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Discussions are underway to create a regional 'arts council'

Strength in Numbers

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Right now, there's movement toward establishing an entity, or "arts council," that would serve arts groups during this historic economic crisis.

You might not know it. Lately, all we've been hearing is squabbling about who's included and who's not.

But this effort is happening, albeit slowly, and important steps are being taken to make sure every arts organization has a chance to participate.

George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation, an organization handling millions of dollars in charitable giving, is scheduled to speak at the board meeting of the League of Charleston Theatres on Dec. 8.

Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, which manages Piccolo Spoleto and other cultural events, is also scheduled to speak.

The move is a positive sign to arts groups worried they were excluded from efforts to promote holiday shows staged by the Big Three: the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Ballet Theatre, and Charleston Stage.

Each is facing tens of thousands of dollars in shortfalls from earned income, such as ticket sales, and unearned income, mostly individual donations. The CSO is facing an anticipated million-dollar deficit. Charleston Stage needs $200,000 by season's end. The promotion of these performances is thought to offset declines.

But small theater groups have also struggled. The Post and Courier reported that theater groups have seen ticket sales slump by as much as 30 percent. That's why Stevens' and Moryl's visit is being seen as a step toward greater inclusivity.

"I'm very pleased," says Emily Wilhoit of the League of Charleston Theatres. "I'm pleased to be part of it all and that we're finally starting this conversation."

Promoting the holiday shows is the first step in establishing some kind of entity that could, in theory, handle the business side of the arts — such as marketing, development, and promotion — while leaving the art to the artists.

An entity of this nature would reduce the cost of running fund-raising campaigns while improving quality and expanding ticket sales. This entity has been called during these early stages an "arts council," an "arts alliance," and an "arts coalition." It would function similarly to the Coastal Community Foundation, a 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 says. "There's no sense in separate offices doing the same work when an arts council can do one job for the benefit of many."

Stevens and Moryl are joined by John O. Sands, the Lowcountry representative of the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, a regional charity that provides some measure of support to nearly every arts group in Charleston.

Sands is currently attempting to secure a grant from his foundation for as much as $250,000. A percentage of that, if approved, would promote holiday programming. Charleston City Council voted last week to pitch in $50,000 in matching funds. Grant approval, Sands says, was still pending as of today.

It's uncertain that the amount requested will be the amount approved. It's equally unclear whether the Donnelley Foundation will turn around a decision before the end of the holiday season. Board members are scattered across the country, and board meetings are scheduled two years in advance.

Like most foundations its size, the Donnelley is far from nimble. If and when it approves the request, most of it will be seed money to lay the foundation for the kind of administrative entity that's envisioned.

"There are short-term implications and there are long-term implications," Sands says. "The short-term is getting the word out about the holiday programs, but the long-term is far more significant. You can call us the keystone to the arch, but there are many other stones involved in this arch."

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