquarium, sharing its 7,000-member mailing list. They also plan to host more performances from Sprouts, a children's theater company that is new to the area.
"My biggest, most global idea as we grow is to make us a local household name," says Elkins.
Along with a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, Creative Spark will boost its name with a May auction and celebration weekend called ARTrageous. To many, the center is best known for events like these and Back from the Grave, its Edgar Allen Poe show at Fort Moultrie in the fall. "Our programs have broadened," says Antman. "We are the largest producer of assembly shows in the state. We also do grant funded work to bring about social change."
There's a reason why the Spark staff are so passionate about their work. "We're all practicing musicians, artists, or dancers," Antman explains. "That gives us a certain perspective. Creative Spark is like an oasis of open-mindedness and free thinking."
The teachers all have artistic backgrounds and the administrative staff have creative backgrounds too. Elkins has moonlighted as a rock 'n' roll singer, outreach director Inger is an artist, and Christina Caputo, who runs the office, is also a photographer. Their joy for what they do and what they instill in others is a comfort to Antman. "It's way outgrown anything I hoped for it," she says. "In the course of all that, it's been immensely challenging, fun, rewarding, and stimulating. We work from our hearts, it's not just what we do to make a paycheck. We have a different attitude from people who just do something for a living."