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Unscripted

They're Listening: Pragmatism now, ideology later

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Good things emerged from the April 24 panel discussion at Redux Contemporary Art Center. About 100 people came to voice their concerns. I can't get into it all, but I will say this: The discussion accomplished two important goals. One was heightening awareness of Charleston's growing venue problem — there are more artists making art than there are places for them to make it.

The other was demonstrating that individuals are not alone — in attendance were artists, an array of supporters, and representatives of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs and Spoleto Festival USA.

The artists are finally talking about the problem. They are finally talking about getting organized. They are finally talking about speaking as one. And so far people are listening.

A follow-up panel discussion is already set (May 13). There's talk of forming a "task force" to explore formally addressing the problem. Whatever happens, what's crucial at this point is not so much the problem itself (we all pretty much agree on that).

What's crucial is how we envision a solution.

Some see the problem in terms of diffused creative capital. The solution would be acquiring a building. This requires the city or an enlightened benefactor to provide one for use by artists who might otherwise not be welcomed in more established art galleries.

Others see it in terms of urban renewal. Gentrification has gradually pushed all varieties of artists off the peninsula. No one really knows what to do about this, but one suggestion has been that the city cordon off a part of the peninsula as a cultural district safe from the commercial forces of the real estate marketplace.

Still others see it as a philanthropy issue. If Redux had been able to raise the money, for instance, it could have purchased its current building and avoided all the hassle of moving. The solution is to raise "massive amounts of money."

All of these are valid. Yet I worry about how we're seeing things.

It's not that we shouldn't hope the city someday recognizes the tremendous contributions artists make to Charleston's quality of life. It's not that we shouldn't hope the business community someday recognizes the commercial potential of collaborating with artists. And it's not that we shouldn't hope a saintly philanthropist someday recognizes the value of artists well enough to endow them with those massive amounts of money.

But this isn't a plan. This isn't a series of feasible steps to address the issue. It's healthy to have long-range goals. It's healthy to have principles that we commit to (i.e., art is good; art makes us noble, makes us more human) in achieving those long-range goals. But what we need now is less ideology and more pragmatism.

Whatever this "task force" is, it should first be practical.

That means, as one attendee put it, dropping the "entitlement attitude." That means, as another person said, making tough compromises and "working toward a win-win" among artists and civic and business leaders. That means reaching out to "the other side" and avoiding the rhetoric of demonization — a keen observer noted the need to embrace real estate entrepreneurs in the creation of a task force and to stop thinking of them as "the big bad developers."

I'd add the rhetoric of victimhood to that. Panel moderator Marian Mazzone, CofC art history professor and chair of Redux's board, said the discussion was about "displaced arts organizations." Linda Fantuzzo, artist and panelist, said that "artists have had to flee" the peninsula, as if they were combat refugees. To be forced to flee or to be displaced means someone owes you a place. You're morally entitled to it. But this is an ideology, a vestige of the 1960s, that has lost much, if not all, of its currency. The mystique of the bohemian has faded. Artists are no longer the secular saints of a late-capitalist society. Artists choose their lives and their hardships.

"Being a starving artist isn't sexy anymore," said Sharon Graci, panelist and co-founder of PURE Theatre.

She's right. Before, that was a principle with deep resonance. Now, that's gone. Times change. It's time to change with them.

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