Mayoral candidates talk about the arts

Mayoral candidates John Tecklenburg and Leon Stavrinakis talk after a live debate Thursday in North Charleston.

Charleston is known for its restaurants, historical sites, beautiful waterways, active commercial port and outdoors activities.

It’s also known for having one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the Southeast.

The large community of artists, art teachers and arts administrators have a big stake in the city’s future. They comprise a significant political constituency that the new mayor will need to serve.

With that in mind, The Post and Courier reached out to the two candidates, Leon Stavrinakis and John Tecklenburg, to ask them several questions about how each of them would approach the arts as mayor.

Q: Mayor Joe Riley developed a reputation for being a champion of the arts in Charleston. Which areas do you believe need more attention from the city, and what, specifically, would you propose?

Stavrinakis: The arts are a part of Charleston’s unique fabric; we must invest in them for the next generation and maintain our reputation as a hub for arts and culture. As co-chair of the Legislative Arts Caucus in the Legislature, I led the fight to expand the arts in public schools and provide grant funds to grow the arts-based economy. As mayor, I would continue that fight and increase our commitment to public art in every part of the city. In addition, I support the launch of a fine arts graduate degree at my alma mater, the College of Charleston.

Tecklenburg: Over the past several years, we’ve done a good job supporting large, high-end organizations and events here in Charleston such as Spoleto and the symphony. What I’d like to do now is begin to focus on smaller, more community-based arts groups and activities that can bring even more vitality and creativity to the city’s arts’ scene. In addition, that would allow us to spread the joy of arts to every area of Charleston, from West Ashley to James Island, Johns Island, Daniel Island and the upper peninsula.

Q: Currently the city’s accommodations tax generates very limited funding to arts organizations. Would you seek to change the way arts programs and organizations are funded by the city, and if so, how?

Stavrinakis: The accommodations tax is a vital means to promoting our city to the world, and the arts are a big part of what makes Charleston a world-renowned destination. I am committed to maintaining the accommodations tax grants that are currently available through the city for arts and cultural organizations. State law limits and controls the allowable uses for this revenue. And as mayor, I will examine how Charleston spends accommodations tax revenue to ensure that we are getting a maximum return on that tax investment and that all organizations, including the arts, are receiving their fair share.

Tecklenburg: The accommodations tax is a reasonable way to fund arts initiatives here in the city, and it’s expected to grow naturally over the next few years. Beyond that, I’d like to see the city do what it can to help arts organizations raise more private and philanthropic dollars as well, because, in the long run, private support is key to enhancing the thriving arts community we have here in Charleston.

Q: Rent prices on the peninsula continue to rise, making it difficult for many arts organizations and independent artists to afford space downtown. What should the city do, if anything, to help them?

Stavrinakis: Rising costs of living and decreasing affordability: these are ongoing challenges for our city. It is particularly troubling to me that small, locally owned businesses, like those in the arts, are struggling to meet the high costs of rent in our city. In future planning, I will prioritize both affordable housing and affordable workspace. As we look at where future growth is expected, like the upper peninsula, it is important that we maintain a focus on the arts and the need to maintain that element for our city. I am encouraged by places like 1600 Meeting, and I hope that the city and the arts community can partner for future projects like this.

Tecklenburg: In the short run, we need to do a better job identifying and helping artists connect with existing live/work spaces throughout the city, as well as helping them to partner with schools and other institutions that already have display and performance venues available. Longer term, I’d like to see the city work with the private and civic sectors to create a project modeled on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., an artists’ community space that has been an enormous success with artists and the general public alike.

Q: There has been a vibrant arts scene in Charleston for several generations. Do you have any ideas on how the city can support younger artists to ensure that the next generation of talented people stays in Charleston?

Stavrinakis: Improving affordability and education are ways to encourage young artists to stay in Charleston. First as mayor, I will address our housing affordability issues so that artists can afford to live here. Secondly, I will be a tremendous advocate for arts education. With three children in Charleston public schools who all are musicians, I will be the biggest supporter of arts in public schools to foster Charleston’s next generation of artists. Additionally, I support the launch of a fine arts graduate degree at the College of Charleston, to ensure that Charleston provides artists with the education they need right here at home.

Tecklenburg: My youngest son, John Henry, is an artist, and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at USC, so this topic hits very close to home for me. And the challenge is really two-fold: First, we need to incentivize the creation of affordable places for people to live here in the city, and make sure that they’re able to get around with attractive public transit options. Then, as I said in a previous question, we need to work to create more and better display, studio and performance options for young and aspiring artists.

Q: Do you think the Office of Cultural Affairs is as effective as it could be? What, if anything, would you change about it (mission, structure, funding, management)?

Stavrinakis: The Office of Cultural Affairs has done excellent work in putting Charleston on the radar screen for arts/cultural offerings, providing a conduit for arts organizations to come together, and attracting world-class festivals to Charleston. I would like to see greater involvement by the office in Charleston schools and have the office bring the arts to every community of the city. It’s time to increase our commitment to public art and sculpture, and to increase placement off the peninsula. In addition to aesthetic contributions, public art provides spaces for our citizens to interact. As mayor, funding for the arts will always be a priority, including for the office, and I will consistently review all city departments to address their performance and needs.

Tecklenburg: As you know, I plan to do a performance audit of every part of city government in my first year, with an eye toward improving both the quality and efficiency of our citizens’ services. After that is complete, we should be able to make much better judgments about how to strengthen the mission and structure of the Office of Cultural Affairs.