Another chapter of the venue problem unfolded at Theatre 99 last week during a presentation by a new group called the Charleston Arts Coalition. The group, made up of artists, patrons, and supporters, presented two speakers who were key figures in Columbia's urban renewal and one speaker who represented, reluctantly but courageously, local real estate developers.
Even before I arrived, I was concerned we might lose the momentum, good will, and solidarity gained after the first venue discussion in April. Why? Because the arts coalition has determined that the answer to the ongoing venue problem is one, big arts center that would house many of the city's artists. It's being called "The People's Arts Center" and branded as "a unified center for the arts."
This is what happens in times of crisis. The most obvious answer to the loss of venues is replacing them with a new one, in this case a big, ambitious one that has the added political cachet of being egalitarian. But such a solution is magical thinking fueled by anxiety over the role of the arts in Charleston, especially downtown, and a desire to band together to face the challenges all artists face.
We need a solution that will work in the unique urban landscape that is Charleston, and that solution, whatever it is, should be the product of a slow, methodical, and at-first informal process of self-discovery. That's not what the coalition is doing. It has alighted on the arts center as a panacea. This may be a reality in the future, but that future is a long way from now. If it continues on its present course — in a discussion to be announced of issues like leasing versus owning a building and which groups would reside in the proposed center — the coalition risks losing support, solidarity, and deepening already deep divides between visual and performing artists.
It's understandable and, to be sure, admirable that the coalition would want to rally the troops, raise awareness through the media, organize high-profile presentations, and eagerly make the case for a community arts center. Indeed, few would argue against the need for one. But the coalition's proposal is like treating a broken arm by attending to the health of the entire body — the intention is well-meaning but it's not going to address the immediate needs of the patient. In the case of Charleston's venue problem, we need solutions grounded in the here and now.
And the here and now is a performing arts problem. Consider 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 be 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, Cumberland's and the Map Room closed their doors. And now The Plex in North Charleston is set to be demolished to make way for an office building.
No single arts center is going to solve these problems.
In light of this, here's what I propose. Set aside, for now at least, discussion of "a unified center for the arts." Focus instead on informal gatherings in which there is movement toward the creation of a service organization. This would be just what it sounds like. A service organization would serve artists: providing advocacy, business advice, fund-raising strategies, and other things yet to be determined. A rough model already exists with the League of Charleston Theatres.
Most of all, this service organization would provide a singular voice for artists and help establish venues in Charleston. Note that's "venues" with an S. This organization would help find a new home for PURE, the CBT, and Redux. The service organization's mission should be finding many small venues for artists, not one huge venue.
The arts coalition believes consolidating artists is key. But given Charleston's unique nature, perhaps scattering artists across the city is a better idea. Fred Delk of Columbia Development Corp. told us last week that he's working to devise a "scattering model" in which he would replicate creative spaces throughout Columbia. This is worth looking into. It's practical thinking, not magical thinking.