There’s a saying in the freelance world: The work dries up with the turkey. In other words, when Thanksgiving hits, new projects tend to evaporate, too. Similarly, when summer heats up in Charleston on the far side of Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, the arts scene has been known to pretty much dry up as well.
An enervating pall on our city’s brisk cultural landscape, this summer slump stems from the notion that all the cash-rich culturati have packed off to the mountains or Maine. Certainly, there’s no use for arts practitioners to spend the time or resources that it entails to put on or put up a show when the audience will likely be a no-show.
In light of this, most local theater companies have run at reduced schedules, if at all. The Gaillard Center trots out a few touring productions, and you can hear the crickets in the classical music world. Many companies and venues opt instead for operating arts camps, making hay from hundreds of school kids in search of something to write on how they spent their summer vacation.
But before you plop down to surf Netflix in a crumpled, dispirited heap, let me assure you there are heartening signs of life. Museums and galleries are stoking the momentum of exhibitions launched during Spoleto. Musicians are finding cost-effective ways to play. Theater companies are spritzing the season with sold-out productions.
It’s true, Charleston has in the past been a ghost town at this time of year, with little more on offer than ghost tours. However, the current scads of visitors padding down our sultry streets mark a significant shift in tourist flight patterns — and locals are consuming enough culture to regularly pack houses. Together, these prospective audiences bode well for dark places with good art and even better A.C.
“Visitation is a lot less cyclical than it was 15 years ago,” says Perrin Lawson, vice president of business development at Explore Charleston.
The numbers concur. According to Lawson, hotel occupancy in downtown Charleston in March, April and May was in the high 80s, percentage-wise, with last year’s summer occupancy dropping off only slightly to the mid-80s. There is a demographic shift between the two seasons, with spring visitors comprised mainly of couples and the summer crew traveling with family in tow.
And these visitors are primed for cultural experiences. “They come to town and are not sure what they are going to do,” says Lawson, noting that many are familiar with the city’s reputation for being an artistic destination, particularly in the Southeast.
The Gibbes Museum of Art has benefited from these numbers, drawing both travelers and locals throughout the summer. After the museum completed its renovation in 2016, it began offering year-round programming, including performances that surround exhibitions launched during Spoleto. Ticket sales for events and exhibitions have remained strong in the summer.
For instance, The Gibbes’ summer series, “The Art of Jazz,” represents a partnership with Charleston Jazz that showcases musical performances inspired by exhibitions. In the three years since the series launched, it has sold out every single show. “We have had incredible success,” says Lasley Steever, director of programs and digital engagement at the museum.
Locals are lining up for the live events and for blockbuster shows, such as the current “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem.”
“People are here for longer stints,” Steever says. “A lot of people working full time in Charleston are looking for things to do.”
“You really need both,” says Lawson, who encourages arts organizations to reach out to concierges and regularly update them on happenings.
The Charleston Chamber Music Intensive at the College of Charleston represents such a mix of locals and visitors. The week-long educational program, which takes place July 21-28, is geared primarily to high school students from the area and from places including Tennessee. It includes public performances by students, as well as a faculty concert that was well-attended by local classical music fans last year.
“They were very happy to have something to do in the summer,” says Yuriy Bekker, co-founder of the program, who timed it in late July to avoid Spoleto fatigue. Bekker gauges that somewhere between a third and a half of the usual suspects have left town but finds that those who remain are keen for culture.
“Everyone loves Spoleto,” he says. “But you give it a month, and they are hungry for more.” The college has long been a central player in the festival, housing artists and providing venues, including Sottile Theatre, Cistern Yard and others. With its July timing, the intensive, which is mainly an admissions initiative of the college, can avail of unused spaces after the festival wraps up.
Over at Charleston Stage, the company elected to brave the Spoleto hangover this year. In mid-June, it opened its debut production in The Pearl Theatre at the company’s new West Ashley Theatre Center.
“We did worry about ‘Shear Madness’ on the heels of Spoleto and it being our first show in The Pearl,” says Julian Wiles, the company’s founder and producing artistic director, in an emai. “But after a slow start, we sold out every performance. Obviously, there are folks who are looking for arts in the summer.”
Wiles also notes that while previously most theaters were dark and seasons started after Labor Day, these days many companies have them up in August.
If the notion holds that Charleston needs to shut down when the swells store their golf carts and head for the hills, then it’s far more than a missed opportunity. With a critical mass, and the city’s long-held claim as a dynamic arts destination, it may well be that these days, there is no compelling reason for a Charleston summer to be a cultural bummer.