FEATURE ‌ Spoleto Envy 

Recipe for a S.C. arts festival: one cup spring fever, a dash of hope, a pinch of yearning

click to enlarge The new Columbia festival of the arts, the North Charleston arts festival, and greenville's young artisphere all aim to replicate Charleston's fest success
  • The new Columbia festival of the arts, the North Charleston arts festival, and greenville's young artisphere all aim to replicate Charleston's fest success

Spoleto Festival USA is less than a month away, and Charleston residents and business owners are girding themselves for 17 days that — depending on whom you talk to — are among the most frustrating, exhilarating, anxiety-filled, lucrative, obnoxious, or intoxicating of the year.

Curmudgeons, misanthropes, and cranks love to bitch about the annual influx of tourists, cars, artists, and cash the international arts festival disgorges onto the peninsula each May and June. Yet it's indisputable that Spoleto Festival USA and its city-produced sibling Piccolo Spoleto have together erected the tentpole upon which the city's three-decade-old urban and cultural renaissance hangs. Together, the two festivals pump an estimated $70 million into the local economy each spring. Last week, presidential contender John McCain crowed about Charleston's "too many fine restaurants." If anyone thinks that would have occurred were it not for an Italian opera composer who visited Charleston from Spoleto, Italy, in 1976, they're kidding themselves.

Other cities around the state are fully aware of the charms, economic and otherwise, of arts festivals. And although landing a pedigreed, self-contained event like Spoleto is as rare as buying a winning Powerball ticket, that hasn't stopped many municipalities from trying to replicate what Spoleto and Piccolo have done for Charleston. In the past few years, downtown arts expositions have sprouted like mushrooms across the Palmetto State, from North Chuck to Columbia to Greenville. None of them pack nearly the punch of a Spoleto or Piccolo, but it's not for lack of wishful thinking.

Just a few miles away geographically but light years distant in every other way, the City of North Charleston started its own arts festival nine years ago, tired of salivating after Charleston's festival leavings and being seen by Spoletians as little more than a good reason to lock the doors and roll up the windows on the drive from the airport. This weekend, May 5-6, is the high point of the North Charleston Arts Festival's main cultural offerings at the Performing Arts Center and Convention Center Complex. But the festival continues through May 12 with free and modestly priced events at venues throughout the city.

With few exceptions, the performing artists and the arts and crafts crowd participating are local and regional names. Special events include the Lowcountry Gem and Mineral Society Show, a concert from '80s rock act Chicago at the PAC for the Festival Gala on Saturday night, and a finale at Riverfront Park on the Old Naval base that includes the opening of the second annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition on the site.

A hundred and twenty miles northwest, Columbia's also getting into the game. The capital city's presently in the midst of their inaugural Columbia Festival of the Arts, an 11-day affair that's mostly a grassroots effort among the city's existing cultural organizations to raise their profiles and create greater awareness about what they'd be doing this week anyway.

Dan Cook, editor of Columbia's Free Times, observes of the festival, "In one sense, it's just a marketing phrase to package and celebrate what's already happening here. And in another sense, it's an opportunity to actually stop, look around and see that there is a lot going on culturally in Columbia."

The festival is organizing a few key events of its own — a gala on the USC Horseshoe and a closing concert in Finlay Park, for example, and a few local arts groups are capitalizing on the occasion to roll out new programming. The most substantive result so far seems to have been the creation of a centralized ticketing system, which officials hope can continue to operate year-round. (If that happens, Columbia would have a leg up on Charleston's arts scene. The only one-stop-year-round-shop around here for buying tickets to the full spectrum of local performances is etix — not exactly your neighborhood kiosk.)

In the Upstate, Greenville wrapped up its third annual Artisphere weekend on April 22. Stepping into the vacuum created by the financial implosion of the long-running River Place Festival in 2001, Artisphere aims to do things a little differently from its Midlands and Lowcountry cousins.

For one, it's a single weekend-long visual and performing arts gig with a national scope. April's event brought in Oprah BFF Maya Angelou and national recording artist Amos Lee. Upstaters can experience a host of indoor and outdoor events throughout downtown Greenville's West End Historic District on Main Street and into Falls Park on the Reedy River, from the Peace Center to the Governor's School. While some of the indoor events are ticketed, the festival is largely free of charge, distinguishing it from most every other arts festival in the state.

"We wanted it to be a high-quality event, something that would drive tourism and begin to further express Greenville as a cultural destination," says Artisphere executive director Mary Ellington. "We couldn't do that with just any old outdoor fair. We also wanted to merge both the performing and visual arts, and indoor and outdoor components.

"Our board is very familiar with Spoleto, and many attend annually," she continues. "But we wanted to do something that fit right for Greenville. To showcase downtown, to promote local arts, and also to have an international aspect, like bringing in Maya Angelou. We looked at all that and realized we didn't want to replicate the Charleston festival but create something that was more customized to us."

By all accounts, it's worked. Only a few years ago, Greenville's West End was going to seed and retailers there were having trouble staying open. "Now," Ellington says, "it's booming. Artisphere didn't make that happen but we did contribute to it."

Having a performing arts festival like Spoleto Festival USA land in your hometown's lap happens so rarely that the difference between the actual chances and infinity are statistically insignificant. Cities across the nation would sacrifice their entire population of firstborn males to have the problems we endure each May and June with traffic, long waits at world-class restaurants, and teeming populations of gaping, cash-laden out-of-towners. Parking may be a pain, but there are far worse fates. You could be living in Columbia.


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