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Spoleto Festival owes its existence to NEA

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Budget discussions in Washington have included the idea of abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts. As chairman of the Board of Spoleto Festival USA,and a member for 16 years, I can say that Spoleto would not have started were it not for the NEA.

In 1975 a small grant of $35,000 was awarded to Festival Foundation, Inc. (FFI) — a New York-based organization that existed to support the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Gian Carlo Menotti, the artistic director of the Festival of Two Worlds, and the staff of FFI had decided to start a companion festival in America.

Nancy Hanks, who at the time was chairman of National Endowment for the Arts, suggested that if FFI were ever to receive funding from the NEA, it would only be for artistic activities taking place in the United States.

The then-head of the NEA’s music program, Walter Anderson, proposed that the FFI look at various cities in the South where there was relatively little arts activity on the scale of the Festival of Two Worlds.

Priscilla Morgan, the associate director of the festival, and Christopher Keene, the festival’s general director and music co-director, traveled first to Winston-Salem, where the idea of forming a festival was not embraced by the existing arts organizations.

The second stop was Charleston, and in Charleston they found the perfect place with wonderful performance spaces, a rich history of involvement in the arts, and a very receptive new mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr.

And sure enough, in 1977, Spoleto Festival USA inaugurated its first season.

Over 40 years, Spoleto Festival USA has grown tremendously. The economic impact to South Carolina has been well over $1 billion. The number of employees at the festival for the last 30 years has been approximately 20 full-time employees and well over 600 seasonal employees.

The economic impact is of course very significant, especially when you consider the small catalytic grant that caused this very significant economic boon to Charleston.

The impact on employment is also not insignificant especially when the ripple effect of employment in hotels and restaurants, for example, is taken into consideration. All that said, however, the real importance of Spoleto Festival and the National Endowment for the Arts is not simply economic, important though that may be.

The real importance is the opportunity the festival has given to a part of the country that rarely saw national and international opera, dance, music, theater, jazz concerts, to taste what the arts can give, to discover the insight and the entertainment that the arts can provide.

The arts can tell us how to confront life, how other people have reacted to life challenges, how artists have discovered beauty where we might not otherwise have seen it.

There can be no price for those insights.

It would be a travesty to abolish the NEA and forgo the extraordinary benefits that it has provided through its funding over the years and to forgo the kind of events that will enrich our lives, the lives of our children, our grandchildren, and generations to come.

M. Edward Sellers is chairman of the board of Spoleto Festival USA.

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