Financing Creativity

Are local arts & cultural programs feeling the budget crunch?

For Weekly SurgeMay 19, 2011 

Re-enactments of Civil War battles might be capturing headlines this year, but some of the biggest battles in South Carolina are being waged more quietly, in local theaters, orchestra halls, art galleries and at arts councils.

In this difficult economy, with state and local governments facing budget deficits, some people say the arts are under siege.

First-term Gov. Nikki Haley fired the first shot during her State of the State address Jan. 19, when she proposed eliminating state funding for the South Carolina Arts Commission.

The commission, among other things, provides hundreds of grants each year for arts organizations big and small around the state, including many Grand Strand groups such as the Long Bay Symphony, Theatre of the Republic, and the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum.

Many of the grants go to programs which offer access to the arts through schools and in communities that don't have the advantage of being close to a major metropolitan area, such as Columbia or Charleston, or a major university such as Coastal Carolina University, which offers a variety of artistic activities.

"We feel like the main responsibility of the commission is to help provide some equality of access to the arts for the entire state, especially many of our rural and small communities that would have very little, if any access to them if the support weren't available," said Rusty Sox, senior manager at the S.C. Arts Commission.

The S.C. House has passed a budget that retains funding for the commission, denying Haley's request to cut its funding entirely. The battle has been difficult in the Senate, however, with one legislator proposing an amendment to shift the commission's funding to other agencies and others sponsoring compromise amendments to save it.

At press time, the Senate was in its fourth week of budget debates, and the debate included still more amendments threatening to eliminate funding for the commission.

Arts funding won't be completely safe even if the commission survives in the Senate's version of the budget. Haley could still veto the budget, so arts activists at the state and local levels are encouraging anybody who cares about the arts to contact their legislators and remind them to fight for the commission.

Hitting home

The arts commission's battle is just the latest in a series of events statewide and along the Grand Strand that show just how tenuous financial support for the arts can be in difficult economic times.

No recent event in Horry County illustrates the point more than the March announcement that the Horry County Arts and Cultural Council was folding up its tent for good after the June completion of its Arts in the Schools project.

Council leadership cited a lack of membership and fundraising as the reason for its demise. The nonprofit, founded in 2005, ran a variety of programs, and helped local artists network with each other, get additional training, and develop opportunities for exhibits and performances.

"We worked our butts off to form the arts council, but a lot has changed," said Diane DeVaughn Stokes, one of the council's original founders and arts chairwoman for the City of Myrtle Beach. "There are more arts organizations and festivals looking for accommodations tax dollars, and less money overall is going to the arts these days. Fewer volunteers are available, less money is coming from grants and foundations, and when we saw how the South Carolina Arts Commission was being strangled, we saw the writing on the wall. We just couldn't keep it going."

DeVaughn Stokes said the positive thing is that many Strand area arts organizations seem to be thriving despite the difficult economy, thanks largely to strong leadership, strong support from patrons, and commitment from local governments.

Some local governments along the Strand provide funding for arts groups through accommodations tax money and other resources. Long Bay Symphony, for instance, receives funds from the cities of Myrtle Beach ($50,000 in 2010-11) and North Myrtle Beach.

In its 2010-11 budget, Myrtle Beach granted money to several arts and cultural activities, including the Carolina Master Chorale ($20,000), the Children's Museum of South Carolina ($40,000), the B&C art museum ($100,000), the FPC Promenade Concert Series at First Presbyterian Church ($10,000) and the Waccamaw Arts and Crafts Guild ($15,000), according to Mark Kruea, Myrtle Beach's public information officer. The amount of arts funding for 2011-12 is still being determined.

"We're one of the few local governments that has consistently been able to assist these organizations, because they are a very important part of the mix of activities for both our residents and our visitors," Kruea said. "One's mind might not automatically link Myrtle Beach to arts and culture, but this city has a good track record of supporting the arts."

Commitment by local governments and permanent residents is especially important when the economy forces businesses to cut back on arts patronage.

Ongoing plans for a new Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center adjacent to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center have been affected by the economy. Organizers for the effort need to raise an estimated $2.5 million before the City of Myrtle Beach would issue an estimated $6 million in bonds for the project. However, fundraising, particularly from large donors such as corporations, has been slow because of the economy, said Rita Siegal, chairwoman of the Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center board of directors.

"We're still planning on having an arts center - it's just going to take a longer time than we thought," Siegal said.

Creative financing, financing creativity

It's a common theme among arts and cultural groups along our sandy shores.

"Our biggest challenge is corporate sponsorship," said Carolyn Pittman, development director for the Long Bay Symphony. "With the economy over the last couple years, some banks that were our main corporate sponsors have had to cut back on giving, and some of them had to stop all together. That was a big loss for us."

The symphony's financial situation has remained strong and stable, she said, mainly because of a large group of faithful individual donors, many of whom continue to support the symphony even after taking hits to their retirement and stock investments.

Established community theater groups on the Grand Strand are fortunate because they don't rely as heavily on state funding as some other organizations. Like the Long Bay Symphony, they also benefit from a dedicated fan base, made up of locals who are older, long-time theater fans, transplants and retirees with disposable income who move to the area from big cities with thriving arts communities.

A person who moves to the Grand Strand from a more urbanized area is more likely to seek out and support local arts groups if he or she was used to regularly attending the symphony or the theater back home.

Conway-based Theater of the Republic, Horry County's main community theater for more than 40 years, receives only about $2,000-$3,000 from the South Carolina Arts Commission each year for operating funds, according to executive/artistic director Tim McGhee. The money is important because it helps offset increasing production and maintenance costs for the theater.

Theatre of the Republic is more fortunate than some performing arts organizations because it owns its own venue, the Main Street Theatre, McGhee said. Ownership, however, brings its own set of budget challenges to cover building maintenance, insurance and other costs.

The bulk of TOR's revenues come from season ticket subscriptions, sales at the door and sponsorships, McGhee said. The company puts on six large musicals a year, and on average sells out about 11 of 13 performances per production. Tickets have been $18 for several years, and McGhee said the price is not going up now even though higher gas prices and other costs mean it costs more to put on each show.

"It's better to have a full house at $18 than half a house at $20," he said. "We just really want to provide quality entertainment at an affordable price. That's our mission statement. ... It's a continual game of trying to balance budgets and raise funds, but we're very fortunate this theater got to be where it is today because of the community. People donate to the theater, and it was built by the people."

In another local waterfront city, The Swamp Fox Players, based at the historic Strand Theatre on Front Street in Georgetown, doesn't receive any state funding at all, said theater manager Foy Ford.

Instead, the Players' main source of funding comes from a dedicated group of annual patrons, who receive tickets to the company's productions. Individual ticket sales are also an important source of funding. Ford said sales were down slightly in 2010, but have started to pick up in 2011. During the recent run of "Oklahoma!" 10 of the 12 shows sold out completely, she said.

Ford said the theater group's consistent fan base, mainly from Horry and Georgetown counties, has helped it to survive economic ups and downs. Many of the regular attendees, however, are "older, more established people in the community," she said.

The challenge she sees is the same one facing many arts organizations: how to attract a younger fan base that will continue to support the theater as it matures. Ford doesn't see that happening anytime soon unless the economy improves drastically.

Cuts from Columbia

While the Swamp Fox Players seems to be self-sufficient, another Georgetown cultural organization has its eyes on the funding machinations in Columbia. Funding from the S.C. Arts Commission is a big concern for the Georgetown Cultural Arts Council, which uses the money to fund a wide variety of activities, including arts programs in Georgetown County schools and libraries, art classes for adults and youth, the "Third Tuesday Treasures" monthly concert series at Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, and a "Young Treasures" music and art scholarship program, said executive director R. Scott Jacob.

The Georgetown Cultural Arts Council, which also receives donations from individuals and corporations, has been able to expand its activities in the past year despite the economy, Jacob said, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and local artists. "We're operating on a shoestring budget with a small staff, but we've been able to accomplish a lot with a dedicated board and a community that's behind us," he said.

Meanwhile, cuts in arts funding around the state often directly affect the livelihoods of working artists, even if they don't individually receive state funding or grants for the work they do.

Georgetown-based Zenobia Washington crafts Gullah- and African-style soft sculpture dolls that are on exhibit at the Prevost Gallery at Georgetown's Rice Museum and the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach, as well as other locations around the state. Washington said artist-in-resident programs in the schools are important to her because she wants to help children develop their creativity and learn to love art. Many school districts, however, have had to cut funds for the programs, which means artists such as Washington don't get paid for their efforts. That makes it difficult to accept the assignments, she said, especially because most artists-in-residence have to pay for the supplies they use out-of-pocket.

"I usually try to do my residencies in Georgetown County schools for nothing or as close to nothing as possible, because I'm a product of those schools and my daughter attends them," Washington said. "That was possible because I was getting paid by other counties. It's difficult now to do residencies when you're not making any money. You have to make the choice as an artist how much you can actually give. There's no funding left for this kind of thing these days, and it's separating artists from young people, and young people from the arts. Something that was valued 10 years ago suddenly has no value in budgets, and that is not a sensible way to think. You deprive your young people of the opportunity to see and experience different ways of thinking when you take away music and art."

Jacob, a Michigan native, said he's become used to the arts facing an uphill battle when it comes to state and local funding. He remembers days from his childhood when museums, public libraries and other cultural venues in Detroit cut back hours or closed altogether because of budget cuts.

The one good thing about the current economic climate may be that arts organizations are being forced to become stronger and better organized, and sharpen their focus.

"People really have to look internally to see what their organization is, and how they serve the greater community," Jacob said. "I don't feel good about always having to struggle for support, but it does keep you on your toes."

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