Out of Many, One? 

Meeting is the first real step in creating an arts council

On Nov. 21, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs sent out an e-mail that promoted holiday programs staged by the Big Three: the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Charleston Ballet Theatre, and Charleston Stage.

Each is facing tens of thousands of dollars in fund-raising shortfalls. Charleston Stage needs $200,000 by season's end. The CSO is facing the worst financial forecast: an anticipated million-dollar deficit. If it cannot meet its payroll, officials have said the CSO may be forced into bankruptcy.

So the city's cultural agency stepped in, figuring it could help get the word out. The thinking was that better promotion might improve ticket sales, or what arts nonprofits call "earned income," and therefore help offset declines.

But good intentions sometimes yield unintended results.

Keely Enright, director of the Village Playhouse in Mt. Pleasant, replied to the e-mail, accusing the Office of Cultural Affairs of preferential treatment.

"What about the many other nonprofit arts organizations also trying to attract an audience for their holiday programming???" Enright wrote. "This is getting to be UNBELIEVABLE. It would seem more than ever, with times as difficult as they are for EVERYONE, that the city would be advocating for ALL its nonprofits EQUALLY."

Enright's reply led to an article in The Post and Courier reporting that small theater groups feel excluded from a larger effort to promote holiday programming. For some, ticket sales have dropped by as much as 30 percent. More significantly, small theater groups feel excluded from a grant request made on behalf of the Big Three for as much as $250,000.

"The truth is all the performing arts groups are in trouble, and we need to find creative ways that are inclusive, not exclusive," Sharon Graci, artistic director of PURE Theatre and president of the League of Charleston Theatres, told the P&C.

The grant request was made by George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation, which manages millions of dollars of assets for regional charities and philanthropists. Stevens requested the money from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, a nonprofit based in Chicago and the Lowcountry whose aims are land conservation and artistic vitality.

Part of the Donnelley grant, the P&C said in reports and editorials, would be used to pay for promotion of holiday programming on TV, radio, and the internet. But on Friday, talk of holiday programming appeared to come to an end.

That's when Donnelley essentially said no to the grant request, but promised to "continue the conversation" by forming an ad hoc committee to explore the next step in aiding Charleston's troubled arts organizations.

It's likely the holidays will be over by the time this ad hoc committee figures out the next step. Donnelly's board members are scattered across the country, and its board meetings are scheduled two years in advance.

But the result might bring a new focus to a development taking shape, one that in the end may eclipse worries about who's included and who's not.

That development is this: the possibility of the creation of an arts council.

Or an "arts alliance" or "arts coalition." It doesn't have a name yet. Right now, it's just an idea being floated by Stevens and Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. Though it's only talk at this point, the idea is quickly gaining traction. This harsh financial climate demands new ideas, and fast.

An arts council, as envisioned by Stevens and Moryl, would handle the business side of the arts — such as marketing, development, and promotion — while leaving the art to the artists. It would reduce the cost of running fund-raising campaigns while improving quality and expanding ticket sales. Like the Coastal Community Foundation, it would be a trustworthy and politically neutral clearinghouse that connects potential donors with nonprofits in need of support.

"The same dollar that goes to fund-raising would work for more than one organization," Stevens tells City Paper. "There's no sense in separate offices doing the same work when an arts council can do one job for the benefit of many."

"You should never let a crisis go to waste," Stevens continues.

"Perhaps we'll finally get the endowment for the arts that we've always needed," Moryl told City Paper. "We never intended to leave anyone out."

The Donnelley grant, when and if it's approved, would likely become the seed money for an arts council. Since the P&C report about small theaters feeling excluded, Stevens and Moryl have been more conscious of appearing inclusive. On Monday, they spoke at the board meeting of the League of Charleston Theatres about the feasibility of an arts council and what the League's role might be.

It was a positive sign, says Emily Wilhoit, League director, and the first real step toward creating an inclusive administrative organization. But time will tell.

"I'm interested, but I'm more interested in doing it right," Wilhoit says. "We need a model of success and right now we don't have one."


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