Tapp’s Arts Center, the collection of galleries, studios and performance venues that occupies its namesake former department store, will vacate the building in November.
The news about the center, which serves as a vital space for local artists to create and display their talents at the corner of Main and Blanding streets, came via an email sent out a little after 4 p.m. on Sept. 19 to those signed up for the center’s online newsletter.
The email directed those seeking more information to reach out to Caitlin Bright, the center’s executive director, or Ashley Moore, the center’s director of operations and collaborations.
Reached by phone shortly after the email was sent out, Moore told Free Times, “We can’t make any statements right now. We’re really upset.” After repeated subsequent requests for comment, Bright sent a statement through email (after the deadline for the Sept. 25 print edition of this story).
"Though of course we are sad to go, we are looking forward to the next chapter," Bright writes. "The arts community created what happened in the walls of the Tapp's Building, and they will definitely create something new somewhere else. The energy and conversations instigated through social media are a testament to that. I've had a flood of calls, emails, and messages from the community offering ideas, and support, proving to me it's not the end of the mission, just the end of the base camp!"
Tim Hose, CEO of the Charlotte-based SYNCO Properties, which has owned the Tapp’s Building since October 2017, says the arts center had been struggling to pay rent.
“I think that they recognized that at 23,500 feet, they have more space than they need. And they can’t afford it,” Hose says. “[Bright] just concluded, and we agree with her, that she can’t afford to occupy commercial space on Main Street in downtown Columbia any longer.”
Asked if there was pressure on the part of SYNCO for the arts center to vacate, Hose elaborated:
“We are in the business of making money, and when she couldn’t pay rent at a sufficient level, we had no choice but to say, ‘Hey, Caitlin, something is up.’ But we’ve let her stay in there for all of this year and most of last year basically on almost a free basis. And so I think she recognized that couldn’t go on. And so we communicated with her about, ‘It’s going to have to end at some point.’ And so now is the time that she’s choosing to end it.”
Speaking to The State, Bright seemed to blame the closure on receiving insufficient funds from the city and county. The story, published on Sept. 20, states that for the current fiscal year, “the center requested $50,000 from the city of Columbia and $30,000 from Richland County but received $7,000 and $3,000, respectively,” numbers the paper attributes to information given by Bright. She added that the center gets a “stipend” from the state of South Carolina, and that the center’s operational budget of $384,000 is mostly supplied by studio rentals and beer and wine sales at events.
“It cost a lot to run this space,” Bright is quoted in The State’s story. “We needed more cushioning through contributed support.”
John Whitehead takes issue with this explanation. The former chair and current non-voting member of the City of Columbia’s Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee, which parses applications for funding generated by a tax levied on local restaurants and makes recommendations to City Council, tells Free Times that Tapp’s was never eligible to apply for operational expenses.
“It seems as though Caitlin and whomever are saying the reason they’re closing is because of their budget cuts,” he says. “They’ve never applied for money for the City of Columbia from H-tax for operating expenses, because they’re not eligible. And they’ve never applied as the arts center. Only through the nonprofit area have they applied, and that’s Friends of Tapp’s Arts Center. And they’ve only applied for their performances and visual arts series. So I just think that’s misleading.”
City records show that the Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee recommended an $8,000 allocation in response to Friends of Tapp’s Arts Center’s request for $50,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which started in July; City Council cut $80 from that amount, allotting $7,920. In the prior fiscal year, Friends of Tapp’s received $7,000 after requesting $30,000.
Free Times requested, but had not yet received, data on Richland County’s 2019-20 hospitality tax allocations as this story went to press.
While Hose confirms that SYNCO has been fielding offers for a while, he says it’s not yet clear what will happen with the arts center space moving forward.
Lee Snelgrove, executive director for the city-backed, arts-bolstering nonprofit One Columbia for Arts and Culture, hopes that if the funding shortfall did stall Tapp’s, that other organizations heed the warning.
“I don’t think any one group in Columbia should be completely self-sustaining on H-tax, and that is coming from me, whose organization kind of is,” he says. “I think there are a lot of answers at play beyond just the source and amount of funding, and I think that running a space like this requires a lot, and I think that we all want organizations to be positioned in such a way that the loss of any certain amount of funding doesn’t make the organization disappear.”
Regardless of how it happened, Tapp’s departure is a big blow to the local arts scene.
Cindi Boiter is executive director of The Jasper Project, which puts on a host of multidisciplinary arts events in addition to publishing its namesake arts magazine, and uses a Tapp’s studio space as its headquarters. She learned about the closure through last week’s email.
“We lost our home,” she says. “We lost our arts home. We are threatened by losing our arts community and that’s upsetting because having a central location where people feel comfortable and unthreatened, where they can go and experiment and show their work is incredibly important for our artists. And also just having that feeling of what a large space represents to how it validates artists as artists is important. It tells artists that the people in power care about the work that they’re doing and support it and recognize the value of it.”
“We knew that that block and Main Street was developing so much, and we’d seen a lot of our other arts organizations leave,” Boiter adds, referring to recent additions like The Grand on Main and The Venue on Main with its attached Topgolf Swing Suite. “Because [of] classic gentrification of getting priced out. I’m sure that a lot more money will be made from that space than the artists were making there. But then it all comes down, again, to what makes a community, what makes a city, and it takes more than money to make people feel welcome and comfortable.”
Snelgrove sees similar value in Tapp’s, a rare space in Columbia where divergent disciplines coexist and cross-pollinate.
“It has a visual arts focus, but it also still brought in music, all kinds of music, from the chamber concerts that used to happen during [The SAVVY Musician in Action] to hip-hop through Love, Peace & Hip-Hop,” he says. “It was an interdisciplinary space that really kind of allowed artists of all styles and experience levels to really meet there and show work there together. They were, in a way, congregating there and able to communicate about what’s going on. And so it really did help the whole arts community by having that kind of gathering space of artists.”