When it comes to the Charleston arts scene, it would be pretty much safe to say that Valerie Morris has seen it all.
For the past two-plus decades, if you scour the house of most any major theatrical and musical performance or the gallery of any visual art exhibition, there she'll be. You'll also find her in several of the city's and state's boardrooms, for that matter.
This striking ubiquity has stemmed mainly from her role as the College of Charleston’s dean of the School of the Arts, a position from which she retired in December. In it, she has been the arts world's Zelig. She is the person I spot most frequently on my own rounds. If I was in need of an alibi, chances are she could provide it.
Outfitted in a classroom-to-office-to-opera-box jacket topped off by a sensible bob, Morris tends to amiably wend through Charleston lobbies with her affable, loquacious husband Boris Bohun-Chudyniv in tow. With a level, pleasant smile, she bolsters, assesses and glad hands as required.
“We committed to four evenings a week to attending a cultural event,” she said in a measured, academic timbre.
The commitment has served her well. Over her tenure, she cultivated such a devoted following of patrons, largely by way of an Arts Advisory Council, that she regularly guided community members toward her ordained areas of support.
Her commitment finds her in crowds beyond the numerous offerings spanning theater, music, dance and visual arts at the School of the Arts where her presence is pro forma, fanning out in Charleston and beyond and spanning nine boards, among them Charleston Stage, Taylor Music Group and South Carolina Arts Alliance, to name a few.
Of course, the pandemic has all but stopped such a standard operating procedure, but for a Charleston Symphony Masterworks matinee at the Charleston Gaillard Center or a Cougars basketball game at TD Arena. As soon as it's safe, however, she will be back.
Perched on the rounded wall that marks the College of Charleston’s oak-festooned Cistern Yard, this week Morris reflected on earlier days in Charleston. She arrived on campus in 1998, fresh from American University in Washington, D.C., where she had served as department chair (and attended school, too) to take the top spot as dean of the College’s School of the Arts.
“What I knew about Charleston was the Spoleto Festival, because I had a number of students who had done their internships there,” she said, due to her role heading up arts management.
“Most of what I learned … was from Ted Stern,” she said, flagging the College’s former president as a key mentor. He is also widely known for his ardent championing of the festival at its inception.
Since its founding in 1977, the festival has relied upon several campus facilities. After the students vacate for the summer, Spoleto takes over residence halls, studio space in The Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts and marquee venues like the Cistern Yard, Emmett Robinson Theatre and the Sottile Theatre for artists and productions.
According to Morris, Stern even devised a way to financially support visiting artists in compliance with the guidelines of the state school, compensating them for participating in an annual Spoleto Maymester class.
“He told me that the Spoleto Festival could not exist were it not for the College of Charleston,” Morris recalled. His aim, she said, was to elevate the campus with the city. He had plans for his new dean to do that as well.
A mandate and mission
According to Morris, she was encouraged by the College of Charleston (during the presidency of Alex Sanders) to grow the college's modest arts management program and historic preservation program.
She succeeded in that mandate. The arts management program is in the top 10 majors at the college. Both programs are widely recognized throughout the Southeast, if not beyond.
Certainly this matters for the college, which regularly touts the programs in admissions communications. They both also bolster the institution's recruitment assertion of offering students internships throughout the city.
At the same time, she has also succeeded in her own goal of elevating the profile of the talented staff spanning disciplines that was already in place in the school.
And, whether by design or dumb luck, that program and talent pool also lend greatly to the cultural vibrancy of Charleston.
A cursory glance at the annual Arts Vibrancy Index created by SMU Data Arts demonstrates the weight placed on a college or university’s contribution to a city’s art scene. The aim of the report is to assess factors like funding, resources and the number of cultural organizations to gauge cities on their cultural vitality.
It’s true, Charleston has not been on the index's Top 10 list recently. In 2020, those spots in its medium-size city category went to locales like Santa Fe, Pittsfield, Mass., and Boulder, Colo. What’s telling, however, is the methodology for those marks, with colleges and universities being repeatedly cited as a key contributing factor to making a city a cultural hotbed.
When Morris came to the College, Stern had in 1979 already realized a significant arts-focused aim in the opening of the Simons Center for the Arts, which according to Morris was directly connected with Spoleto's founding.
Under Morris's watch, others arts facilities are now chugging along or are slated to do so. Among her crowning achievements is The Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts, which opened in 2009.
"It has really nice facilities and people really like it," said Morris. It's community-friendly, too. She noted that the sleek, arts-forward Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art was intentionally conceived by director and chief curator Mark Sloan, who also retired this fall, to face out on Calhoun Street in a fashion that would welcome the public.
There is also the Sottile Theatre, freshly off a multimillion dollar renovation that was the pet project of former College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell and former chief financial officer Steve Osborne.
In process is the $50 million renovation of the Simons Center, which is slated to be finished in two years, a project modernizing the building in form and function. Morris worked tirelessly on the project after some stalls.
"It's been approved and it looks like this time it's going to really happen."
All of these could come together to further enhance that decades-long dance between the campus and city, spit and polished and state-of-the-art, primed for post-pandemic glory in the days and perhaps years when the arts world regroups and remounts.
It is fortunate indeed that these were all greenlit pre-pandemic. Morris notes that projects like the Sottile would likely never happen now.
Morris points out another byproduct of the programs she worked to enrich. Savvy students of both programs spill out into every major cultural office in the city.
"We are everywhere. You can't name an arts organization where there isn't a student or a graduate of the College of Charleston," she said.
Those with arts management degrees are proselytizing about initiatives in other cities, such as 1-percent programs that require developers to earmark that percentage to arts funding. Historic preservation students bring to city planning offices a fervor for mixed-use developments that make space for the arts.
"There's a lot of interest in the student body on those kinds of programs," she said.
What's more, the college's current president, Andrew Hsu, is "madly in love with opera," said Morris, which may prove to move the needle, too. Efforts are underway to raise funds to mount an opera company on campus that Morris hopes will extend to other arts disciplines.
And there is Edward Hart, the newly appointed dean of the School of the Arts and a longtime professor at the college and its former chair of the music department. A composer who is on the executive board of Charleston Symphony, he could further such synergies.
As for Morris (who according to a College's social media post has been named dean emerita and professor emerita there), she'll be dashing between the nine boards on which she participates, resuming a rigorous diet of arts consumption when it is safe.
But her proudest achievement is the students. "We're kind of running the arts organizations in town."
No doubt she'll see them all on the other side of the pandemic, enjoying an intermission chat in an endless lobby.