Kyle Lahm is fully committed.
Committed to her neighborhood (Park Circle), her city (North Charleston), her office (Cultural Arts Department) and her new calling.
Her new calling is to support local artists and make their work available to the city’s residents. Perhaps the best vehicle for accomplishing that goal is the North Charleston Arts Fest, now in its 34th year. The eight-day arts festival runs April 29 through May 7 and includes many free offerings.
Lahm is working closely with her staff to ensure the opening weekend at the North Charleston Coliseum and the subsequent activities scattered through the city come off without a hitch.
This year the Exhibition Hall will be put to full use, she said. It will include two stages (one for dance, one for music) and lots of free, local programming. The festival continues through the first week of May, with performances and events at a variety of locations throughout the city. It features an art walk, a village street dance, sculpture in Riverfront Park and much more.
For future fests, Lahm is hoping to enlarge them while maintaining their diversity. She also wants to pin down a central act, someone well-known whose show can be the big event, she said.
But that’s not all she’s working on. Lahm is in charge of the big St. Patrick’s Day celebration and parade, the Christmas parade, the Charleston Marathon and the many street fairs organized through the year. She and her staff work with arts organizations looking for venues and with libraries, nonprofits and schools.
She’s only been on the job for five months, but she has settled in well. Maybe that’s because she transferred to the post from the Mayor’s Office of Education Youth and Family, where she held the title of coordinator for seven years.
Indeed, Lahm is no stranger to community and civic service. Before signing on with the city, she was manager of the Ronald McDonald House of Charleston from 2000 to 2007. Before that, she was coordinator of building services at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center during the PAC’s construction years.
Lahm, 44, grew up on Sherwood Street in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston. Her dad, John K. Varner, was a salesman who finished his career at the Defense Security building on the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Her mom, Betty Varner, was a public school teacher who worked at Morningside, Burns and A.C. Cochran elementary schools.
Lahm attended A.C. Cochran then transferred to Stall High School to remain with friends and avoid the turmoil of new construction at North Charleston High School, which was nearer her home.
“I was living in Park Circle when it was not so cool,” she said. “I was made fun of by my friends living near Northwoods,” in the newer and more desirable neighborhoods. “We would cruise Rivers (Avenue). That’s what we did for fun.”
She was a musical kid who played violin and listened to lots of records. Lahm participated in Stall’s robust strings program, playing in the orchestra.
“That certainly built my foundation for a huge love of music,” she said.
She loves live music especially, including concerts by the band Phish, which she attends annually.
In 2007, she married Jerry Lahm, another civic-minded local resident who works for Charleston County RoadWise and serves as chairman of the Charleston County diversity team. He’s also a comic book fanatic who runs a pop-up shop near Park Circle.
Lahm’s dad, who’d been sick for a while, died just one week before the wedding.
Alan Coker, director of marketing for the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, is an old colleague and friend of Lahm’s. He, too, is a product of Park Circle and an arts appreciator.
They met in the mid-1990s at work. As building services coordinator, Lahm implemented systems to help building staff stay on task, Coker recalled.
“She had incredibly good management skills,” he said. “She’s a doer who’ll go analyze a problem and try to figure out a way to make it work better.” That’s what she’s done “with everything she’s touched over the years.”
She helped transform the St. Paddy’s Day festival from a tiny block party into one of the city’s biggest celebrations, he noted. She determines the layout for vendors and musicians, coordinates the whole affair then, afterward, assesses the results. What worked well? What didn’t? She does the same thing with the Charleston Marathon and other events.
“She’s constantly not resting on laurels of the past, she’s constantly trying to improve,” Coker said.
And her commitment extends beyond the arts and holiday festivals, he added.
“She goes to every merchant meeting (of) the Old North Charleston Merchants” (on East Montague Street), he said. “She is the type of person who just loves her city and community and wants to be involved anyway she can.”
When she was part of the Mayor’s Education Youth and Family staff, Lahm was intimately involved in school outreach, helping Hersey Elementary’s adoption of Montessori programming, helping to set up North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary, serving on Trident United Way’s Education Impact Council, serving on the board of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood.
She said the new Creative Arts school is an important addition to the school district’s portfolio because it can help prepare less-advantaged kids for the countywide School of the Arts.
“There are so many kids in North Charleston who can’t get into SOA,” she said. They are not exposed to the arts early, they get no private lessons, they enjoy less encouragement and support at home and at school. “It’s our hope that with this school ... they will have a better chance.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey echoed Lahm, saying early exposure to the arts is essential.
“The more exposure we get in the arts, then our kids can get a chance to not only grow themselves, but grow people in their surroundings and in the community as well,” Summey said.
The mayor called Lahm “a caring person and a heck of an organizer.” He’s glad for it because North Charleston is gaining an eclectic array of residents, from young hipsters to new families and working professionals, especially in the old heart of the city, Park Circle, where they mix with old-timers who remember the city back when.
“I think she’s going to really be excellent in bringing those together,” Summey said. “She’s very energetic. She takes extreme pride in what she does. So I think it’s going to be a good time for us.”
The city is building two new senior centers that will enjoy some arts programming, including one on Otranto Road in the northern part of North Charleston, which needs it, Summey and Lahm said.
“There’s not enough programming in the northern end of the city,” she said.
Arguably, there’s not enough arts programming, period. And that’s because the city relies mostly on the Coliseum and Performing Arts Center (very big stages), local arts organizations such as South of Broadway Theater Company (very small stages), and outdoor spaces such as parks and streets.
A building once part of a church on Midland Park Road soon could become a space that arts groups and arts teachers can use. And summer camps could get bigger if the proper facilities are used, Lahm said. Possibly a summer piano program and bilingual theater group will use the Midland Park building soon.
Sterrett Hall, an auditorium and gymnasium on the old Navy base, recently closed permanently. That left the city with no regular stage for concerts, dance and theater works produced by local organizations.
“Our big challenge is a lack of facilities,” Lahm said. It’s a problem she is confronting nearly every day.
Recently, the Donnelley Foundation funded a feasibility study by ArtSpace, a Chicago-based nonprofit that specializes in setting up live/work facilities for artists. ArtSpace staff spent several days in the Charleston area in late February consulting with local artists, business people and civic leaders. Lahm was part of a small advisory committee, a core group working closely with the Donnelley Foundation and ArtSpace.
Summey is sympathetic. He’s well aware of the need for space that can accommodate artists. The city had hoped a former warehouse near Park Circle could serve that purpose, but it was sold after the city determined it couldn’t afford the extensive renovations and repurposing required.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a place where people can live in and teach (or) work,” Summey said. Such arts activity would be “supplemental, but good for the community.”
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.