Charleston mayoral candidates promise to support arts as ‘lifeblood of the city’

Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts hosted the public forum Arts Matter, featuring six of the seven declared mayoral candidates.

Arts organizations in Charleston face many challenges: rising operating costs, rent increases, funding shortages, increasing competition for limited public and private resources, and more.

At Tuesday’s Arts Matter public forum, organized by the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts and featuring six of the seven declared candidates for mayor, attendees were afforded a chance to assess candidates’ commitment to the arts and consider their ideas for enhancing the cultural life of the city.

All the candidates in attendance — Ginny Deerin, William Dudley Gregorie, Leon Stavrinakis, John Tecklenburg, Paul Tinkler and Maurice Washington — pledged fervent support of arts and culture, calling them “the lifeblood of the city” and “central to the life of our city.” Many credited Mayor Joe Riley with sparking an urban renaissance by working to establish Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston in 1977, and they promised to continue to advocate for the arts in Riley’s wake.

Toby Smith, who announced her bid for mayor on June 2, was not in attendance.

The event, held at Woolfe Street Theatre, attracted about 200 people, mostly from the arts community. It was an opportunity seized by the mayoral candidates to reassure this constituency during a period of transition.

Stavrinakis said the city needs to improve accessibility and diversity, expanding the scope and reach of local arts groups.

Tecklenburg said he would focus on smaller community organizations, encourage more activity in the suburbs and more school partnerships.

Tinkler said Piccolo Spoleto events should spread to West Ashley and arts organization should emphasize community outreach.

All the candidates voiced support for more public art projects and “creative placemaking” (shaping the character of a neighborhood through arts and entrepreneurship). Deerin said such initiatives bring people together, help forge connections and foster creativity.

Most of the candidates argued that getting more public school students involved in the arts is a good way to cultivate a new generation of artists and arts patrons. Gregorie said the emphasis on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) in the schools should include the arts, becoming “STEAM.”

Deerin said the citizenry must be mobilized if such policy changes are to succeed.

Washington said the city should focus on improving schools and stop limiting use of public money by designating more and more Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, which permit governments to raise money by selling bonds and using future tax revenues as collateral.

Stavrinakis pointed out that changes to school funding formulas must clear the state Legislature and inevitably would result in some winners and some losers.

Asked about rising rents on the peninsula, Stavrinakis said a plan should be devised to ensure that affordable space remains available to arts groups.

Tecklenburg called for a mixed-use arts cluster where people can live and work, as well as incentives that help arts organizations strengthen their financial standing.

Tinkler said more affordable housing and commercial space is needed generally, but that arts groups ought to look to the suburbs for options.

Deerin said it’s important to keep the peninsula a diverse and dynamic place that includes artists. “We need creative people living in our city,” she said.

Washington said a thriving arts community is a consequence of quality education. “Education is the key to economic development, neighborhood development and quality of life,” he said.