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Talking about art venues in Charleston

Five points to keep in mind

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The panel discussion at Redux Contemporary Art Center is a rare moment in which artists from all over the city will congregate in one place at the same time to discuss an issue affecting them all.

That issue is the venue problem — there are more people making the arts (all of them) than there are places for them to make it.

Venues have been an issue for years, but lately there has been a whiff of crisis in the air since PURE Theatre was forced to relocate last year. After that, many became more attuned to skyrocketing property values and the market forces that gradually pushed, or will soon push, artists out to make room, mostly, for condos.

Such is the reality of urban gentrification. Artists are the first to arrive in blighted neighborhoods, and the first to leave after they're redone. Think of Upper King Street a decade ago. I doubt many would seriously argue for a return to its former self. Even so, artists are feeling besieged. Hence, the talk at Redux (7 p.m., Thursday).

Though a community-wide discussion is badly needed and long overdue, it should be merely the first among many.

Otherwise, it's a squandered opportunity. Let me explain.

If nothing else, this first discussion is a chance to establish the framework of the issue, to define what the problem is, and that framework should start with this: It's a performing arts problem.

Without venues, performing arts groups — mostly, theater and dance — simply cannot function. Of eight panelists, one represents theater. The others represent Charleston's robust visual arts scene, which does not face what the performing arts face. So the panel's make-up suggests only a partial grasp of the total problem.

Another thing: These discussions have a tendency to inadvertently encourage feelings of fatalism. Panelists should avoid that.

A paucity of venues shouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle to making art. Of course, having a home is ideal, but serious artists make do. PURE Theatre opens Eurydice this week at the Old Navy Yard. Little City Musical Theatre Company debuted last month in North Charleston. It's tough, and both would prefer to be downtown, but ultimately, the art is what matters, not the venue.

It's one of life's harsh truths: Artists can't face this problem alone. They need help, but solutions must start with the artists. In the future, I hope to see panels consisting of those truly invested in the problem who will debate the merits of the following points:

1. Get organized: Consider forming a service organization that gives artists a singular voice. Most would like to see the Mayor and City Council recognize, in some tangible form, the unique contributions artists make to Charleston's quality of life. That will happen faster when there's a person or entity endowed with the authority to speak for the entire arts community. Look to Allied Arts in Chattanooga for a comparably-sized model.

2. Think small: During a crisis, it's tempting to dream of a multi-use civic arts facility safe from the forces of gentrification. Be wary of this. In cities like Charleston, perhaps more smaller venues are better than fewer big ones. Take Theatre 99 as an example.

3. Stay focused: In making their case, artists can lose their way when they talk about education, economics, etc., more than art. Be aware of this. Arts groups crumble for lack of funding, but they also die for failing to remain true to their core values. This is partially why the Savannah Symphony collapsed in 2003.

4. Lower the bar: If you can't stay downtown, then go somewhere else. Yes, it'll be a major loss when Redux and the Charleston Ballet Theatre have to move from their Upper King Street locations, but people will find them wherever they are. It's not about location, location, location. It's about the art experience. Last weekend's huge arts party, Kulture Klash, may be instructive.

5. Be honest: The venue situation isn't entirely gloomy. The Village Playhouse plans to build a new venue in Mt. Pleasant. The Charleston Music Hall plans to book more local acts. The Ashley Hall School for Girls will build a new arts center, though when is not yet known. And the renovated Memminger Auditorium will host the Charleston Stage Company next season.

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