Local artists shouldn't have to struggle to make a living 

Short Changed

You don't have to be an art lover to recognize we've got hot creative talent in this town. Our festivals alone show that we can deliver the goods on a professional, culturally edifying level. So why don't our artists, performers, and producers get the support they deserve?

With each passing year, state funding seems to shrink, leaving artmakers to chase private donations and ticket sales. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the projected arts legislative appropriations from the state of South Carolina next year are $2,290,382 — more than 25 percent less than 2010's actual appropriations. That short-changes an important local employer: the artistic sector.

So far, more than $6 million has been handed out to train Boeing workers, a force that will be 3,800 strong. Compare that number to the findings of a 2010 research study funded by Charleston's Creative Parliament, New Carolina, and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance: 27,315 workers were employed in creative endeavors in 2008. Less state funding means fewer art projects and fewer opportunities for locals unless, like too many Charleston artists, they're prepared to work for free — something that no assembly plant worker in their right mind would be willing to do.

Somehow, artists find the will and passion to do just that, enriching the state with their creations. But they have to compromise. Over the past few years, I've seen painters make beautiful art that they have to store in the steamy outdoors because they can't afford studio space, performers singing their hearts out for free, producers making shows on shoestring budgets, and theater companies (like Art Forms and Theatre Concepts) without a stage to call their own.

Among these artists, there's a sense of camaraderie that encourages them to keep coming back. But economic reality doesn't always allow that to happen. Dozens of fine actors, artists, and musicians have left town because they don't get paid enough to live here or they just can't afford the rent. A prime example: eminent sculptor Tom Durham, who told me point blank that he was leaving Charleston because the rent was too high for him here.

Lack of funding has forced artists to be extra resourceful, and if necessity is the mother of invention, then these kids must be the MacGyvers of the South. They make do with limited materials, use alternate marketing methods, and are very appreciative when they do get a hand out. The lack of excess cash also tempers any self-indulgent urges they may have, but they have bills to pay just like anyone else.

While the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is back in action, it still lacks aid from the state and corporate sector. "Unfortunately, in this economic climate many performing arts organizations are struggling financially," CSO President Ted Legasey said in March. "We have seen a strongly negative effect on revenue as major contributions have decreased by more than 60 percent over last year."

We need to give cruise ship visitors an alternative to picking through overpriced Market Street knickknacks. Art is part of Charleston's alluring aesthetic, complementing the architecture and giving visitors a big reason to return. It's about time the importance of local artists was recognized and suitably rewarded so that tourists and locals can benefit from their work for a long time to come.


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