Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories in Arts & Travel about Charleston’s creative community and its efforts to stimulate artistic and economic activity in the area. Next week, read about 1600 Meeting Street, a new creative hub on the upper peninsula.
BY ADAM PARKER
Has Charleston reached a creative critical mass? Is it now at the point of becoming a self-sufficient, expanding hub of artistic and design talent?
A growing number of community-oriented entrepreneurs and artists think so, and they’re backing up their words with action.
This week, Charleston is playing host to the first-ever Dig South Interactive Festival, a combined conference, expo and “sideshow” featuring leaders from the technology, design and creative industry sectors, along with musicians, venture capitalists, media folk and foodies.
It’s a three-day extravaganza that starts Friday and is centered at TD Arena on the College of Charleston campus, but whose venues include The Alley, Redux and Charleston Music Hall.
The effort is the latest example of creative activism, and it builds on a number of initiatives undertaken in recent years.
The hope, says organizer Stanfield Gray, is not just to stimulate economic activity but to share big ideas, innovative case studies and strategies that can be put to use right away to help strengthen Charleston as a destination for today’s digital and cultural entrepreneurs.
Apple was founded in a garage by a couple of fellows living in Cupertino, Calif., Gray noted.
“There’s no reason to believe that our garage isn’t just as cool as the garage in Cupertino,” he said.
Charleston once offered little in the way of fine dining or world-class concerts. It was a city of stagnant industry and institutional poverty. There were far fewer tourists on Market Street.
In the 1960s, the city saw some infrastructure development, and during the 1970s, with Mayor Joe Riley in office, the landscape began to transform. Hotels, pedestrian-friendly shops, parks and new food establishments sprouted. Revitalization was well under way.
In 1989, Hugo hit. It was a hurricane that moved houses from their foundations and tossed large boats on land, a storm that knocked over millions of tall pines and shattered the peace of the Holy City.
Disaster often has unintended consequences, though, and Hugo ended up being a catalyst for aggressive change, said Gil Shuler, a graphic designer who moved to the Charleston area from Sumter in 1983.
Charleston already was starting to grow and improve, but the storm and subsequent influx of insurance money for rebuilding accelerated the process, said Shuler, who is one of the Dig South presenters.
Soon, restaurants and shops (new and remade) were popping up, aided by infrastructure improvements, lower King Street development, College of Charleston activities and Spoleto Festival USA, which had gotten its start in 1977.
“It just became pretty hot,” Shuler said, referring to the so-called Jacuzzi effect, when disaster leads to improvements that otherwise would not have occurred.
By the first half of the 1990s, computers were becoming ubiquitous in business circles, and that made it increasingly possible for people in the tech and design sectors to work more efficiently in a decentralized way, he said.
What had been missing, the proximity to a major interstate highway, became less important as technology capabilities ramped up, he said.
“Then all the tech and design folks wanted to live here,” Shuler said. Charleston may never become a major corporate or industrial center, but its arts scene is vibrant and its creative corridor is booming.
For a generation that can work from its laptop, working well often means living well. “It becomes a quality of life issue,” he said.
And Charleston now seems to have crossed a threshold, attracting more and more creative entrepreneurs who are finding a solid foothold in this charming city by the sea.
“Soon, people realize the place is ripe for this kind of stuff,” Shuler said.
But any worthwhile activity begins with a good idea. And idea-sharing is becoming an art form unto itself in Charleston.
In November 2008, a group called Charleston Creative Parliament introduced its first Pecha Kucha event that, according to its website, is a “show-and-tell, open-mike night and happy hour that has become a forum for ideas on design, architecture and other forms of creativity.” (Pecha Kucha is Japanese for chit-chat.)
Parliament organizes a few of these each year, pulling together artists, restaurateurs, techies, small-business owners, educators and many others who make presentations about their lives and experiences, usually accompanied by a projected slideshow.
The Dig South conference is one of the latest iterations of this idea-sharing effort. Another is TEDxCharleston, a licensed but independent version of the hugely popular TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences.
Charleston’s TEDx event is slated for May 15 at Pure Theatre and is themed “Reinvent.”
Gray moved to Charleston in 1998, worked at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art for a couple of years as assistant curator, then went to the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. There, he helped with Piccolo Spoleto Festival operations, and ran the Farmers Market and Christmas on King.
By the turn of the new century, Gray thought he perceived the emergence of a new creative class in the city. This was the period of the first Internet boom. The few tech-savvy folks involved in that boom ended up moving away, to the West Coast or to cities such as Austin, Texas, Gray said.
There were cool ideas, like his own video business card solution, but not enough capital.
Gray nearly moved west himself, but the tech market crashed and hiring froze, so he went to work for the College of Charleston instead, developing its first mobile app, a walking tour.
After a decade, things started to change. He attended an Ad Age Digital Conference in 2011 and sort of had an epiphany: Everything was online, creativity was rampant, and Charleston was home to a lot of talented people. It was time to make something happen.
The main thing still missing, he said, was financing. But what if he could organize a big gathering that brought creative entrepreneurs together with investors, code writers and other like-minded folks? What if the hardware and software people joined forces with the content people? What if he fanned the flames? What if inspiration led to more inspiration?
Then Gray said something arguably immodest: “I want this to be recognized as the digital hub of the Southeast.”
Turning up the heat
The nice thing about Dig South is that it combines the creative side with the technological side, said Buff Ross of Alloneword Design.
Ross, a website designer, is a former curator of visual art and assistant director at the Halsey.
He is one of many presenters at the conference, and he is moderating a conversation about client relations called “The Art of Technology,” in which the confluence of art and bytes no doubt will be considered, he said.
The trend (or one of them) these days is finding creative ways to ensure that good design (aesthetics, functionality) synchs with good usability, he said.
There is no reason why Charleston’s creative class cannot ride that wave, especially now that new people are coming to town, freed from the restrictions of commercial office towers and actual wires, Ross said.
An early adopter of Charleston’s creative potential was the food movement, he noted.
“That has been a little bit ahead of other artistic movements here,” Ross said. “And it’s helped Charleston gain respect on a national scale. Food is one of the more visceral ways to show what a vibrant and cosmopolitan place Charleston is becoming.”
Ross said he thinks Dig South has the potential to become as culturally central and popular as the annual Wine + Food Festival, Spoleto Festival USA and Fashion Week.
Among the conference presenters are numerous leading edge companies that rely heavily on tech solutions, good design and a solid artistic sensibility: Bibliolabs, Charlie Magazine, The Farmbar, Fuzzco, Hook, ReverbNation, Sparc and more.
A variety of sessions will consider topics including pollution, the future of the media, branding, video production and marketing, digital publishing, finding start-up money, digital storytelling, family life, do-it-yourself fundraising, the role of nonprofits in the new economy, e-commerce and social networking.
For a distraction, organizers have booked a few sideshows, including a guided tour of the studios run by Charleston’s creative entrepreneurs, shows featuring music and comedy at the Charleston Music Hall, and bands playing gigs at The Alley and Redux.
If the pilot flame of creative entrepreneurship was lit years ago, then Dig South will turn up the heat and possibly demonstrate that the community is ready for the next phase of economic development.
“The timing is right,” Gray said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.
A drop-in at the Dig South offices on Upper King Street two weeks ago drew a couple of bands and a number of people signing up to volunteer for the upcoming conference and expo.×
The Dig South Interactive Festival 2013 includes several “sideshows” at downtown venues featuring live music.×
One of the bands at the recent drop-in was Elim Bolt, fronted by guitarist-singer Johnnie Matthews. The band will be performing at Redux on Friday night.×