Past Comments

March Issue 2007
by Tom Starland

Looking Back

When I first had the idea of doing an arts newspaper in Charleston, SC, back in 1987, I talked about my plans with a few friends - in and out of the art community. I'll never forget what one of the people who was in the arts said about doing a monthly paper. They wondered after doing the first issue, beyond a listing of current events - what would I fill the paper with - month after month?

Well, I quickly learned it wouldn't be advertisements. Who knew! Just kidding - I think. It's the arts - what was I thinking?

That question was a little unsettling at first. For a while it planted a seed in my head - was it possible to run out of things to include in the paper? Plus, remember when we first started out, we were covering all the arts - performing, visual and literary.

Was my original thought that the existing media at that time - mostly print, TV and radio - were not covering the arts that much - wrong? It didn't seem so to me.

My personal experience was in running a photography gallery. We couldn't get much attention, if any, from most of the media - that is without paying a hefty price for it. What space and time the media had for covering the arts was going to the "flagships" of the art community - local symphony, local art museum, a few theatre groups and a ballet group - mostly the non-profits. There wasn't much left for anyone else providing arts - in Charleston. And, if you were a commercial enterprise - it seemed the only option offered to you was paid advertising.

Today, 20 years later, those same groups are always in financial trouble so they still take up all the space in local media for arts coverage. One third goes to reporting on their financial woes, one third goes to promoting their every effort, and the final third goes to giving them great reviews to help them sell more tickets.

What I soon found out was that there was plenty going on in the art community and that we would have a hard time covering it all and paying for the size of paper we would need every month. Everyone wanted free publicity.

We soon learned that you just can't put in everything everyone sends you without having enough advertising to pay for the printing of the paper and money left over to live on. It was a hard lesson to learn. We were running in the red and taking money away from the photo processing business we still had. We made adjustments and got used to making the hard decisions of what gets in and what there is no room for. Things were just getting back to the plan - then came Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

One week you have a healthy, thriving, art community and the next week it's completely shut down - your whole city is shut down - the entire region is trying to just get by from day to day. Your Oct. 89 issue is sitting on the press of a printing company that lost its roof in the hurricane. No paper - no collect for ads.

Much like New Orleans - but in no way close to the way they got messed up - Charleston was a tourist town. The arts groups depend on those tourists for a lot of their revenue. Tourists don't come to your town after a hurricane hits it - FEMA does, along with a thousand insurance agents and then contractors to clean up and rebuild. There is not a lot of leisure time or extra money for the arts left after your day.

Of course the arts community rallied together to add their spirit and inspiration to the tragedy - but reality hit really soon. What money their once was for the arts was going to - believe it or not - more important things - like food and shelter. Can you imagine that?

Long story cut short - we tried to march on with the paper - within six months we had to stop - within six more months we restarted and it took a long time to recover - years.

In our rebirth, we had to make a hard decision. Money for the arts was tight and the performing arts groups were being subsidized by the local media (another story, another time). The visual arts were getting the short end of the stick. My roots were in the visual arts, so we decided to become solely a visual arts newspaper.

I hated giving up the rest of the art community - I really loved the performing arts, but the need was in the visual arts community and we could make a difference there - so we retooled to focus on the visual arts - specifically on exhibitions.

So life and work should have gotten easier.

Here we are today, 20 years later, and we're still struggling to fit in all the news we know about the visual art community of the Carolinas. Go figure!

Most months we don't have room for all the articles about exhibits and all the gallery listings we receive by our deadline and after that, they still keep coming - all month long.

We try to fit as many articles and listings (and don't forget ads) in as we can - sacrificing an open, airy, design and images of artwork to go along with the articles or even cute little graphics. I'm amazed at the space some publications waste for looks. I can't justify it.

So when I think back 20 years and remember that question asked by a concerned friend about where I'll find all the content to fill a paper every month - I just have to smile.

I think about that statement every month about this time when I'm wondering why I don't have much space left for commentary.

The Dixie Chicks Were Right!


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