Confusion ensued July 29 after artists and arts organizations across the city received a strongly worded e-mail from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs trumpeting an "exciting development on the horizon."
It was the creation of an "arts district in downtown Charleston," which, the e-mail said, is "currently designed to include" a 10,000-seat amphitheater, a 2,500-seat performance hall, a 500-seat theater, as well as artist studios, unspecified visual art galleries, and rehearsal space.
The e-mail asked readers to attend workshops, or "charettes," scheduled for later that day and for Wednesday. Hosted by the Ginn Co., the charettes invited the public to express points of view about Ginn's development, called Promenade, of a former county landfill along the Cooper River, some 200 acres off Morrison Drive and U.S. Hwy. 17.
The e-mail was titled "Attention All Artists, Arts Organizations, and Patrons of the Arts." Its author was anonymous, but its sender was Laura Amerson, assistant to Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. The message referred to something called "The Promenade Arts District." It was sent on the second day of a three-day series of charettes. On Monday, no artists came. But later, artists comprised about two-thirds of the audience.
Most of us know we have a venue problem. There are more artists than there are venues for them to do what they do. So you better believe this e-mail, and its "exciting" news, was a surprise.
Funny thing is, though, according to a Post and Courier report on Thursday, the Ginn Co. project manager, Will Bagwell, had never heard of anything called "The Promenade Arts District."
Let's see: Cultural Affairs sends out an e-mail urging recipients to show support for an "exciting development" called "The Promenade Arts District," but once the 75 or so representatives of the arts community get there, they learn that the Ginn Co. has never heard of it.
What's going on?
Ana Emelianoff, of the Planning, Preservation, and Economic Innovation office, told me Cultural Affairs thought we were in the "planning stages," not the "brainstorming stages."
"It was a mistake," she said.
No it wasn't, said Ellen Moryl, of Cultural Affairs. It was a calculated move on her part to drive interest so that artists and arts organizations would participate in the workshops. Something had to be done, she said, to get artists involved. So she asked a staffer to include possibilities discussed on Monday, including the idea of an "arts district," in an e-mail that would be sent to Cultural Affairs' massive e-mail listserv.
"It worked," she said.
Whether an unintentional error or a calculated move, the outcome is the same, said Emily Wilhoit, director of the League of Charleston Theatres. She said Bagwell was "bombarded by arts people" on the day she went, and as a result, Bagwell urged arts groups to compile a list of needs that the company would consider as it moved into the planning stages.
"There was no talk about the arts before," Wilhoit told me. "I'm starting to think it was the smartest thing Ellen has ever done."
For his part, Bagwell told me the e-mail's tone of finality was a surprise. Even so, it was no big deal. It merely contained many of the possibilities discussed during the charettes. The amphitheater, for instance, was likely to happen, and everything else on the list, he said, including the 2,500-3,000-seat indoor theater, was also a possibility.
Promenade's "performing arts component," if the company decides to pursue the idea, Bagwell said, would be outsourced to an Atlanta-based firm. He could not name the company, because of a nondisclosure agreement with it, but did say that the Office of Cultural Affairs introduced the Ginn Co. to the firm, the result, he said, of the city's discussions with the Atlanta group for the past "two to three years."
"Obviously someone at the city has a wish-list," he said.