The magical thinking of a 'People's Arts Center'

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Somehow we got to this point. It's not a bad place to be. It's not a good place either. Perhaps it was inevitable that this would happen. After all, we didn't know what we were doing when we started this whole thing. But now that we're here, it might be time to step back a minute and think about what we're doing before things get really messy — or worse, we lose focus on what's important.

What am I talking about? The so-called "People's Arts Center." Who's calling it that? A hodgepodge group of artists and art supporters who named themselves the Charleston Arts Coalition. Its goal, according to a press release announcing tonight's panel discussion at Theatre 99, is "to find and modify real estate through out the city of Charleston, to house production, presentation, and education space for the creative arts. The ultimate project goal is the creation of the People’s Art Center."

What is the People Arts Center? Well, it's nothing at the moment. I take that back. It's not nothing. But it's not something. It's just an idea right now, a seductive and potentially distracting and maybe even damaging idea that, like a lot of seductive and potentially distracting and maybe even damaging ideas, has got people talking. If at some point in the distant future we could achieve the ideal of a "unified center for the arts," as the group is calling it — it would be really, really great.

Think about what's happened since October. PURE Theatre left its space at the Cigar Factory. It'll be turned into condos. The American Theater is going to converted into space for wedding receptions. Buxton's East Bay Theatre got shuttered. The leases for Charleston Ballet Theatre and Redux Contemporary Art Center will run out at the end of 2009. As for live music venues, Cumberland's and the Map Room closed their doors. And this week, we learned that The Plex in North Charleston is going to be demolished to make way for an office building.

So a "unified center for the arts" is just what we need, right? A central location on the peninsula where all of the city's artists — visual and performing artists — have a place to be, to work, to share ideas. Performing artist would have a place to stage productions. Visual artists could make and sell their work. The visibility of a home would make a better case that the arts are vital to our city and our economy.

Does that sound good? Of course, it does. All fantasies sound dandy.

But is it the right way to go? No, I'm afraid not.

Let me be clear. If an arts center is in our future, that's great. More art in more space is more better. I would love to see a place where artists are working. I would love to see restaurants and bookstores move in around the artists doing their thing. The SoHo paradigm is utterly titillating. Who wouldn't love that?

Even so, I'm not convinced the so-called Charleston Arts Coalition knows what's involved in building or rehabbing a facility. Even if it were able to pull off the miracle of building the political will, raising money, rallying support among philanthropists and developers, there's the small detail of operating the facility. This, among other things, has me thinking the Coalition isn't serious about addressing the venue problem.

(One of these other things is the problem as defined by Jonathan Brilliant, a panelist and leading figure in the Charleston Arts Coalition. He said the main problem was that artists are leaving Charleston to pursue careers elsewhere. He said an arts center would encourage them to stay. If this is true, which I doubt, and if this is a problem, it's a minor one that's disproportional to the efforts he suggests go into its solution.)

Why don't I think the Coalition is taking this seriously? Because even an arts center won't address the problems taking shape since October (see above). Put simply, this is a performing arts problem, not a visual arts problem. Dance and theater companies have needs far beyond those of visual artists for the simple reason that their art is nearly always collaborative and needing more space for more people to do more things. But from the beginning of these discussions, starting in April at Redux, there has been a narrow grasp of the total venue problem, a fact reflected by those sitting on that first panel: seven visual artists, one theatrical, no dancers or musicians at all.

Tonight's panel discussion was almost entirely focused on the visual arts even though the immediate problem we face has little to do with the visual arts. In fact, as Chris Price, the lone belabored-looking panelist from the development group PrimeSouth, said, there are plenty of visual arts in Charleston. Just look around. Charleston is teeming with visual arts all year long, even during the long hot summer.

I'm aware of the struggles visual artists face in Charleston with getting their work sold, getting decent representation, with finding galleries that will show their work. Marshscapes are everywhere. The range of aesthetic can be limiting. Contemporary art is often defined too narrowly. But a theater company cannot function without a stage. A painter can still paint without a gallery. A failure to see the fundamental difference between these problems is a failure to take the whole issue seriously at all.

Like I said, if an arts center is in our future, I look forward to it. I just ask one thing — that the Charleston Arts Coalition be honest. This group of well-meaning artists and arts supports has shrewdly identified an opportunity to make the case for an arts center in a climate of anxiety and crisis. Many people attending these discussions are very concerned about music and dance and theater — and many are leaving feeling that they have wasted their time, that this is a dog and pony show, that that is fantasy.

What's worse is that the Coalition is going to push these naturally concerned supporters away and in doing so it's going to deepen the already deep divide between artists in Charleston. When these discussions began in April, I was surprised to see so much eagerness to take action, so much good will to work together. By distracting us from the real issue at hand — that is, it's a performing arts problem — the Arts Coalition may be doing damage where it intended to do good. The Coalition can't continue using the rhetoric of inclusiveness when it's clear not everyone is included. Truth matters even when you're mired in magical thinking.

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