Spoleto Festival USA 2019

Westminster Choir in Joby Talbot's "Path of Miracles," with staging by John La Bouchardiere, at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA.

Even for those of us well beyond our classroom days, there’s something about the back-to-school bustle that prompts impulses to knuckle down and make those grades, whether they be metaphorical or actual.

With this in mind, it’s a choice time to consider Charleston’s standing as an arts town, particularly in light of a recently released assessment from Southern Methodist University.

The annual Arts Vibrancy Index by SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research, gathers all manner of information, ranking communities across the country and listing top performers. The 2019 Index is now available, affording us an opportunity to see where we stand on the national cultural area.

What, you ask, is the end game in all this data gathering? SMU DataArts aims “to build a national culture of data-driven decision making for those who want to see the arts and culture sector thrive.”

Piccolo Outdoor Art Expo

The Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibition takes place each year in Marion Square.

In mid-size communities, those nabbing the Top 10 spots were Asheville, North Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Charleston didn't make the list. 

So, do these scores matter? Yes, according to Chris Burgess, director and visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston’s arts management programs.

That being said, Burgess does have some methodology issues with the way this survey is weighted, pointing out that some areas benefit from larger arts organizations and other factors that result in bigger spending, thus tipping scores. With less support from the state, Charleston's rankings will likely fall short.

“Charleston isn’t going to compete with that because South Carolina doesn’t compete with that,” said Burgess. 

Charleston audiences make a vital arts scene

The crowd cheers for the dancers on stage during the annual Greek Festival on Saturday, May 11, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

For the index, communities are judged on three main rubrics: supply, demand and public support for arts and culture. The latter of which is determined by factors such as the number of arts providers, the total nonprofit dollars in the community and public support such as state and federal arts funding.

According to the DataArts heat map, Charleston is in more than decent shape. While not placing in the Top 10, and therefore not receiving a specific ranking, its scores are mainly high. It pulled a 90 in arts providers and a 93 in arts dollars garnered from sources like program and contributed revenue.

Other factors that indicate vibrancy, such as employment percentage and household income, landed a 93. The city’s highest score was for other leisure offerings, assessing draws like hotels, restaurants, bars and parks. That, naturally, soared to 98.

Government support seems to have brought Charleston's rankings down, as the calculations are based on state and federal dollars and grants. That score trailed behind at 82.

Piccolo Spoleto Sunset Serenade

Norbert Lewandowski warms up with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra before Piccolo Spoleto's Sunset Serenade concert at the United States Custom House on Friday, May 24, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Getting higher scores where possible can serve to advance the arts in a locale.

“If you’re in the Top 20 in any of these areas, it’s political capital, pure and simple.” Burgess said. “It’s never enough just to say ‘support the arts.’”

Burgess emphasizes that the arts is an economic driver. “I don’t know if we’ve done a great job of advocating that to policy makers.”

The arts are a significant creator of jobs, an engine of economic growth and tourism, and a means by which to enhance a community’s quality of life. And, in a data-driven world, applying such rigor to our assessment of the arts scene can demonstrate its role in the community.

MOJA Parade

During the MOJA arts festival, participants form a parade down King Street in Charleston. John Williams/Provided

“Artists often focus on how a project feels, whereas funders want to know what kind of change a project will facilitate, how many people it will affect, how many minds it will change, with the operative term being 'how many.'” said Rachel Workman, finance manager and Quarterly Arts Grant program administrator at the city of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs.

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The office is currently partnering with Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization, to facilitate another heavy-hitting national economic impact study, Arts & Economic Prosperity.

The results of the last study, with which the city also worked, were released in June 2017. It reports that the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates nearly $187 million in annual economic activity in Charleston, supporting 6,744 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $19 million in local state and government revenues. 

The cycle for the next study begins in 2020, with the data collection to be completed in 2021 and the findings publicized around the time of Spoleto 2022.

MOJA Arts Festival Heritage Day

During Charleston's annual MOJA Arts Festival, participants celebrate Heritage Day. John Williams/Provided

However, we can all do our homework to put Charleston in the best light possible. Arts practitioners can up their game in data gathering by conducting surveys and reporting as much data as they can.

"The greatest deficiency I see with collecting data for cultural programs is measurable, empirical evidence that a project is impactful," said Workman. "Good reporting and consistently tracked data help make that case." 

Arts patrons can fill out those surveys that pop up in lobbies and in programs. They also can spread the word through social media on cultural events they recommend. And, yes, donations to preferred arts organizations are not only welcome but do much to demonstrate arts vitality, thus potentially leading to more funding still.

It’s true, wonky arts rankings may lack the wow factor of some of those we claim in glossy magazines. And, no, they don’t possess the dramatic heft of a Wagnerian opera or the rousing uplift of a balletic leap. However, every collective gesture, post or show of support can help position Charleston in an optimal position to maintain and grow its vitality.

“It’s a city that is figuring out what it wants to be on a cultural level,” said Burgess. He points out that at the end of the day, Charleston is still proportionately a small city with a smaller donor base, and its arts organizations are constrained in terms of how big they can grow.

While many among us may have moved beyond sharpening those No. 2 pencils, those among us who would like to see the arts thrive still have ample opportunity to sharpen our resolve.

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.