The Charleston Arts Coalition rises in the worst of times 

All Together Now

United we stand, divided we flounder. That's the thinking of the year-old Charleston Arts Coalition, an organization that aims to help arty locals work together and have their voices heard.

With the rate of patronage down thanks to a rotten economy, individual art makers and artisans have been finding it harder than ever to draw attention to their work. In its first attempts to address the problem, the Coalition has built two websites and taken a preliminary survey, encouraging comments and suggestions from 277 local participants.

At the moment, the visual arts are particularly well represented. Members of the Leadership Circle include Megan Lange of Robert Lange Studios, Stacy Huggins of Carolina Galleries, Andrea Schenck of Plum Elements, and Angel Powell and Colleen Deihl of Scoop Studios.

Schenck isn't surprised that it's taken a year for the Coalition to hold its first town hall-style public meeting. "Any time an initiative is collaborative it takes more time," she says. "We need to make sure we reach out to all interested parties." She also points out that the leaders have day jobs, too. "When it's a volunteer effort, people have other responsibilities. So it takes longer to execute anything." But slow progress has its benefits. "It allows more people to hear about us and jump on board. If everything happened at lightning speed, some organizations or people might be missed."

Last month, just shy of its first birthday, the Coalition felt ready to present its survey findings and hold its public meeting at the CofC's Tate Center for Entrepreneurship. The meeting was well attended, incorporating representatives of Charleston's culinary arts, literature and publishing, film, theater, and fashion design organizations.

"There's a gap here between low and high culture, but it's all art," says Coalition President Jessica Solomon Bluestein, who works at the Tate Center as an external relations coordinator. "All creativity should be inspired." She notes that all creative types encounter similar challenges. "Monetarily they face the same things — a lack of awareness or appreciation for arts and culture. Art should be accessible to everyone. It's an expression of our humanity."

The Coalition had its roots in April 2008, when Redux Contemporary Art Center hosted a Creative Spaces panel discussion. At that time, a boom in downtown real estate values meant an increasingly limited number of studio spaces and venues for artists. Coalition member Olivia Pool was present.

"At the time, Redux was worried about getting kicked out of its space," she says. "The discussion overflowed — we found that a lot of people needed space or this or that other thing." Around 100 locals attended the event, demonstrating that "a lot of people were evidently passionate about the art community, enough to take action and try to do something."

The group's most evident action so far is a glossy website called Charleston Culture, Designed by Butterfat, LLC, as a "virtual gateway to Charleston's creative community," the site allows residents to get their details online and spread the word about their services. Contributors don't have to be a Coalition member to add their info — times are tight, after all, and not everyone can spare the $30 required to join. Most innovatively, artists in more than one discipline are linked on multiple pages.

The Coalition's main aim is to be "a vehicle for organizations to make connections and help with collaborative works," says Schenck. "The site was one of our first projects." She adds that one model for the site was the North Carolina-based Creative Wilmington, an online calendar supported by TV channels, film companies, businesses, and the City of Wilmington. Right now, Charleston Culture is sponsored in part by the Charleston Visitor's Bureau.

"I won't take credit for a new idea," says Bluestein. "There's a creative movement happening nationally. But the idea in Charleston is to group together in a very new way, being innovative, not talking down to people, or saying, 'You should do things this way.'" In fact, the Coalition leaders want residents to tell them what to do. In their survey, they asked what was missing in the arts community. Responses included public awareness, support from the business community, and a multi-functional facility like a fine arts center.

The next step is to fill these apparent gaps. The leaders won't be doing all the work, though. Bluestein says, "This Coalition isn't just the board, it's all of the people coming together and wanting to do something. An entire community can really make things happen." The founders of the group see themselves more as facilitators and promoters than a bossy elite. They've got plenty of suggestions themselves, though; the latest one is an Entrepreneurship for Creatives course at the Tate Center, which begins in mid-September.

Bluestein thinks it will be another year before the enterprise really starts to bear fruit — and that will only happen if everyone pitches in. "Next, a really solid plan of action has to be put down. The city, schools, artisans, patrons, and money needs to be involved. We have to make the most of this cultural renaissance that's happening around us. Creative people have a way in the worst of times to turn a city into a better place."

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