On the other side of the pandemic, the Charleston arts scene will look markedly different.
It’s not just the lingering wariness of packed lobbies. It is not just the downsizing and reconfiguring of many organizations as a result of the shutdown.
The playing field is swapping out enough major players that it could have the potential to dramatically alter the cultural landscape in Charleston and beyond. Throughout the city and the state, high-profile arts leaders have exited, announced retirements or set departure dates.
Take Nigel Redden, who for more than 35 years served as general director of Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston’s annual international arts festival largely responsible for putting the city on the world arts map. Last September, he announced he will step down this October.
Or Stephen Bedard, CEO of Gaillard Management Corp., who oversees the Charleston Gaillard Center. Prior to that role, he served as the first chief financial officer for the city of Charleston, where he played a key role in renovating numerous arts facilities.
And Valerie Morris, longtime dean of the College of Charleston’s School of the Arts, who retired in December, passing the baton to Edward Hart, former chair of the music department.
There is Mark Sloan, former director and chief curator of the College’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which is known nationally for its public-facing gallery that mounts exhibitions of some of the most thought-provoking artists of the day. He, too, has left ahead of the successors he mentored, Katie Hirsch, Halsey’s interim director, and Bryan Granger, director of exhibitions and public programs.
Statewide, South Carolina has sent off heavy hitters too. Marjory Wentworth, who served as poet laureate since 2003, announced her resignation in October. In 2019, former S.C. Arts Commission Executive Director Ken May retired to be followed in the job by David Platts. Kathy Bateson, who headed the Arts Center at Coastal Carolina University retired and was succeeded by Jeffrey Reeves.
“It is stunning and fascinating … that it's all happening at one time,” said Karen Chandler, director of the Graduate Certificate in Arts and Cultural Management at the College of Charleston.
In that role and in many others, Chandler has had a front-row seat to the evolution of Charleston’s arts scene. She has also seen these shifts from seats on local governing, editorial and advisory boards for organizations including Charleston Gaillard Center and city of Charleston’s Commission on the Arts, as well as national entities such as the Arts Administrators of Color network, based in Washington, D.C.
“We knew that there was going to be this huge baby boomer shift, that they were all going to retire within a decade of each other,” Chandler said, adding that the pandemic brought some of it on.
According to GP McLeer, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, it’s just the start of a swath of exits which he said started about five years ago.
An economic driver
It is hard not to draw parallels to other eras in Charleston, when a seismic shift in the arts helped transform the city.
One such era was the Charleston Renaissance, when artists, writers and preservationists and others gave new sheen to the city, with some churning out picture postcards to prove it.
A more recent era launched in 1977 when Spoleto Festival USA was founded by Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who worked closely with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and College of Charleston President Ted Stern.
The aim was economic impact to bolster tourism and create jobs. In 2016, the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis estimated Spoleto’s economic impact at $42 million, or about $2.5 million a day for the 17-day festival.
The impact is significant statewide. Research released in 2018, based on data from 2014, said arts, design, crafts and related activities engenders an impact of $9.7 billion, supporting 115,000 jobs, driving $3.8 billion in labor income and generating $269 million in tax revenue.
“The art leaders currently in place who may be retiring … have shaped South Carolina in a lot of great ways,” McLeer said, adding it’s not just places like Charleston and Greenville. Arts vitality radiates to smaller cities Rock Hill and Hilton Head Island.
“Absent COVID, (it) has been growing and strong due to these leaders. We’ve seen small towns like Florence see a really good arts presence, especially with Francis Marion University,” he said, adding that the university’s president, Fred Carter, is a committed supporter of the arts.
It’s not only the infrastructure that the leaders are leaving behind. Individually and collectively, they helped transform a less lustrous, 20th-century Charleston into one gleaming with well-scrubbed venues befitting of high-caliber art, alluring fundraisers and entertainment-seeking visitors.
There is plenty of tangible proof by way of bricks and mortar. In the past two decades, numerous performance venues have undergone meticulous historic restorations, state-of-the-art upgrades or wholesale rehabs, with many leaders working in concert to achieve them. Multimillion-dollar restorations to the Charleston Gaillard Center, Festival Hall (formerly Memminger Auditorium), the Dock Street Theatre and the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre all are thanks, in part, to many of these departing leaders.
“They're leaving indelible marks,” Forster said of these leaders. “I think it’s almost revitalized downtown for the arts.”
With the economic devastation of the pandemic, these buildings today would likely not benefit from such investment. In a January interview with The Post and Courier regarding her retirement, Morris said projects like those for the Sottile Theatre, as well as a $50 million renovation project greenlit for the College’s Albert Simons Center for the Arts, would likely never happen now.
“That is the gift to a new generation of arts leadership in Charleston. … not just the physical buildings, but literally the infrastructure of the institutions themselves,” Chandler said.
When arts leaders leave their posts, "their organizations should consider how to build on existing strong foundations while bringing in a new generation of leaders,” said David Platts, executive director of South Carolina Arts Commission.
It should be noted that Platts himself represents a recent shift, taking the helm of the commission in July 2019 when May retired that June after 33 years at the commission. Among the commission's alterations with Platts at the helm was the change of the Governor's Award for the Arts, stripping it of the name of Elizabeth O'Neill Verner.
“Some organizations may assess their mission, vision and goals, and find that they could engage more deeply with their audiences and communities," he said. "That engagement could take the form of more inclusiveness and diversity, to ensure that the future arts leaders are more representational of all South Carolinians.”
Some leaders have cited the need for a change among their reasons for stepping down.
Sloan said she felt that "26 years was long enough for anyone to be anywhere." He anticipated his retirement to the extent of hiring replacements in Bryan Granger and Katie Hirsch.
"They are both absolute whippersnappers … so I knew that it was in really good hands," he said.
On leaving her role as poet laureate, Wentworth told The Post and Courier she hoped her departure fostered more support for the role at the state level.
In an interview with The Post and Courier on his retirement, Redden pointed to the pandemic pause, also explaining he was deeply affected by the Black Lives Matter movement.
He cited the impact on him of the “We See You, White American Theater” letter that was issued last summer, signed by 300 BIPOC theater makers who shared a list of demands to make theater "a more equitable and safe place" for those artists.
While the new leader will have his or her own vision, according to Bill Medich, chairman of Spoleto Festival USA, the organization plans to remain steadfast in its overarching mission. That is to produce and present the highest quality art form, to emphasize the exposure for new artists, to produce and to present new work and to give a platform for experienced artists to to do things in unique ways that they haven't done before. Also, to present a diverse set of performance art, including dance, theater, opera, jazz, pop music and physical theater.
A critical lens
So how do arts organizations adjust to a city wholly different than the one in which its former arts leaders succeeded?
“Charleston's a different place,” Medich said. “Not just the arts community, but the community in general has changed so much and that the next general director needs to come in and take the base ingredients … and lead it into a new direction which fulfills the mission.”
After this summer’s transformative events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a significantly increased emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, which has become a primary focus of many local organizations.
“We know that there are certain strengths that we have in terms of presenting works by diverse artists and that is a longstanding strength of the festival,” said Medich. “We also have plenty of work to do in terms of how the staff is represented, how the board is represented and how we attract diverse audiences to our performances.”
According to Medich, the Spoleto Festival is on solid footing to navigate that change, as longtime donors have demonstrated their commitment during the pandemic, coupled with its own resources. This puts the festival in good stead to attract the best candidate.
“I think there's a strong preference to see that the general director live in Charleston, although that may not be an absolute,” Medich said.
That new leadership is expected to reflect a new vision. “Nigel was a tastemaker for the last 25 years, and we can't expect the next general director to step in and say, 'Okay, well, you just keep doing things the way Nigel did them.' There's nobody good that would come in and take that assignment,” he said.
Things are full-steam ahead for the Gaillard search, too. Ted Legasey, a board member who chairs the search committee, said the effort is going well. The committee engaged DHR International Inc. in November to conduct a nationwide search for Bedard’s successor.
According to Legasey, about 50 candidates were identified and first-round interviews were conducted in early February. The second-round interviews are underway now. The hope is to have a successor in place by this summer.
Chandler notes the changing candidate pool, which she has seen up close from her affiliation with Arts Administrators of Color, an organization that did not exist 40 years ago when she was starting her arts career.
“Many of these young and emerging arts administrators of color are poised to take these positions that many of these leaders that are around the country are stepping out of,” she said, bringing with them ideologies and understanding of how institutions operate.
“I'm interested in seeing what our organization is going to look like in the next decade, both in terms of the pandemic and in terms of this demographic and cultural shift," she added.
Chandler believes some institutions are going to be much more connected and engaged with their communities, and diversity, equity and inclusion need to be a central part of the mission and the very core of how these organizations function. She also said she predicts a more periodic change in leadership, and a rethinking of the way in which organizations are governed.
“I think a lot of these organizations are going to be turned upside down, shaken up,” said Chandler. "It's exciting."
There are other new additions to the cultural landscape of the city. The International African American Museum, under the helm of CEO Elijah Heyward III, is set to open in 2022. The Lowcountry Lowline, the linear park that will run south to north along the defunct railway on peninsular Charleston, will break ground in the fall of 2021 and has plans in motion for a robust arts component.
In aggregate, this paradigm shift could position the arts for another cultural renaissance, one that navigates an increasingly urban community, powers a new economy and sparks meaningful exchange. It could ensure Charleston’s continued claim as a world-class, visionary arts city — that is, with the people in place.