Months before winning the mayoral seat he would hold for 40 years, Joe Riley was talking about art.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Riley said, sitting behind his large, crowded desk, reflecting on the Spoleto Festival USA’s first 39 years. “What I knew — what I believed — was that a great arts festival, a world-class, world-renowned arts festival, if it was held here, would produce so many positive changes for the city.”
Riley confessed he has no artistic talent himself, a fact he discovered during “lovingly coerced” piano lessons as a child. But his commitment to the arts as a valuable asset has remained strong throughout his life.
In the spring of 1975, before he was elected, Riley sat on the steering committee that would bring the Spoleto Festival USA to Charleston.
Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian impresario and composer, founded an arts festival in the small central Italian city of Spoleto in 1958. The Festival dei Due Mondi (“Festival of Two Worlds”), now in its 58th year, brought together American and European artists.
In the early 1970s, with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, Menotti sought to create a sister festival in the United States and, Riley said, he fell in love with Charleston’s antiq-uity.
“It was the perfect backdrop,” Riley said.
In 1976, newly elected Mayor Riley and other steering committee members travelled to the Italian festival. They hoped to launch the American festival the following year. When they returned, many were concerned that such an effort would be difficult to pull off; the Italian festival often lost money.
Others were concerned that an international festival would siphon resources from local arts organizations, cannibalizing audiences. But Riley believed that exposing the citizens of Charleston to such great talent would instead build the audience for local arts, and inspire a pursuit of excellence in other sectors.
In a vote of the steering committee on whether to disband or continue, Riley said he won by just one vote.
To help alleviate concerns and to support Charleston’s indigenous arts community, a sister festival was created, featuring local musicians and theater companies. Charleston welcomed its first director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, Ellen Dressler Moryl, in 1978. Moryl came from Montgomery, Ala., and immediately found support for the arts unlike any she’d seen before.
“The mayor is absolutely genius at enabling people,” Moryl said. “He has such a powerful belief in working together for the greater good. He really walks that talk.”
Moryl says that through Riley’s advocacy, and the municipal support it engendered, the mini festival became the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which now presents about 500 events in 17 days each year.
The city provides about $200,000 in grants to the Spoleto Festival USA each year through the accommodations tax, but the mayor’s support extends beyond that.
“Whatever they need, I’m their designated hitter,” he said.
In 1991, tension between Menotti and General Director Nigel Redden reached a breaking point, and Menotti issued an ultimatum: either Redden goes or Menotti would break his ties to Charleston. Riley threw his support behind the great Italian impresario and Redden left.
But the problems persisted, and in 1993, after prolonged conflict with the Spoleto board, Menotti finally followed through with his threat and left. He called Riley on a Sunday evening, declaring that anyone who stayed with the Charleston festival would not be welcome at the Italian festival. Menotti had thrown down the gauntlet, demanding that those involved in the Charleston festival choose sides.
Riley quickly rallied the troops: Charles Wadsworth, the director of the chamber series; Spiros Argiris, the principal conductor; and Joe Flummerfelt, the director of the Westminster Choir. Wadsworth and Argiris pledged their allegiance to the Charleston festival immediately, but Flummerfelt said he had to think about it.
“If we lost Joe and the Westminster Choir, we would lose not just the choir, but the chorus for the operas,” Riley said. He knew festival could continue in Menotti’s absence, but not without its core artistic team.
Flummerfelt finally called Riley — who was at a motel in Charlottesville, Va., picking up his son from college — at 10 a.m. the following Saturday morning.
“He said to me, ‘Joe, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I must tell you with profound feeling,’” Riley said, with a dramatic pause, “‘that I will stay in Charleston.’”
Though Flummerfelt had been a protege of Menotti, and the Westminster Choir had been the chorus-in-residence at the Festival dei Due Mondi since 1972, Flummerfelt’s decision meant the choir was banned from all involvement in the Italian festival.
Nigel Redden, who joined Spoleto Festival USA as general director in 1986, says that the mayor’s love of the arts and commitment to Charleston’s arts legacy has been invaluable. His pinch-hitting in the quest to renovate the Memminger Auditorium in 2008, the Dock Street Thea-tre in 2010, and now the Gaillard Performance Hall, has provided a boost to arts organizations across Charleston.
“He sets the tone of the city, and the tone is that the festival is important,” Redden said.
In 2009, President Barack Obama presented Riley with the National Medal of Arts for his efforts to reinvigorate the city culturally and economically, “setting a national standard for urban revitalization in the process.”
At the start of the 2015 festival, Riley’s final opening ceremony speech was an impassioned call to preserve the arts as a pillar of Charleston.
“There is nothing like Spoleto Festival USA anywhere in the world,” he said. “I wish to express my annual wish that Spoleto Festival USA will continue to exist in Charleston as long as our people search for truth and beauty. May that be forever.”
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.