Past Commentaries

May Issue 2001
by Tom Starland

No Apologies This Year

Well, for once I don't have to make apologies for cramming wall to wall ads into our May issue due to our limit of 36 pages. Our printer, Tri-State Printers, came up with a way of adding more pages to our paper. Of course, some sacrifices will have to be made by those who display our free paper as it will take up more space. Remember to thank those people for keeping your copy of the paper available for you each month. I'm sure next month we'll be back to our normal size - but, you never know.

That Spoleto Thing

I just don't get it. The folks over at the Spoleto Festival never seem to surprise me as to how they can let me down. It's their 25th anniversary and there will be no major visual arts presentation. Early on in the year I had heard that something might be in the works, but when the usual announcement came of the Festival lineup - there it was in black and white - no announcement of any visual arts. That's not unusual, as I have said many times - the visual arts are always a last minute thing with the Festival. But this was the 25th year and expectations were high on the thought that they would make a special effort.

Nigel Redden, the Festival's general director and his staff usually answer questions about the lack of visual arts with two standard answers - the Festival doesn't have the staff to handle the visual arts and there just isn't any money for visual arts. That's all a bunch of crap. They're just too lazy to make the effort. Redden has his hands in too many other Festivals' pockets and I guess he just doesn't know how to delegate responsibilities. Other people would love to take on the visual arts under the Spoleto banner and raise money on past exhibitions - but then, it could begin to upstage the performance side of the Festival - sounds like some of Gian Carlo Menotti's paranoia over Redden upstaging his Festival with Redden's Places With A Past exhibition. I guess what goes around comes around. And face it - the Festival just isn't as important to the world without that visual arts component.

Some of the real problems are about ticket sales and venues. It's hard to charge people admission to view art in 95 degree temps. Charleston has no visual arts center which can accommodate a major exhibition, so the Festival is forced to present exhibitions outside. Many theaters in Charleston have been renovated, restored, and even retrofitted for Spoleto's use. The city is even talking about building them another theater space on the waterfront under the guise that Spoleto needs another venue, but no one is talking about building a visual arts space for Spoleto. The festival has been here 25 years and what has Charleston's visual art community gotten out of it - two temporary exhibitions.

Maybe the problem is that Redden isn't ready to let Charleston's Mayor, Joseph P. Riley, "design" the space like he did with the aquarium and plans on doing with the new Cooper River bridge.

I'm Not Telling, So Stop Asking

Everyone wants me to announce to our readers who the art professor was that made the statement that the art professors of SC are after all the "best artists in the state". It's not going to happen. Conversations with me are off the record unless that person talking wants me to put it in the paper. And, that's the way it's going to stay.

The Numbers Game

A recent article in the State newspaper said that the attendance at the big three art museums in SC is still stagnant, while attendance at art museums around the country are on a steady rise. The article further states that more people were going to museums than sporting events. That's a lot to swallow.

The numbers given on the attendance of the three major museums in SC were as follows: roughly 100,000 a year for the Columbia Museum of Art and the Greenville County Museum of Art and 40,000 for the Gibbes Museum of Art.

I've got a few problems with this kind of numbers game - they are not comparable. Both the Columbia Museum of Art and the Gibbes Museum of Art charge an admission to visitors. The Greenville "County" Musuem of Art is a county funded facility and they don't charge admission. They have electronic counters on their entrances and no matter how many times children run past them - the counter says someone either came in or left the museum. The real question is how many people would pay to attend the Greenville Museum - a lot less is my guess.

I also have a problem with the numbers of the Columbia Museum of Art being more than twice that of the Gibbes. Does the 100,000 figure include total paid attendance or just total numbers of people who came through the doors for any and all functions? We don't know. I find it hard to believe that Columbia, a city with little if no tourism has that many people going to an art museum to look at art, and Charleston, with all its tourism, has such a lower number for attendance. One of the things people do when they visit a city is go to its museums - even art museums.

Just like when the Spoleto Festival claims a 100,000 visitors a year, but only sells about 60,000 - 70,000 tickets - I question any facility's volunteered attendance figures without knowing if they are paid attendance figures.

This month, the SC Aquarium will announce its first year attendance. I hope we get the paid attendance figure - not the inflated one of how many people they could get to come for free. Let's also see if they made a profit or not.

So, when someone starts throwing figures around to prove some point - if we know what that point is - let's look closely at those figures.

It's All About The Environment - Right.

While we're taking about the SC Aquarium, one of my favorite art subjects - art of fiction, that is. Have you noticed all the billboards going up to promote the aquarium? A sure sign of trouble - in the attendance area. Charleston's Mayor, Joseph P. Riley has always stated that the aquarium is all about the environment and education. Building the aquarium would clean up a polluted site on the harbor, even though they just built the building on top of the toxic materials after putting a layer of clay over it. The aquarium would tell the story of SC's aquatic environment, even though they seem to be using billboards to do that now.

And, what kind of lessons do children learn about the environment when so many billboards are used to pollute our skies? Billboards are nothing but visual pollution. If the Mayor and the Aquarium were so concerned with the environment they wouldn't have placed one of their ads on Charleston's most infamous billboard - the one sitting in the marsh at I-26 and Cosgrove Avenue. The construction of this billboard, on a sliver of land jutting into the marsh of the Ashley River, was an insult to the environment. And, now they put an ad for the Aquarium on it. Yeah, it's all about the environment all right.

Our Dirty Little Secret

Until now, we've had a little secret at Carolina Arts that I wasn't proud of. Our companion web site, Carolina Arts Online, has been getting a lot of attention - thousands of hits each month. But, from whom? About six months ago when I was checking to see where our viewers were coming from I got a little shock. On our top ten list of viewers by country, Canada had become number one and the Netherlands was number two - the US was third. I was dumbfounded. How could this be? The rest of the list included (4) United Kingdom, (5) Australia, (6) Germany, (7) France, (8) Japan, (9) New Zealand, and (10) Belgium. It took some time for this to sink in. I'm happy to say that currently the US is number TWO - we're number two, we're number two!

It's no mystery that Europeans revere the arts more than Americans, but who knew about those crazy Canadians. They love us. The current standing is: (1) Canada, (2) US, (3) UK, (4) Australia, (5) Germany, (6) Netherlands, (7) Japan, (8) France, (9) New Zealand, and (10) Italy. The Netherlands drops four spots, Japan switches places with France and Italy knocks Belgium off the list - what a race.

I'd like it if the US got back on top, but let's be realistic, those Canadians have a lot of reasons to be interested in the South - no matter how cold it might seem here - it's not Canada cold.

Becoming The "Ask Jeeves" Of The Carolinas

Another crazy thing about our web site is that we have become the "Ask Jeeves" of the Carolina art scene. "Ask Jeeves" is a site on the internet where you can just about ask anything and Jeeves (your servant) will find you an answer. Everyday I'm getting asked more and more questions about anything and everything that might have something to do with something someone found on our web site by doing a search on one of those internet browsers. Google seems to be a popular search engine where our site comes up a lot.

People want to know if I can help them locate an artists - their e-mail address, phone number or where they can buy some of their work. Some want to know if certain artists are still alive. Others want to know if I want to buy artwork they just found in the attic or garage. They want to know if their new found prize is valuable - who would want to buy it or even better yet, could I identify it for them - it's red with some green lines down the sides.

Our web site has well over 1300 pages of content and there are a lot of artists' names contained in all those articles and gallery listings. So it's no wonder our site comes up in a lot of those internet searches - and of course they think we know everything about the arts - not just in the Carolinas - but everywhere.

Most I can't help. Some, I can help them get a little closer to their quest, and some I can actually answer their questions.

My favorite was a young girl from Oregon who was looking for info about her grandfather who was an artist. She wasn't having any luck in trying to ask major museums about her grandfather. I did a search of my own and found quite a bit of info. Her grandfather was a very interesting artist. His name was mentioned in an article about an exhibit at one of North Carolina's major museums - only as a reference to the exhibiting artist. Like I said, all it takes to come up in someone's search on the internet is for a name to be in your web site. In this case, I just knew a little more about searching for items about the arts than she did.

One thing I've learned. It's important for artists to get info about themselves on the internet. People who ask about a certain artist - I might know the name, I might even know what gallery they were at a year ago, but it won't help someone find them today. Artists and galleries need to get on the internet so people can communicate with them, obtain info about them and in some cases buy something from them.

There needs to be a central database on the art community which can provide info about artists in the Carolinas. A worthy task for our state arts agencies, but in the meantime, I'd get on the web myself before I wait for them to do it. I'd be able to help a lot more of these people if there was better info out there on our artists - especially those not represented by galleries with a presence on the internet.

The main value of the web is not for making sales, but for the exchange of information. Sometimes people need to learn something about an artist or their art - before they make a decision to buy.


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Copyright© 2001 by PSMG, Inc., which published Charleston Arts from July 1987 - Dec. 1994 and South Carolina Arts from Jan. 1995 - Dec. 1996. It also publishes Carolina Arts Online, Copyright© 2001 by PSMG, Inc. All rights reserved by PSMG, Inc. or by the authors of articles. Reproduction or use without written permission is strictly prohibited. Carolina Arts is available throughout North & South Carolina.