PREVIEW: Metamorphosis: An Art and Music Extravaganza 

Mixson Match: Urban design, real estate development, and the arts meet to rebrand a city's identity

Metamorphosis: An Art and Music Extravaganza
Presented by the I'On Group
Sat. Feb. 9, 5-11 p.m.
Various venues on East Montague Avenue
Park Circle, Olde North Charleston
(843) 709-6661

Phillip Hyman was strolling in Olde North Charleston when he heard his name.

"Hey, Phillip," a man's voice said. "Did you do those letters on the sidewalk?"

He was referring to a series of messages written in chalk near the refurbished storefronts of East Montague Avenue. The messages were cryptic, saying things like, "Help me, man. Help me, man."

"I figured that'd be something Phillip Hyman would do," the man said, smiling.

Hyman is a well-known Lowcountry iconoclast: an organizer of underground art bonanzas and grass-roots exhibits. He doesn't sleep much, maybe three hours a night. He wears a spiky barbell through his left eyebrow. His dirty-blond hair is shaved up the sides with a long ponytail snaking down the back of his head. He talks nonstop about his many projects. And he frequently stresses, ironically, that he's insane.

So it's not surprising someone might stop to ask if he'd spent the night decorating the sidewalks of the Olde North Charleston. Nor is it surprising to learn Hyman is spearheading a new project — a one-day high-profile arts fair of sorts called Metamorphosis — that he hopes demonstrates the city's artistic vitality.

What is surprising, though, is how he's going about it.

Hyman's past street art projects were orchestrated community-wide bursts of imagination. Metamorphosis is different, though what it offers is fairly standard for art extravaganzas: blues bands, a DJ scribble match, live graffiti demonstrations, short films, spoken word, abstract expressionist paintings, photography, and art by kids at the Charleston County School of the Arts.

The event is different because it's the result of a collaboration between a socio-political maverick and old-school pop artist like Hyman and a savvy forward-thinking real estate development firm, the I'On Group, which is restoring the Mixson neighborhood in North Charleston. It's a coupling of right-brained aesthetic sensibility with left-brained American entrepreneurship that would have been unheard of 30 years ago with artists like Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Something has changed, but that something isn't artists like Hyman (he's been the same impresario since he was in grade school). What has changed are the real estate business, the principles of urban renewal, and the economic value of creativity.

Bohemian Lifestyle for Sale

Used to be that artists were on the vanguard of urban renewal. They moved into blighted neighborhoods — featuring empty industrial warehouses and the like — because rent was cheap and space plentiful. Over time, they established businesses, communities, a distinct identity.

Developers saw this and moved to capitalize on rising property values. They built condos, lofts, high-end retail outlets. Property values rose and attracted investors, which made values rise and attract in turn more investors, which pushed rents even higher. In the end, artists, usually poor and underemployed, had to leave in search of cheaper rent.

The pattern has recurred numerous times in numerous places in the U.S. over the past 30 years, says Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

From SoHo, artists moved to Chelsea to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Red Hook, a neighborhood off the East River. The pattern has been seen in Boston, Portland, Seattle, Charlotte and others.

"It's called NoDa, as in North of Davidson," Sloan says. "The artists have utterly transformed the area. It's now the creative hub of Charlotte."

At the same time artists were moving into blighted areas, government officials around the U.S. have been coming to grips with a fundamental shift in the nation's economy, says Chris Burgess, a professor of arts management at the College of Charleston: a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to one that's more knowledge-oriented — in other words, the rise of the creative economy.

South Carolina cities like Greenwood and Florence "are establishing cultural amenities that attract a creative class, which in turn can be attractive to industry, which in turn leads to further economic growth," Burgess says. "The purpose is twofold: revitalization and financial growth."

The thinking has completely changed, says Steven Pedigo, spokesperson for the Creative Class Group, the nonprofit of Richard Florida, the country's leading expert on the creative economy.

City officials used to aim to bring companies and jobs first, hoping everything else would follow. Now they're building amenities first, with the companies and jobs coming second.

"For the Baby Boomers, it was all about job security," Pedigo says. "With the younger generations, the primary reasons they chose to live where they do are quality of place, a sense of authenticity, a balance of work and play, and the aesthetics of community."

Something else has changed. Two things, actually. One is that efforts to create cultural amenities are no longer restricted to public officials. And the second thing is that real estate development firms, like the I'On Group, are no longer waiting for artists to take the lead.

"Developers are able to create a bohemian lifestyle that's appealing," Pedigo says. "At the end of the day, it's clearly a very savvy and socially-conscious way to make some money."

Seeing What's Possible

The I'On Group is the company behind Mixson, a mixed-use neighborhood in the making near Park Circle in North Charleston. Mixson features cobblestone streets, archways, parks, and plazas — all the amenities the experts say are what attract those who value the "quality of place."

I'On asked Hyman to organize Metamorphosis, the first of many events that are a marketing strategy to show that North Charleston, and Mixson by extension, are home to the creative class (the event is free but donations go to benefit the Carolina Youth Development Center).

"It's smart business," says Alys Campaigne, I'On spokesperson. "Artists are central to the lasting value of a community. We're jump-starting the process and shifting to long-term goals."

Before you get the idea that Mixson is an attempt to recall the fizzy frisson of 1920s Paris, consider that some observers, like John Howkins, the author of The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas, say developers want an artistic lifestyle without the artists.

"They are too poor and tend not to worry much about keeping the front steps clean," Howkins says. "Developers design living accommodations for funky people, probably called studios, or even called artists' lofts, and hope to sell them to web designers and TV producers.

"The people in these new neighborhoods are the buyers of art, not the makers of it."

Pedigo, from the Creative Class Group, says that the success of projects like Mixson will be measured in terms of traffic, not home sales. How many people find value in the neighborhood, how long do they stay, what do they do, and so on? Those are true benchmarks of economic impact. Even so, Pedigo says that Mixson is unique in its strategy to put the arts at the center of its mission. It's an example, he says, of savvy community development.

As for Hyman, he knows Metamorphosis will help sell houses, but he also knows it may help change North Charleston's image, something he's tried doing for years. The city, he says, is home to many artists who don't get nearly the level of recognition they deserve. Events like Metamorphosis, he says, have the power to transform the way we think about his beloved hometown.

"It will demonstrate what's possible," he says.


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