The late, renowned author Toni Morrison once said, "The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time."
On Sept. 10, city politics intermingled with the arts, as nine of the 10 candidates running for Columbia City Council in November gathered for a candidate forum at 701 Whaley. It was the first candidate forum of this city election cycle that featured candidates from all three races that will be on the ballot. The event was hosted by the city-sponsored One Columbia for Arts and Culture, and questions throughout the evening were geared toward cultural topics.
The municipal election is set for Nov. 5, and will feature races for the at-large seat held by Howard Duvall, the District 2 seat held by Ed McDowell and the District 3 seat held by Moe Baddourah.
Baddourah is challenged by educator John Loveday and construction and design firm owner Will Brennan. In the citywide at-large race, Duvall faces challenges from former victim services advocate Amadeo Geere, refugee services coordinator Dylan Gunnels, and attorney and businesswoman Sara Middleton. And in District 2, McDowell takes on Governor's Hill resident Anna Fonseca and activist and author Catherine Fleming Bruce. Fonseca was the only candidate not in attendance for the Sept. 10 forum.
Candidates were asked about the role of arts and culture in Columbia. Bruce, whose book The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good Through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements won the 2017 Historic Preservation Book Prize from the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation, said the arts help shape the way Columbia sees itself, and how others see the Capital City.
"I think arts and culture are venues through which Columbia can show its many faces," Bruce said. "It is a lens through which we might better understand one another, and also forms a sustenance that builds community, provides income and creates destinations to attract those who might want to come into our community."
McDowell, a retired pastor, seeks a second term on Council after first being elected in 2015. He made the arts-based candidate forum a literal hands-on affair: He brought a painting by Columbia artist Ernest Lee, aka "The Chicken Man," to the event and held it aloft at times during the discussions. He noted the arts have a significant economic impact on Columbia.
"There is a real distinction about art and how it has impacted our city," McDowell said. "It has been a blessing. How do you define it? You define it through places like the [city's] Arts Center, which started on Calhoun Street and evolved to the Arts Center that is on Taylor Street. It started as little places, but it became big places."
A 2018 study from the South Carolina Arts Commission found that arts have an annual economic impact of more than $9 billion statewide.
Middleton leaned into the economic side of arts and culture during the forum, stressing that arts can attract residents and businesses to the city. The Middleton family, including Sara and her father Scott and brother Greg, has been heavily invested in redeveloping parts of Main Street — namely the 1600 block, where they have renovated buildings and opened businesses — in the last several years.
Middleton also dropped a major tease of another project the family is working on.
"In the next few months, as a private organization, we are soon going to be announcing that we are creating an arts and community center for downtown Columbia, with 500 seats in an auditorium, which is what our artists have been needing," Middleton said. "So it's not just depending on public funds. It's getting businesses involved that want to invest."
Middleton was tight-lipped following the candidate forum when Free Times pressed for more details — such as location — for the would-be new arts center, saying only that an announcement will likely arrive in the coming months. Free Times subsequently left a message for a spokesman for the Middleton family businesses.
Gunnels, who works with Lutheran Services Carolinas, is making his first run for elected office. He brought some pieces of abstract art he created to the forum for the crowd — which numbered around 100 — to peruse. He talked about how arts and culture can be a gathering point for Columbia's diverse population.
"Arts and culture are a cornerstone in creating community, and they have been for centuries," Gunnels said. "I think often times when we look at creating our city's budgets, we look at arts and culture as an isolated sector. We look at it as a sub-topic. We have to realize it is a driving force in all the things we are looking to accomplish, whether it is public access, equitability, public thought and all the things that come with it."
City hospitality taxes also were discussed at the forum. Hospitality taxes — collected on the sale of prepared food and beverage in the city — are distributed to various arts initiatives and events each year, with the underlying purpose being to drive tourism. The city's H-tax budget for the 2019-20 is just more than $12 million
Geere, a Rosewood neighborhood resident who originally is from the small nation of Bhutan, says he is in favor of H-tax disbursements and public funding for the arts, but warns the city needs to keep an eye on bread-and-butter services, too.
"One of the platforms that I'm running on is interconnecting the city with lower income communities," Geere said. "One of the best ways to do that is to make art accessible to lower income communities. We need to empower the youth. ... I would definitely advocate for the arts community. But, in the meantime, I would balance it with core government responsibilities.
"What we see now is that we are ignoring core government responsibilities of public safety, economic growth, infrastructure and such."
Duvall, the former director of the state Municipal Association, is seeking a second term in the at-large seat. He says he supports public funding for the arts, and that it has been a topic of discussion through the Amplify Columbia initiative, which seeks to create a definitive cultural plan for Columbia.
"I think there are ways that we can enhance [funding]," Duvall said. "If you went to some of the Amplify meetings around the city, one of the things that [consultant] Margie Reese, who was the expert from Texas who came in, pointed out was that we are missing a lot of opportunities to get grants from the [National Endowment for the Arts] and other agencies that have grant funds available, and we need to do a better job, from the organizational point and the city point, of looking for grant opportunities that would supplement the $12 million we have in H-tax."
Loveday is the principal of the S.C. Whitmore school, an online public charter school that targets at-risk kids statewide. He notes that Columbia, a town dominated by tax exempt entities like state government, the University of South Carolina and nonprofits, struggles with revenue for arts and other initiatives.
"Likely one of our main obstacles here in Columbia is that roughly two-thirds of the property is not on the tax rolls," Loveday said. "We hear that often in Columbia and it is true and it is very, very challenging to overcome. But what is important for the arts in Columbia is, as we work to ... grow our tax base, we need to make sure that, as our revenue grows in Columbia, that also, proportionally, the hospitality tax and everything else we can do to support the arts scene in Columbia continues to grow."
Brennan is taking his second swing at public office in the last couple years. He ran for Richland County Council in 2018 and lost a hotly contested Democratic primary to Allison Terracio.
Brennan says he sees the arts as an essential pillar of the city.
"I put arts and culture as 'musts' for the foundation of Columbia," Brennan said. "In my book, the foundations of Columbia are public safety, infrastructure, services, and arts and culture. What I think about arts and culture is, when people look at Columbia, when businesses look at Columbia to invest and bring job opportunities, that's what's going to push them over the edge: A bright, wonderful quality of life for future employees they might recruit to this area."
Baddourah, perhaps the most vocal antagonist of Mayor Steve Benjamin's political machine through the years, looks for a third term representing District 3, which is in the central and southeastern swath of the city.
The incumbent District 3 councilman says he's long been, and continues to be, in favor of more public art in the city's parks.
"I think it's a great idea to bring public art into public parks where young people, and everybody who comes and visits the city, can see what our arts culture is all about," Baddourah said. "There's no better way to do that than having an art sculpture or art representing our society in the public parks."