Past Comments

February Issue 2002
by Tom Starland

Conflicts of Interest

What are we talking about here - Persian Gulf War or the Enron scandal? No, nothing that big. Walk with me a while.

For several years now, I've been following the writings of Kristen Rhodes, who covers the visual arts for Charleston City Paper, out of Charleston, SC. It's one of those weekly arts and entertainment papers with the emphasis on adult entertainment. Just about every major city has one, and some even have two. Good thing too - they print a lot of stuff you won't see in your average daily newspaper.

That's right, I keep an eye on the competition. Although I don't think of any other newspaper as real competition. But Carolina Arts is in competition for advertising revenue with every newspaper, radio and TV station, magazine, billboard company - anyone who sells advertising. I'm talking about competition for arts coverage. So I follow Jeffrey Day and Mary Gilkerson in Columbia, SC, Richard Maschal at the Charlotte Observer, and all the others around the Carolinas. The Internet is wonderful. When I want a laugh, I read Dottie Ashley at the Post & Courier.

Well anyway, Kristen Rhodes writes about what I call the "contemporary" art scene in Charleston. I hate to use that word to describe anything, but in this case, I mean it to be art you won't often see in a commercial gallery, art most often made by college and university art students, art shown in college and university galleries, art that most often - doesn't sell. Got the picture? OK, it can also be described as art that inspires, art that makes you think, art you'll only see in museums, art that makes a statement, and art that is priceless. It all depends on your frame of mind.

You won't see much in this paper about the art scene Rhodes writes about for several reasons: (1) duplication - she doing a good job, why overlap; (2) deadlines - the people who present this "contemporary" art, seem to have a problem with deadlines; (3) policy - we don't go looking for articles, they are sent to us. We have no reporters or staff writers; (4) longevity - I have a hard time keeping up with these "here today, gone tomorrow" art venues. They also keep unpredictable hours. Many times when I show up at the door - it's closed when it's supposed to be open.

The subject was conflicts of interest, right? OK, Rhodes, after years of asking when someone was going to open a decent gallery showing the kind of art she writes about, - opened a gallery called eyespy art and performance space. She actually put her money where her mouth was. I've been waiting for one of our art critics, who asks that same question to do just that, but Rhodes actually did. I admire her for it too.

But now, some people are accusing her of having a conflict of interest, because she is still writing for Charleston City Paper. They think she will now be biased or profit from her writing. Hogwash!

We're all biased - in our thinking, in our conversation, and in our writing - what's wrong with that? It's a natural thing. There is no such thing as a conflict of interest in the private sector. Hey, we're in business. If we don't look out for our own interests - well, we might as well become a non-profit and suckle at the nipples of the government. City Paper needs to make a profit, we need to make a profit, and people who own galleries need to make a profit - and that's the trick - it isn't easy to make a profit in the art biz.

Don't get me wrong - many make a profit, some make a heck of a profit, but it isn't easy. Even people with money have a hard time making a profit in the gallery biz.

So I hope Rhodes keeps on writing about that "contemporary" art scene. And, I hope she makes it in the gallery biz. Everyday she spends in that gallery will be a learning experience on what it takes to keep a gallery open, keep it profitable, keep your artists happy - all the things it takes to make it in Charleston. Good writers learn from their experiences and there is no better way to understand the gallery biz than to own one. I've owned two myself and I learned a lot from my experience. Hopefully Rhodes will have better luck and better judgement than I did. Making it in Charleston's crowded gallery market is not as easy as some think - especially when you're not offering what some people call pretty art, tourist art, safe art, art that you can tell what you're looking at, art that people pay money for.

There is a good reason why no other gallery selling "contemporary" art has been able to keep its doors open in Charleston - there doesn't seem to be a market for it and there are too few supporters. Oh there are people who talk about supporting such galleries, plead for such galleries, and complain about the lack thereof. But, where are they now? From all indications, these people seem to be fair weather friends. If they want to see a real "contemporary" gallery in Charleston, they will have to put their money where their mouth is - everyday. Rhodes has delivered the goods.

Location, Location, Location

Now, for the unfortunate part of this story, eyespy art is located at Fountain Walk next to the SC Aquarium - Charleston's most visited attraction. This should make it a hot spot for retail, but it's not. Fountain Walk is on the dark side of the Aquarium. It's like the dark side of the moon. If you don't see it - it doesn't exist.

The owner of Fountain Walk has let a bunch of artists open temporary galleries in unrented retail spaces - pretty much rent free, hoping to attract bodies to the retail complex. Well, that's great! Let's all party like it's 1999. But, everybody knows that as soon as a good crowd shows up - they're out of here - the galleries, that is. The up-side is - it's going to be a long time before crowds start showing up at Fountain Walk. There is an IMAX theater there that could go out of business any day. So, these galleries should have a lot of time to develop and see if there really is a market for them in Charleston. And, if you can't make it in a next to nothing rent situation, you can't make it in Charleston at all. Space is expensive in the historic city of Charleston.

Why can't the largest attraction in Charleston draw crowds to Fountain Walk to make it a success? Well, it was supposed to attract over $500 million in development to the area in the first five years of operation - that's what Mayor Joseph P. Riley promised the taxpayers of Charleston, Charleston County and South Carolina. But, it isn't happening, and what development rushed there to be first is sorry now. The Aquarium can't even attract the numbers its feasibility study promised - of course they were based on an aquarium half the size Riley finally demanded on his own. The rest of the problem is political. Riley promised the SC State Ports Authority Daniel Island for a new port, but he can't deliver so they can't build the development near the Aquarium they planned. The guy who built Fountain Walk isn't exactly a friend of the Mayor - the two have crossed swords on other development projects. And, there's other stuff.

Now we're talking about conflicts of interest and wheelin' and dealin' on a major scale. But that's a whole other story and I'm getting off the subject, although the Aquarium is one of my favorites.

(Bonus Website Commentary)

Over the weekend of Jan. 19, 20 & 21, the SC Aquarium offered admission to the Aquarium for $1. That's right $1. Some businesses also offered to cover the cost for those who felt they couldn't pay $1. The Aquarium staff estimated that they might see 10,000 to 15,000 visitors.

It's too bad for you folks in Rock Hill, Spartanburg, Greenville, Aiken, Columbia, and even Chapin, SC - you weren't let in on the (SC) Aquarium's little secret. Even though state taxpayers paid as much as local taxpayers for the Aquarium - they were not included in "Community Appreciation Days".

When it was all over, 36,000 people stood in line, most for two hours to see the Aquarium. Many in line felt that the $1 admission was more reasonable than the regular $14 admission for adults, $12 for seniors and students and $7 for children 4-12) - under 3 - you get in free.

36,000 people said a buck was OK, but any more....?

Aquarium officials say they plan for this to be an annual event for this time of year - off season. Tell me this - why would anyone pay full price anymore?

Here's a real laugh - the brain trust at the Aquarium have been thinking of raising the cost of admission as a solution for falling revenues.

Why do I think this has anything to do with the arts? It took over $70 million to build this fish tank and will take millions more each year to keep it propped up financially. That money could have gone for something really useful - like a world class convention center in Charleston - and maybe, just maybe, some could have gone to the arts. But, for years into the future the City of Charleston and I'm sure Charleston County taxpayers, as well as state taxpayers - the burden will linger - they didn't put SC on the front of the name for nothing. That's why the Aquarium upsets me.

(End of Bonus Commentary)

Saying Good-bye to Asheville

Because of last month's Guest Commentary, I didn't get a chance to say good bye to Asheville, NC. As of our Jan. issue, we pulled the plug on coverage of Asheville after five years of waiting for something to develop there. We're not pulling out of Western North Carolina - just Asheville. We've gotten plenty of support from areas all around Asheville, but next to none from a city that claims to be one of the Top Ten Arts Destinations in America. I'd say people there are reading too much "American Style" magazine. That's the magazine that gave them the title.

On the other hand, I guess they just didn't like our paper and there's not much I can do about that. So, we're perhaps on to new territory somewhere in the Carolinas. Where could that be?

Excuse Me

Finally, I want to apologize for making you snake through the paper reading little bits of commentary on this page and that, but you see - I only get the space that is left over - everything else comes first. (For you folks reading this on the website - this isn't so, but in our printed version of the paper this commentary snakes through five pages throughout the paper from page 2 - 27.)

And remember, this year I'm opening the soapbox up for Guest Commentary - just call.

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