Past Comments

June Issue 2007
by Tom Starland

Getting Names Right

One of the biggest challenges we have with each issue is to get people's names right - especially the spelling. With each issue we face the spelling of well over 1,000 names of artists, art administrators, gallery owners, etc. - sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we don't catch it when other people have it wrong, and there are times when we found out we've had the spelling wrong for years - as have a lot of others.

Last month we got Ellen Dressler Moryl's name wrong. It was spelled wrong in one of our ads. She is the Director of the City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs - which produces the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

We're sorry it turned up wrong, but the good thing is - we'll be keeping a close eye on that name every times it shows up from now on.

Saving the Upstairs Artspace in Tryon, NC

Last month we told you about how an almost 30 year old visual art facility in Tryon is in financial trouble. I asked artists who have shown there to step up and donate artwork for a fundraising art auction. Knowing how slowly artists are to respond - I was not surprised when I checked for a list of names that few had called with offers of art.

So far we can report that Catherine Bettencourt of Greenville, SC, and Patti Bell of Asheville, NC (the latter is not an artist, but a gallery owner who has offered framing of artists' work for the auction) have stepped up.

That doesn't seem like much but it's a start. A quick Google search of Bettencourt pulled up several articles about exhibits she was in that came from our archives at ( Bettencourt was included in an exhibition at Upstairs Artspace with a number of other artists from the Upstate of SC and WNC exactly a year ago this month featuring artists who have made prints at King Snake Press in Greenville, SC. We hope we'll soon be reporting on some of those other artists - stepping forward.

You can learn more about Bettencourt and see some of her work by visiting (

I'm hoping to see an image by one of these artists who steps up to help save the Upstairs Artspace on our color cover this year. I hope I have a lot of work to choose from.

If you missed what I wrote last month you can find my commentary on our website ( under the heading Commentary - May 07.

Columbia Festival of the Arts

In the spirit of full disclosure we received about $1200 from the Festival for two full page ads (discounted to non-profit prices) and for delivering flyers about the Studio Tour around the Carolinas. But as every one of our papers reads on the cover - "Absolutely Free - You Can't Buy It" - meaning ads don't buy my opinions.

Like many people I took a wait and see policy on this Festival with the hopes that it would turn out to be a good thing for Columbia's art community, but from the get go - I had problems with the plan and its creator (Marvin Chernoff) and so did lots of other folks in Columbia.

I'll probably be biting the hand that feeds me here, but I don't expect there to be a second Festival and if there is I want no part of it.

First off, if I was the editor in charge of arts coverage for The State - one of the Festival's sponsors - I'd be ticked. This festival implies that I haven't been telling the Columbia community enough about the local arts community. If you really believe The State is a state newspaper and not the local Columbia newspaper you should be satisfied with their coverage. If you think it should be a local paper - you might be unsatisfied. To me they cover the arts about as much as any daily newspaper these days - not as well as most in the art community would like.

But since they were a major sponsor of the event - I didn't expect much unbiased reporting from them about how well the Festival did.

Second, if I was someone who helped build up Artista Vista over the years - I'd be ticked. This festival just jumped on my coattails and with its Studio Tour - just might dilute everything I spent time and money building up.

I think a studio tour is a great idea for any city's artists, but I'd want it moved to another time - far apart from Artista Vista or Vista Lights.

And, third, if I was an art gallery owner in Columbia - I'd feel like I got the short end of the stick - again.

The Early Face of the Festival

From the time the Festival was first announced, except for sporadic articles in The State newspaper (more came just weeks before the Festival's start), the face of the Festival leading up to the event has been its website. My first impression of the site was - "What is that shark skeleton from the SC State Museum doing on the front page of the site?"

I was sure that image would be replaced with something more - artsy, but it never was. Yes, there was a cute little graphic of the statehouse dome opening up and little art symbols pouring out, but that was it. For an arts festival this site was void of art imagery.

Another problem finding the site is that when you did a search for it, the festival site for Columbia, Missouri, kept coming up. They have a Columbia Festival of the Arts too.

Now, I'll admit that the front page of our website isn't very artsy looking either, but we're not design professionals either. We also didn't have the ability to draw from a $700,000 budget to do one either. But, once you get past that front page and start looking at our gallery listings and articles about exhibits - you'll find plenty of images of art.

In checking out the visual art components of the site I found no art images offered except for a picture of a couple looking at the bottom third of a painting at the Columbia Museum of Art.

Websites don't cost much as far as their size goes, but it costs a lot if you're paying professionals to put it together. So I guess Marvin Chernoff, the Festival's main man, saved money by offering a site with little details and few images to slowdown the viewer's search for info. I guess some of the blame for stingy details can fall on the content providers, but eventually someone (who was being paid) should have updated this site with final details by March, 2007 - if not sooner. Plus if you want to project a festive image for a city - you're going to have to do a lot better than that.

If you knew nothing about Columbia, SC, you might learn something after visiting this site, but if you were looking for someplace to visit during the end of April and beginning of May - you might of kept searching the internet - you may have ended up going to Columbia, MO.

Overall the site left me with the impression of being - not very artsy and not very informative. There were more signs of "Check Back" for further details - that never came or came very late.

There was not a map of Columbia offered on the site - not even where Columbia, SC, is located in the USA. No maps giving directions to individual locations of galleries, art museums or artists' studios - we're told to wait until the big publication giving all the details about the festival comes out in the 150,000 State newspapers with the publication inside them. When? - a week or two before the event? People plan visits well in advance of event announcements. Finally, once the Festival started, a map for the Studio Tour was offered.

Early info on the site about the Studio Tour didn't have a complete list of participating artists or give any idea of what area this tour covered - until the Festival started.

Info about art galleries and exhibits had little information about the exhibits and artists involved (except for the Columbia Museum of Art and State Museum spots). The only dates associated with exhibits were reception dates or tour dates. Forget about how long the exhibit would be up for viewing - it's all about the Festival. What happened to the idea of building up an audience?

The info about a Gallery Tour even offered different info in two different places on the site - one had info about a van that would take you from gallery to gallery and the other didn't. Too bad for the folks that missed the one about the van. In the end - most of these tours were cancelled.

I hate to get so picky about this website, but come on, these were supposed to be media professionals running this Festival. They had a year to get their ducks all in a row.

The ads I saw placed in the Post & Courier looked unprofessional, and were not placed in the Sunday Arts section. If I wasn't looking for them I would have missed them. I doubt they attracted a lot of folks away from Charleston when a lot of art activities were going on there during the same time.

I figure the Festival was trying to attract visitors from other cities in SC & NC - or why advertise in those papers? But, if you're just offering what's offered any time in Columbia - how do you attract core art folks away from their art communities? Especially when they think their community has the best symphony, theatre groups, dance groups and art galleries.

And, when the Festival got around to sending press releases out to those other cities - did they think there was going to be a lot of extra arts coverage added to promote his Festival while arts coverage is being cut in papers everywhere?

Chernoff had a habit of saying that Columbia's art community offered more and better than most cities twice the size - would people in those cities buy that slogan?

Not coming from SC myself, I've learned in my 33 years here that most regions in SC don't recognize any other region as being as significant as themselves. So I don't try to make comparisons of one to the other - just highlight what each has to offer.

The Blog

The public relations executive, Chernoff, started an online blog to promote the Festival on the site, (, a community site launched by The State newspaper in Columbia. The blog can be found at (

Chernoff introduces the blog with the following statement: "In this blog, I'll be commenting on the arts scene in the city. We'll be sharing discussions about the theater, museums, dance, music, visual arts and other cultural opportunities. Along the way, we'll also follow the evolution of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, of which Columbia will be very aware in late April and early May 2007. The festival is a celebration of the wonderfully varied and diverse cultural activities available to people here . . . and around here."

The blog was launched on June 2, 2006. During the 11 months leading up to the Festival Chernoff made just seven entries - between June and Oct. 2006, after that he seemed to have lost his voice. No entries are made from Sept. 2006 - May 2007. I read in other publications about how passionate Chernoff is about the arts - really?

I guess he could say he was busy organizing the Festival, but the fact that he started this blog and it stayed out there - what kind of impression did people get from this lackluster blog?

The blog attracted 8 comments during those 11 months. Here's one I found interesting: "Posted By: Mike Heidtman (6/06/2006 1:18:27 AM) Comment: Dateline: Kiev, Ukraine... "Even here, half way 'round the world as we know it, it's big news when ad-maven, arts-patron, king-maker, mover-shaker, Cola-champion, entrepreneur, civic-hero, impresario, fund-raiser, deal-maker and all-around-nice-guy Marvin Chernoff adds 'blogger' to his canon of honorifics. Best of luck with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, my friend."

I guess it's good to have friends who can generate some comments.

I'm not sure who saw this blog, but I found it early on after the Festival was announced and checked it often to see what would be said on it. If I was someone who didn't know what was going on and I found this blog with its claim of offering a discussion about the Columbia arts community I would have quickly determined that not much was going on in Columbia.

There wasn't even a link to the blog off the Festival's website. I wonder why?

Festival's Success

First off, let's judge the Festival by the events it planned and organized.

According to figures provided by The State and reported in that paper on 3/08/07 the Festival Gala had a budget of $80,000 and was only expected to generate $60,000 in ticket sales. Who budgets for a deficit except the US government?

It was reported in The State on 4/28/07 that about 200 people paid for tickets to the Gala generating $25,000 in income. It was also reported that 180 tickets were given to sponsors of the Festival representing $22,500 (non-revenue).

If the Festival did spend $80,000 on the Gala, it lost $55,000 right off the bat and the Gala was supposed to be a fundraiser for the Festival. Its other function as a preview of what was to come - could be considered very costly considering its small audience - whom I would guess were no strangers to Columbia's art community.

An event that cost $80,000 for 400 people comes to $200 per person - considering only 200 people paid the $125 admission - I don't think any funds were raised for the Festival. Boy, that must have been some event - for a select few.

Of course Chernoff can blame it all on politics. People in Columbia were suffering that Friday from a Thursday night debate hangover and Rep. James Clyburn's annual political fishfry was stealing the "stage" from the Festival. Everyone knows only Democrats care about the arts, but they care about politics first.

I guess they're right - timing is everything.

Again, the Festival Finale with a budget of $50,000 reported in The State drew a crowd of about 300 - reported by The State. This was a free event offering musical performances and fireworks. That's a cost of $166 per person. No wonder the arts have a bad rap for not being good money managers. How many people would have showed up without the fireworks display?

Apparently there were some successes among the performing arts groups and some people talked highly about the Studio Tour. No one talked in terms of money or sales - just bodies through the door in the visual art community.

Some will say how crass..., but I didn't see any of the other art groups offering performances for free (where they weren't paid to perform). They sell tickets to their events - that's the only way they have to judge their success or failure.

In the visual arts - sales of art is how you judge success - not how many people come to eat and drink. And, unless those people mentioned in reports that came from New York City, Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, Atlanta, Asheville, Las Vegas and more, to the Tour purchased art - when do you think the next time they'll be back - the next Tour? The Tour's budget was stated to be $10,000.

Success is hard to judge when the media can cherry-pick comments to be placed in reports.

History Repeats Itself

In order to end this commentary about the Columbia Festival of the Arts I'm asking you to jog your memory a bit. We've all heard this quote a million times. Harken back to June 12, 1987 at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. President Ronald Reagan is giving his famous - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech.

"Mr. Chernoff, leave the Columbia art community alone!" They can't afford your kind of help anymore.

It's a good thing Chernoff has announced that he's finished with the Festival. He says he'd be willing to help someone else - but I'm sure there is no one in Columbia who could fit in his shoes.

Chernoff says he will offer the City of Columbia an economic study on the impact of the Festival - will that include an expense and revenue spreadsheet of where the money actually went - proposed budgets usually don't look like final figures.

SC Arts Commission to the Rescue

If the Columbia Festival of the Arts didn't increase the audience for Columbia's art community, here comes the SC Arts Commission to the rescue.

I found this recent notice in The State newspaper: The SC Arts Commission wants to take you to the symphony and the museum and the ballet. The state agency is launching a program called "The New Audience Road Show" to introduce Midlands residents between the ages of 23 and 39 to the arts. Participants also will get a behind-the-scenes look at the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, Trustus theater, The Power Company, The Nickelodeon movie theater and the Columbia Museum of Art. "Many young adults don't attend fine arts events because they feel like they don't get it," said Katie Fox, program coordinator. The project starts in September and lasts nine months. The Arts Commission is taking applications until July 10. They can be found at (

I'm sure this is just a "pilot" program being developed for the entire state of SC's art community - all of whom would like to get some help building up their audience. But, I'm afraid this might be another example of how Columbia benefits from the Arts Commission being headquartered in Columbia - it's where their staff members live. They spend most of their time going to art events there - it's only natural. That's where they work, talk shop and relax.

Oh, they come to Charleston for Spoleto and other parts of the state when things are going on, but that's work. It's not as if I'm going to run into one of them at the local grocery store, a coffee shop or at the movies.

When's the last time you saw an Arts Commission staff member or even a member of the Commission at one of your art events?

If I sound a little bit "more" bitter this month - you're on point. I get a little tired of the wrong people representing themselves as friends of the art community. They oftentimes don't have the greatest track records, but they sure know all the right people. I just hate to see money that is in short supply wasted on their projects. How about you?


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