Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the Q&A that appeared in print Sat., June 8.
Since 1978, Ellen Dressler Moryl has played a central role in founding the Piccolo Spoleto Festival and launching other arts initiatives such as the MOJA Arts Festival and Holiday Magic and free art exhibitions at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park.
This is her last year producing Piccolo Spoleto. Her successor, Scott Watson, took over the Office of Cultural Affairs in January; Moryl became artistic director emeritus.
Sitting on a bench near City Gallery at Waterfront Park, Moryl reflected on the last 35 years.
The following is an edited version of the extended interview.
Q: How would you compare the mission of your office today to when you first started?
A: It’s the same as it was then, but it evolved. It developed as we developed these projects. The basic mission is to provide access to the arts to all citizens in Charleston and to provide support and access to their activities.
Q: How would you rate the effectiveness of your office in executing that mission?
A: It’s always a struggle to handle everything; to go out and find the resources to do these programs. I would say the mission hasn’t changed substantially. But as you support local arts groups, you also have them technical assistance. We have worked very hard over the years to assist the symphony, which finds itself always looking for new resources. And the tastes of the public are changing. That affects how the symphony is able to succeed in their fundraising mission and programming. The Charleston Ballet Theatre was another major group we have provided a lot of assistance to and always showcased at the festival. They’re not operating right now because they ran into a significant challenge with their fiscal program. We don’t have dance this year in the same way we used to.
With this small (staff) and this huge list of things we do — which hopefully is always supportive of the arts and designed to bring the arts to the people in many different settings — it’s not in our mission to run all those groups. We present them, but we don’t run them.
Q: Can you talk more about obstacles in working with local arts organizations?
A: The challenge is that they can’t find sufficient resources to keep their thing going. Sometimes they just run out of gas. Charleston Ballet Theatre was a very fine company, but they ran into some adversity several times in a row and it’s basically put them out of commission for the time being. I think they’re trying to shift their emphasis to dance education.
Q: Do you wish you’d done anything differently with how the city worked with these organizations or with programming?
A: Not really. Things change. Cities change. Look at Detroit. Detroit was a vibrant city with the automobile industry and then things shifted. How could have that city done better with that local industry. You can always do better. We do our best to help local groups at the same time we are presenting them in these things that are basically marketing vehicles for the local arts groups. That’s what Piccolo is. It is a structure where we go through an application process and you have panels. We don’t make all those choices. We have panels of experts in respective disciplines and they make the choices because they’re trained to do that. We facilitate the process. We have done a number of different things to help the ballet in their development program. But you can’t do that so directly. You have to offer technical assistance and it needs to be available to everybody, not just this group or that group.
The Jazz Artists of Charleston — we helped them (when they were first) formed, we helped give them a grant so they could do Piccolo Spoleto some years ago. They were able to continue on and they’re in their fifth year now. You help people when you can, but it’s not really your job to run them. I think most people in the country think government shouldn’t be running as much as they do, but we’re here to facilitate, collaborate, and assist. The city has a grant program, the accommodation tax grants, where these programs can apply for money. The groups don’t get general fund money from the city. The get accommodations tax grants, which stimulate cultural tourism and keeps reseeding the pot of money. That’s how the city operates. In fact, our projects, we have to apply for the same money and we compete for the money.
Q: Is there an accomplishment of which you’re most proud?
A: That’s a hard question. Somebody in the symphony office had a bumper sticker on a computer. It simply said, “No one was ever meant to make it on their own.” I am proud of being a facilitator and enabler to help a team of people do a project.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment?
A: St. Petersburg String Quartet has come maybe five different years. They came the same year (2002) that the Caramoor Virtuosi came and I asked them if they’d put a concert together. First we had the St. Petersburg’s String Quartet doing a Shostakovich quartet and two of the Caramoor joined the St. Petersburg and played a work by Tchaikovsky called “Souvenir de Florence.” It was very beautiful. It was ravishing, actually.
Q: What nightmare story stands out for you?
A: There was a heart stopping moment in 1982. The mayor had told me he wanted to turn the city into a stage and put the symphony orchestra and a free concert at the foot of the Custom House. It was 11 o’clock at night. Thousands of people showed up. Five minutes until the downbeat, somebody ran over the fiber optic master cable and went dark. I mean dark. I thought, “God what are we going to do?” But you know what? Somebody fixed it and one minute to eleven, the lights went on and the concert was a triumph.
Q: What challenges should Scott Watson address next year?
A: I think dance needs to make a big comeback, but I’m sure Scott can make that happen. I will be in the wings as the available godmother if they want to talk to me. But I think it’s always a good idea for new ideas to come forth. It’s absolutely a good time for that to happen.
Zach Marschall is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.
On Ellen Dressler Moryl
“Ellen is the finest lady in the city of Charleston I know of. You should listen to her play the cello.”
“People give her a hard time sometimes ... they treat her like the red-headed stepchild.”
Andy “Smoky” Weiner, blues and jazz presenter
* * *
“She has a way of making dreams become a reality.”
“Charleston has been a place where the arts of the highest aspiration and intention have held sway.”
“I can’t tell her no.” (Referring to their collaboration and her ideas for new things)
Robert Taylor, CSO Chorus director, director of choral activities at the College of Charleston, artistic director of Taylor Festival Choir
* * *
“Her tenure was marked by how she created a sense of community.”
“We’re proud of our Piccolo. We as a city want to embrace this and show it off to out-of-towners.”
“She did a terrific job and what I most marvel at is that she had a such a broad perspective on the arts in the community.”
Mark Sloan, executive director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
* * *
“Ellen is the most energetic person I know. She is such a thoughtful, nice, caring person.”
“I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her on a daily basis.”
“She leaves a remarkable legacy.”
Joseph P. Riley, mayor of the City of Charleston
Compiled by Zach Marschall