Past Comments

May Issue 2008
by Tom Starland

Artists - Don't Hold Your Breath

Visual artists around the country are jumping for joy over the excitement surrounding e-mails being distributed - over and over again about a bill in the Senate referred to as (S - 548). I have gotten many of these e-mails urging me to sign on to an electronic petition going to my representative in the US Senate to support this bill's passing.

I'm sure some readers have wondered why I haven't come out big in support of this bill.

Well for one thing - I'm sure many who read this paper have gotten an e-mail about this petition. For another - I doubt many who received the e-mail bothered to look up this bill and check it out.

The bill (S - 548) is known as the "Artist-Museum Partnership Act". It fits on a couple of pages and doesn't say anything that means now every artist will be able to take the full market value tax deduction for donations of art made to every charity.

This bill has died seven times already in committee. It is only a Senate bill with no corresponding bill in the House of Representatives. Which means even if it ever did get passed in the Senate - it could end up being something totally different after compromise and White House involvement.

If I were you and in all cases I'm not - I'd forget about this bill and concentrate on something else - something which will take more effort than selecting your zip code for an on-line petition. You should start working today to elect people who are favorable to the arts to represent you in the House, Senate, and White House. Once you do that - your tax deduction for donated art will become a reality.

That means you're going to have to replace 100s and 100s of elected officials in Washington, DC. In this current political scene, it means you're going to have to elect a lot of Democrats. That's going to take more action than typing your zip code into an e-mail link.

I haven't seen artists get that involved in anything that would make positive changes in their lives and careers to date.

I wish they would. Their lot in life would be a lot better off if they did. It's not going to happen by forwarding e-mails.

One thing that would help today - right now. Stop donating any art to any charity and see how fast those folks get involved in making this bill pass. Once the gravy train ends for them - they might get more involved in your plight regarding taxes. They already have their tax exemptions.

Gibbes Museum of Art - Adrift

Since the assassination of Paul Figueroa in 2002, the Gibbes Museum of Art, a.k.a. Carolina Art Association, has been making one mistake after another. The board of directors was out of control then and remains out of control without a clear vision of what the Gibbes is and what it should be in the Charleston community, much less the greater Carolina art community. The board has made bad decisions as far as new directors go and then they don't support them. It's a lose - lose situation for the art community.

Here's the facts. They have an important collection of art with which no other museum in the country can compare - it's a historical collection. They don't have the money or civic support to build a new museum, much less keep up with the big boy art museums to show contemporary art or blockbuster traditional art. Why would anyone come to Charleston expecting to see contemporary art they could see at their hometown art museum anyway? The board apparently is having an identity crisis. Support for the visual arts has never been the local community's thing. They already have failing performing art groups that will forever be on the dole roll. And, finally, there is no rich enough individual or corporation in the Charleston area that is willing to take the Gibbes under its wing.

Carolina Arts used to be a financial supporter of the Gibbes, but after the Figueroa incident - they would have to go a long way to earn that support back and since that time - through two directors and many staff members - we have no relationship. I've even held myself relatively silent on my opinions on what's not been going on over there.

Frankly, I don't much care right now, as like the Spoleto Festival USA - the Gibbes is no longer much of a "Factor" in the overall visual art scene in Charleston. It is not the cultural leader it claims to be in its own press releases. A new logo or website doesn't make it so. It's going to take sweeping changes - starting with the board of directors, to bring back the Gibbes Museum of Art - as a leader on any level. I hope it doesn't take too long.

More 40 Lists

It wouldn't be my commentary without another visit to the SC Arts Commission's 40th anniversary celebration - through the compiling of lists of 40 somethings. Even though in some cases, people can't seem to come up with 40 examples of something to celebrate.

New lists have been posted and they offer a few interesting observations on the state of the arts in South Carolina.

New to the lists is: "Your favorite South Carolina visual artist". This was a list probably best left off the list and doomed to be embarrassing to the Arts Commission.

There were 88 names offered by participants and above all, the most popular visual artist in SC is Jim Harrison from Denmark, SC. Harrison received more comments (more than a third of them overall) than any other artist - many more than Jasper Johns, Jonathan Green, or Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. It's as if there was a campaign to make Harrison the most popular artist.

It's true that more people in SC probably own a reproduction print of a work by Harrison making him more popular than most artists, but does popular get you anything at the SC Arts Commission - other than on a list? Not one piece of work by Harrison is included in the Commission's State Art Collection. But then again, neither do they have a work by Jasper Johns, Jonathan Greene or Elizabeth O'Neill Verner - imagine that.

Another new list is: "Your favorite exhibit during the past 40 years in South Carolina." Participants only offered 23 examples of favorite exhibitions - well 22 - one was a performance by Laurie Anderson at the Spoleto Festival. This was a vocal performance - no exhibit. I was there. It was interesting and it might have been considered an exhibition of some sort - by my mother. Most of these exhibits were by institutional art spaces with only a few commercial exhibits. It would seem by this list that the Columbia Museum of Art is doing a more memorable job at presenting exhibits.

A couple of the new lists were kind of odd to me. They are: "An outstanding arts administrator or staff member" and "An elected official from South Carolina who supports the arts". I wonder if members of the general public really suggested these lists. But, they did show a couple of interesting things. Many of these names were offered without comments. I mean someone just offered someone's name and then made no comment.

Out of the six Arts Commission staff members included on the list - no comments, not one word was offered about Susie Surkamer (Arts Commission director) and Harriett Green (Visual Arts director). Not one word. That's strange, knowing what a bang-up job both are doing.

The form for offering comments states: "Please tell us why you are suggesting this entry for this list, or provide additional information if you wish."

Of course being on the list is at least better than not being on the list. On the list: "A business, foundation or other "non-arts" organization that has supported the arts in South Carolina", no one offered Carolina Arts. Not one person. After 20 years of doing this - that stings a bit. But, some saint did offer our name and a comment on the "A South Carolina arts organization that has enhanced the quality of life through the arts," even though we are not an arts organization (not a non-profit).

Of course that points out one of the bad things about these kind of lists - more people end up feeling bad about being left out than those feeling good about being mentioned. I don't know how you feel if you had to ask someone to place your name on a list. You can't feel great about that. It's just one of the reasons we have never asked people to rank anything by lists in our paper.

The no comment factor was also the case with the elected officials who support the arts list. More than half of these had no comments offered - as if someone just made sure these people's names made the list. Also, more than any other list in this whole celebration of lists, the names of elected officials came from 33 counties out of 46 in SC. As if the participants offering the contents of these lists were more interested in elected officials than other areas of the arts.

The list of "outstanding administrators and staff members" only had comments from 22 counties out of 46. The list of the "most popular visual artist" only had comments from 19 out of 46, and the "favorite exhibit" list only had comments from 8 out of 46. Most of these lists only represented half of the 46 counties in SC - showing the reach and popularity of the Arts Commission in the state. But elected officials gained more comments than any other list? Right!

Again - these items on these lists might mean more if we knew who offered them to be on the lists. It's my suspicion that some people made sure some names were suggested to be on the lists and that's why there is no commentary offered with the name. I also believe that some of the people included on the lists made an effort to make sure people suggested them and some waged outright campaigns to be on the top of the list.

But then again, that's the nature of these "Best of" lists seen in many publications. We never know how many votes made someone or something the "Best". We never know who did the voting and how often they voted. And, we never know if the publication made sure their "best" supporter became the "Best of" in their category.

The SC Arts Commission's 40 list project was just another example of how they just don't get it when if comes to serving SC's artists or the SC community. But they know how to kiss up to SC's elected officials.

And, as a final insult, the SC Arts Foundation - the SC Arts Commission's twin - will hold an art auction on May 7 in Columbia, SC, to celebrate the ending of the Commission's 40th anniversary. What a fitting ending - selling art by SC artists at an auction to raise funds for what? It was not stated - as usual.

Maybe the fundraiser is to support purchases of art for the State Art Collection which has not happened that often in the new millennium.

That's a good idea. Ask people who are already in the collection to donate art to add more works to the collection - like paying to stay in the club. If you're not in the collection and you donate works to help others get in the collection - maybe even yourself - it's like buying a lottery ticket.

Warning, Warning - Danger Will Robinson!

If robot was on our editorial staff, it would be issuing a warning to artists and those in the visual art biz in the Carolinas that Peter and Lee Swenson - may be at it again. These two people were the owners of erl originals gallery in Winston-Salem, NC, which was closed up by authorities in 2004. My opinion is that these are not very nice people, but don't take my opinion as fact. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Winston-Salem Journal's Dec. 10, 2004, edition: "In late September, (2004) erl's owners, Peter and Lee Swenson, and the company they operate, Bogart Management Group, were foreclosed on by their bank. They were barred from their gallery at 480 West End Blvd. for being months in arrears on rent and utilities. Peter Swenson is facing numerous tax-fraud charges, as well as a growing number of civil lawsuits filed by creditors seeking to collect payments they say are long overdue".

The Swensons also "allegedly" ripped off hundreds of artists by selling their works and not paying them for it - living high off the NC hog.

The word is they may be at it again - even using their own names somewhere in NC's Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill or even Cary). That goes to show how bold these folks are in their dealings.

So, when robot says, Warning! - you can be sure that danger is close.


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