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During tough times, the Charleston arts world flexes creativity with local partners

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Susan Gregory Studio

A worktable in the new studio of Susan Gregory. File. 

In 2010, Village Repertory Co. determined that they should pull up stakes in their locale in the Old Village in Mount Pleasant and move the theater company to downtown Charleston.

"We did an almost yearlong feasibility study," said founder and executive director Keely Enright. From that they gleaned that patrons and their base felt that they should be on the peninsula. "So we started a hunt for downtown space in 2010."

Keely Enright (copy)

Keely Enright of Village Repertory Co. stands in the prop room at the Woolfe Street Playhouse. File

They inked a lease with Doris Meddin, the matriarch overseeing the former Meddin Brothers Meat Packing warehouse on 34 Woolfe Street off upper King Street, and set to painstakingly refurbishing the brick space, outfitting it as a theater frequently configured cabaret style, building a bar and a removable black box space.

They crowned their labor of love Woolfe Street Playhouse.

They did this with such panache that they were able to offset their sizable rent by attracting rentals including Spoleto Festival USA. They also scooped up a coveted Carolopolis Award from the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Even with all their success, the pressure of high rent in an exploding area mounted. With the pandemic, the prospect of sliding deeper into a hole loomed. 

“We knew we were in deep trouble,” said Enright, who reasoned that if they could get to July they could probably weather it. But the pandemic persisted.

This week Enright announced that Woolfe Street Playhouse would close.

Sharing stories

George Patrick "GP" McLeer, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, will tell you that Village Rep is by no means alone. In his role leading the charge in arts advocacy, he is currently focused on encouraging arts organizations to share such stories, a tactic he considers crucial for vouchsafing the future of the arts.

“It’s bleak," he said.

His main focus is the CARES Act, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and pushing through the Statehouse an allocation of its remaining money to the arts. 

"We're the first industry to shut down and will be the last to fully open," he said, offering that in a $9.7 billion industry, there is a $1.2 billion reduction in the organizations reporting through one survey, or an average $20,000 loss in the early part of the summer alone. 

Old pressures, new partnerships

And, while yes, the pandemic may be the coup de grace, most Charleston artists would point to ongoing threats, chief among them the development boom. Practically every square foot in the city is in the crosshairs of a speculative eye, forcing artists out of affordable spaces in which to make art and to make lives.

Susan Gregory

Ceramicist Susan Gregory in her new studio. File.

Before COVID-19, ceramicist and artist Susan Gregory was reeling from such pressures. Along with as many as 30 other potters, she had been making her art at Cone 10, an LLC set up to divide financial and physical responsibilities among the members so they could devote their time to working as studio artists.

"We were not business people,' she said.

When the building was sold to make way for condominiums, Gregory was the last partner standing after the others slipped from under the Damocles sword of the pending sale. She took the kiln and worktables and went home to mull her next move.

That move came by way of a friend, Tracey Pickard. As luck would have it, Pickard is both an arts enthusiast and a general contractor. She proposed buying a building and leasing it to Gregory, who could then set up a similar creative collective.

A partnership formed, one that is well on its way to achieving that vision, which is now called Studio Union. Pickard purchased a former upholstery shop in a neighborhood on Hackemann Avenue in North Charleston, transforming it into an airy, raftered space, with tables, wheels and kilns and a painted pink floor ablush with optimism.

There are still hoops to clear, but every encouragement that a new collective providing as many 10 artists with a space will soon be green lit.

Gregory is benefiting from other new partnerships these days, too. One client, Haegur Plant Shop, which had previously carried some of her pots, increased the order when shipments from places like China were waylaid. The Gibbes Museum of Art has also procured pieces for its shop and the new Emeline Hotel enlisted her in a big order to create soap dishes.

"When I got the order, I was like, OK, I can just do dishes," she said, and did so with pleasure.

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One door closes, an outdoor space opens

While enumerating her newly forged partnerships, Gregory observed that her artistic practices are not reliant on gathering, which has stifled other art forms.

Among those stifled was Charleston Jazz. The COVID closing of Charleston Music Hall left them with hundreds of subscriptions and a corporate sponsorship from REV Federal Credit Union. Executive Director Tatjana Beylotte was determined to honor all.

Firefly Vodka Distillery Setup

Charleston Jazz will be performing its season at Firefly Vodka Distillery. Firefly Vodka Distillery/provided

She learned that Firefly Distillery, which makes vodka, was presenting a Safe Sounds series on its new North Charleston site. The series hosts outdoor concerts on four acres suited for social distancing. 

When Beylotte reached out to Firefly, event manager Sara Bennett had just come on board, fresh from Spoleto Festival USA, and was savvy to the local arts scene. More serendipitous still was that owner Scott Newitt loves jazz.

“I play music and have always had Firefly involved with music,” said Newitt, a drummer who grew up outside of New Orleans and who regularly supports musicians (along with other community organizations in need of a venue).

An enlightened partnership was born. In addition to performing the concerts on Firefly's stage "porch" at no charge, Charleston Jazz uses the venue to rehearse and record the program. The concerts safely accommodate 500 patrons, a significant drop from the Charleston Music Hall.

“There's no huge money making happening from tickets for the rest of the year,” said Beylotte. "We want to make sure our season subscribers get the performances that they've invested in and give them the live music experience they’re so hungry for.”

For Newitt, the partnership is a win-win, effective cross-promotion. “It's 1 plus 1 is 3. They're going to benefit, and we're going to benefit from people that didn't know that we moved.”

Firefly's enterprise has encouraged Beylotte, who said “I was impressed with how they have done an amazing job to organize it themselves, and it inspired me to do it for ourselves.”

Fixing the fallout

At the South Carolina Arts Alliance, McLeer aims to put a face on the industry's challenges. He implores artists to sound loudly about their fallout, with the aim of making a compelling case to those who decide on the statewide allocation.

“It's all local. It's the artists who are making individual communities better.”

CJO Gerald Gregory and Matt White

Gerald Gregory and Matt White perform with Charleston Jazz Orchestra. King and Fields Photography/provided 

“We’re not going away,” Enright said of Village Rep. Such resolve was recently affirmed during the company’s last show at Woolfe Street, “Summer Comfort,” a musical revue meant to offer a final, happy show in the space. Enright was surprised by what happened among the limited audience members gathering there for the first time since the shutdown.

“It was so cathartic for people to be back in the room, getting to cry in the dark. And even though they weren't with a lot of people, it was so exciting," she said.

In the meantime, she’s all systems go, pursuing potential creative partnerships. This weekend, they performed "Summer Comfort" at Tradesman Brewing Co. They are now in talks with Franke at Seaside and other arts organizations to work out arrangements in their spaces.

At Charleston Jazz, Beylotte is energized, too. She said that the recent adjustments have created new ways of operating that the organization plans to continue post-pandemic.They plan to keep performing at places like Firefly in addition to the Charleston Music Hall. They'll keep recording and selling virtual performances, something that has turned into a solid source of revenue and has increased their social media presence, thereby cultivating a new audience and bringing in new donors. They'll amp up their Jazz Academy, which is currently operating online for 60-plus students.

"So we're very busy," she said. 

The Firefly partnership has helped spur this energy. “It allowed us to breathe again in a way .... It's not like it used to be, but we are performing, and that's what we're here to do,” she said.

For McLeer, the most pressing partner is the Statehouse. While he also underscores innovation as key to the arts rebounding, he stresses that the loss of infrastructure means that arts organizations will have to substantially rebuild first.

"We can't go fully forward," he said.

Still, a welcome alfresco stage at a distillery has offered Beylotte much to help power her organization forward.

“It’s just hope.”

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

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