Signal to Noise: Amplify Columbia Wants to Create a Cultural Plan for the City. What Does That Mean?

  • 12 min to read
Hyatt Park Mural

A mural completed this year in Hyatt Park, sponsored by Indie Grits and One Columbia.

Back in January, at the public unveiling of Amplify Columbia, the effort to create a unified cultural plan spearheaded by the city and the city-backed arts nonprofit One Columbia for Arts and History, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin opened his address by reading a poem: William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” Translated from Latin, invictus means “unconquered,” and its most famous couplet — “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul” — is a well-worn mantra for communicating importance and purpose.

“We stand here by choice, not by chance,” the mayor said on the steps of the Township Auditorium, the historic concert hall whose history is uniquely intertwined with the city’s. “[W]e’re going to direct Columbia in being what we believe and know it can be: the most talented, most educated, most entrepreneurial, the strongest cultural asset that America can possibly have. Amplify will make sure that that happens.”

In reading Henley’s poem, Benjamin’s message was lofty, but his point was clear: It’s time for Columbia’s arts community to utilize what Benjamin believes is “the most important asset we have” — its human infrastructure — to become the master of its fate. Amplify Columbia is meant to chart that course. The cultural plan that Amplify will seek to shape does have the potential to strengthen our artistic identity moving forward. It just needs to figure out what that plan’s going to look like.

Cranking the Amplifier

In broad terms, Amplify Columbia is an effort to create a comprehensive cultural plan for the city, one that will tie into the city planning department’s comprehensive plan.

But what does that mean?

Cultural plans, says the national arts nonprofit Americans for the Arts, act as mirrors for a community; ideally, they’re a reflection of the communities they serve, address the needs and opportunities of community members by assessing and utilizing the cultural resources available.

Amplify’s planning process will unfold in three phases: First, it’ll gather information through town hall meetings and other scheduled discussions with arts, history and philanthropic organizations in the area — any type of engagement that promotes dialogue. (Amplify’s also been collecting data via an online survey you can fill out at amplifycolumbia.com/tell-us-what-you-think.) Once that’s done, Amplify will analyze the public input and develop priorities and strategies that align with the city’s comprehensive plan, then it’ll write up the cultural plan and send it on for review by the mayor and City Council.

“It’s about that discussion of where we want to be as a city, where we want to be as an arts community and how we can work better together,” says One Columbia director Lee Snelgrove.

The process is set to cost $80,000. The City of Columbia is picking up half the tab; the rest of the funding comes from the Central Carolina Community Foundation by way of a Knight Foundation grant, and a private contribution from the Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation.

THphoto_AmplifyColumbia-11.jpg

Margie Reese and Lee Snelgrove at the most recent Amplify Columbia town hall.

“Ultimately, it will be a road map for the city and some parts of the county,” says Margie Reese. The city and One Columbia brought in Reese to oversee the Amplify project; her 30-year career in arts advocacy and management includes stints leading cultural affairs offices in Los Angeles and Dallas, two cities with blueprints for how arts and culture feed into the greater health of their cities. Cities of all sizes across the country have implemented or have commissioned overarching cultural master plans, including Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Shreveport, Louisiana.

But approaches vary in each community, Reese says, and Amplify won’t model the final draft of its plan after any of them.

“The term ‘best practices’ is relative,” Reese says. “What might be a best practice in New York City might not be the best practice for Columbia. These plans are very community-specific, or at least they should be. And in order to get to a set of goals for the community, you have to talk to the community.”

Where there will be overlap, she continues, is that any plan generally includes both quantitative and qualitative research, broad public input and dialogue with key stakeholders. The results, hopefully, will lead to action-oriented recommendations for Columbia to make the best use of its significant cultural assets.

“This is about us asking ‘What do we need? What is our future?’” Snelgrove says.

The city has attempted to draw up cultural plans before. The city’s last iteration of its comprehensive plan, released in 2008, has a section on cultural resources, but it’s just 18 pages in a 418-page document; only two of them contain something that might be considered an actionable outline. By contrast, the Raleigh Arts Plan adopted by the capital of North Carolina is an 88-page standalone document; the section that contains its forward-thinking goals is 22 pages long.

“This is a whole different kind of plan than we’ve ever done,” says Larry Hembree, Amplify’s project coordinator.

The city’s earlier plans didn’t work, Hembree says, because they were too haphazardly thrown together and too narrow.

THphoto_AmplifyColumbia-5.jpg

“They were focused on that little box where if you get in the box you can become part of the arts scene,” he says. “This is about all the people who aren’t in the box. Equity, diversity, inclusion, all those buzzwords that people pay lip service to but never really seem to figure out — we’re going to figure it out.”

Put another way: Amplify Columbia is something of a course correction, a long-overdue reassessment of priorities that will hopefully result in a more diverse and equitable cultural landscape.

“We have to make sure that we include people who have traditionally not been involved, those who have been underserved by the arts,” City Councilman Sam Davis said in January.

Indeed, inclusivity is critical to Amplify’s success. Part of Hembree’s job is to ensure inclusivity, to make sure that Reese hears the voices of the broader range of people in the community, well beyond the usual suspects in the arts. In addition to One Columbia’s 16-member board of directors, there’s a 17-member steering committee comprising volunteers from across a broad swath. The traditional arts community is well-represented — Della Watkins, the executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art, is on it, and so is Experience Columbia sales and marketing vice president Kelly Barbrey — but the steering committee also includes Councilman Davis, musician Reggie Sullivan, and Tangie Brickhouse-Beatty, founder of the black theater group WOW Productions. Amplify also assembled 41 thought leaders to ensure that input and ideas are collected and honored from every section of the populace; it also put together a team of eight artist facilitators to facilitate neighborhood conversations.

“We’re taking a broad approach,” Snelgrove says. “We’re talking to lots of different people.”

Artist facilitators are paired off, Hembree says, with each partnership tasked to a different facet of the community. Terrance Henderson of the Vibrations Dance Company and Indie Grits Labs head Seth Gadsden, for instance, are going into the senior community; visual artist Michaela Pilar Brown and filmmaker Wade Sellers are exploring the neighborhoods in North Columbia. Other pairs are gathering information from the homeless community, youth groups and arts educators.

“This process is all about finding out what’s in the community, what the community wants and what it needs,” Gadsden says. “What we’re trying to do as artist facilitators is, within our projects, make sure that we’re at least asking those questions about access.”

Gadsden’s wide-ranging programming at the helm of Indie Grits is emblematic of the unprecedented visibility the arts has in Columbia now. Columbia’s been fortunate to have had a lot of talent for a long time, Snelgrove says, and in the past few years, organizations have been combatting the arts scene’s inertia, collaborating in efforts that have resulted in a new wealth of public art and high-profile festivals that have fed into an increasingly vibrant cultural scene. Reese, too, praises Columbia’s major institutions, like the Richland Library and the Columbia Museum of Art; their programming can stand against any other city its size, and probably even some larger, she says. But the city is changing, and there’s a chance for the arts community to tap into its newfound collaborative spirit to set itself up for continued success.

“Now’s the right time because so much is happening,” Snelgrove says. “If we don’t plan now, then it can all get ahead of us, and we may not get to make those decisions that we need to make.”

“We want to know … how we can help arts and culture engage, on any level, with what [the city is] doing,” Hembree says. “You have to help people understand that all these things are related. And that’s what great about this plan: We’re talking to people who didn’t know that they had any voice, and we’re finding some really interesting concepts.”

Emerging Themes

It’s late in the evening on a late-June Tuesday, and Margie Reese is struggling to get through her presentation.

The town hall meeting at the Ben Arnold Center in the heart of Rosewood is the third such meeting Amplify’s held, and this one’s been convened to demonstrate Amplify Columbia’s first (admittedly broad) findings. Reese hasn’t eaten dinner yet, and it’s humid in the center’s gymnasium. Worse still, a severe summer storm has sprung up, and its swelling surges are causing all sorts of issues: the rain on the roof is drowning out the public address system, whipping winds are causing the gymnasium lights to flicker on and off, and electrical pulses keep knocking out the projector, wiping her PowerPoint presentation from the wall behind her.

Still, Reese might be bloody, to borrow a phrase from Henley, but she’s unbowed.

“I’m not quitting,” she laughs as the power cuts out yet again. “I came all the way from Texas to talk to y’all tonight.”

The town hall meetings — its first two were in March and April in Eau Claire and Northeast Columbia, respectively — have been a significant first step in creating Columbia’s cultural plan. Across five months of information gathering, Amplify has identified five emerging themes and needs for arts growth in Columbia: space for cultural expression and art making; leadership that nurtures diverse ideas and perspectives; investment that refreshes an aging arts infrastructure; an increased emphasis on the values of the arts and those who create art; and arts education.

“You start hearing the same things from totally different people,” Hembree says. “And it’s maybe  in a different language, but then you’re like, ‘Wait, this is exactly what they said.’”

That those themes have emerged hasn’t exactly been a surprise.

“Those things, we kind of knew about,” Snelgrove says. “I think we do have more evidence from some of the conversations that we’ve had and the data we’ve collected to kind of defend those points more clearly.”

What Amplify has found so far has been vital, he says, but there’s still a long way to go before the data can be codified into concrete recommendations.

“We’re at stage two,” Reese says. “We have to come back and say, ‘This is what we heard. Do you agree with that? What’s missing? Whose voice is missing? What other questions do we need to be asking?’ We have to gather [information], put it up there, let the community look at it, then tighten it up and clean it up before we can begin to make recommendations. We’ve got to get that clarity.”

And that’s going to take time.

“It’s no different than developing a plan to provide clean water to your residents,” Reese says. “All of that takes planning — where you’re going to lay the pipes, where the system needs to be upgraded, making sure you have the expertise. Delivering arts and cultural services is no different from thinking how you deliver other public services.”

Amplify Columbia Town Hall at Ben Arnold Center

A crowd gathers at the Ben Arnold Center for Amplify Columbia’s most recent town hall.

What concrete changes might Columbia see as a result of this process? That remains unclear.

There’s plenty of conjecture: Snelgrove says there will likely be some recommendations in the final cultural plan related to funding models for the arts, particularly how to make local artists and arts organizations more competitive for national grant money and how to provide training to apply for that money. Reese thinks that a part of the plan could focus on developing new infrastructure to support existing arts and artists, and she says she needs to do more digging into the private sector to figure out what resources it can provide to the arts and how new development can spur creative opportunities. Hembree spitballs that there could be some provisions on renovating underutilized spaces to make them places where artists can work in and with their neighborhoods; doing so could potentially act as a bulwark against the rising property costs that have driven artists out of neighborhoods like the Vista.

Terrance Henderson says his place on the Amplify committee as an artist facilitator isn’t to promote his own agenda, but he’s hoping his experience can serve as a guideline for developing cultural sustainability. When he founded the Vibrations Dance Company, there was no model for what he wanted to do. The dance community didn’t value black dance companies the same way it did classical dance and ballet companies, and the stories his company was telling — stories of the black experience — were so radically different from the prevailing milieu that it was difficult to get Vibrations recognized as a viable ensemble.

“I’m hoping that my presence on this committee is that that won’t be the case going forward,” Henderson says. “We’re looking out for the Vibrations Dance Companies out there … and trying to empower them.”

Plan Ahead

It’s likely that some permutation of all of those ideas will end up in Amplify’s final plan. But that plan is a long ways off.

“Our charge is to first establish some strategic direction for the City of Columbia and the arts and culture resources,” Reese says. “These five themes are helping us narrow things down. We could have 25 directions, but we can’t accomplish all that. My goal and charge is to establish those major directional points and provide some implementation steps for getting there.”

Reese demurs when asked whether the final cultural plan will be a step-by-step plan or more of a general guiding philosophy. The Amplify plan will affect city policy, and vice versa, and “I can’t be, as a consultant, in my wildest imagination, to be so prescriptive as to say, ‘You must do these three things,’” she says, “because those three things could be affected by other goings-on in the city.”

Because the plan that Amplify develops will be part of the city’s larger comprehensive plan, it has to be about more than the arts itself. The arts is a revenue generator, yes — the South Carolina Arts Commission puts the impact of the arts in South Carolina at $9.7 billion — but it’s also a source of civic pride and an agent for sociocultural change. The arts ties into issues like transportation and neighborhood safety.

“The arts can’t be an afterthought,” she says. “The arts have to be a throughline in design thinking, in problem solving, even in policy making and governance.”

Ultimately, Reese says, Amplify is about how Columbians feel about where they live.

“We can continue to go as-is, and we’ll have a nice little arts scene and a nice little city,” says Seth Gadsden. But if Columbia really wants to achieve Mayor Steve Benjamin’s goal of becoming a cultural center, not only in the state but in the South, then it’s going to take an across-the-board, truly reflective system, he says. “And nobody has that in the South.”

Realistically, a midsize Southern city like Columbia stands little chance of outpacing the major cultural hubs in terms of artistic esteem. But the cultural plan that Amplify seeks to shape does have the potential to strengthen more than Columbia’s artistic identity.

“Arts and culture is not just attending a ballet performance,” Hembree says. “It’s about your kids in your neighborhood putting on a hip-hop concert on the lawn because they don’t have to go anywhere.”

And the conversations Amplify has already had have proved meaningful, Snelgrove says, in reinforcing the value of the arts as an arbiter of community health and vitality.

“Because we’ve talked a lot about cultural equity and what that means, I hear conversations changing about how arts organizations are interacting and building audiences, but also how they can reach out beyond their walls and get out into other parts of the city,” he says. “They’re already starting to change that way of thinking. I think Amplify’s already started to change those conversations into thinking about how we [in the arts community] are being equitable and what our duty is to the city, especially when we’re often receiving city money.”

In the coming months, Amplify will hold more town hall meetings. Two in August will be aimed toward educators in the arts and in higher education. More public input is needed, Reese says, to ensure that the full spectrum of voices has been heard. Most of the artist facilitators haven’t begun their data collection yet. Henderson says he and Gadsden haven’t started theirs; Gadsden isn’t even sure how they’ll codify and present what they collect. Toward the tail end of this year or the beginning of the next, Amplify will present a more curated round of ideas and themes.

And even once a plan has been drafted, the work isn’t done. A cultural plan, Reese says, only has a shelf life of about three years; adopting one will require continuous evaluation and assessment of priorities. That’s why leadership, she says, will play such a big part in the final cultural plan.

“Once this plan is done, it has to have an actual champion,” she says. “What I’m looking for is, who’s the voice? Who’s the voice for arts and culture in the Columbia area? The voice of the mayor is important. The voices of artists are important. The voice of the One Columbia board is important. But where is the champion? And where does that champion role sit? Where is that magnet person or group of people or committee that will champion the arts and be advocates for not only this plan, but for the arts systemwide in this city? Even in Los Angeles we struggled with that. Certainly Dallas has struggled with it in the past. But you have to have that constant megaphone that says the arts are important in everything we do in this community.”

Still, the artists are ready, Reese says. The city government is ready. The philanthropic community is ready. The cultural organizations are ready.

“The fact that this plan is happening means that Columbia is ready,” Reese says. “And ready now.”

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation on our Free Times Facebook page.