I attended the Gazz Gathering panel on the role of the Arts in Charleston Wednesday night, and it was a raucous discussion.  Not boring at all.  It was a bit unfocused, and most of the people taking part totally missed the point, but several key questions were raised and almost addressed. This is the first of a few essays I’m going to drop here in PopCult that address some of the challenges facing the Charleston arts scene.

Sadly, at the panel discussion the other night, the local arts community, as is its wont, quickly fell into the “circular firing squad” mentality, lobbing barbs over how the funding for FestivAll was dispersed among the various disciplines and then winding up with the cliched bitching about the Clay Center that always seems to happen at these things.  Folks, I  have seen the enemy, and it’s NOT US!

There is an active faction of people in our community who resent the arts.  They either have philosophical problems with public funding of arts programs, or they think it’s just not worth the money, or they fear the unknown and refuse to understand how important culture is to our….well, culture.

The number one issue facing the local arts community is not that arts group A is eating up all the funding before arts group B gets their mitts on it.  There is an active cabal of Libertarians, bean counters and Philistines who are winning over the public to their way of thinking while we’re all fighting over who gets their slice of an ever-shrinking pie.  It’s time to cut out the infighting and promote the arts in general as a good and necessary thing.

Part of the problem was the composition of the panel (sorry boss).  I’m sure our esteemed Gazz editor did his best, but the visual arts were very, very well represented, almost to the exclusion of everybody else. Larry Groce was there as a representative of FestivAll, and for political reasons couldn’t really represent the city’s vast musical community.  Randall Reid-Smith, likewise, was there more in an official capacity than as a singer. 

I have all the respect in the world for Cubert Smith, Paula Clendenin and that guy whose stuff keeps getting driven into, but while they each made good points, they also steered the discussion towards being a bitchfest about funding and how the visual arts always get the short end of the stick. 

It would have been nice to hear from a representative of the West Virginia Symphony.   There were no theater people on the panel.  Crafters always get treated as the red-headed stepchildren when it comes to these things.   I may have been the only filmmaker in the room, but I saw at least two others walk past the window at Blues BBQ during the night. Any of these folks might have at least confirmed that things are tough all over.  Maybe if we worked together, we could lobby more effectively and grab some of that casino money or something.

As the evening progressed, it devolved into a bitch session about how much the Clay Center is failing to serve the visual arts crowd.  Which may well be the case, but there are more pressing issues, not the least of which is that the Clay Center has become the whipping boy and favorite target of the anti-art forces in this town.  Instead of adding to the whining, maybe it’s time we did something about it.  The Clay Center is a huge positive for this city.  Let’s stop treating it as a negative thing.

Yes, it’s criminally underused.  And yes, it’s got more red tape and bureaucracy than a Soviet DMV, but what are we doing to change that?  The rest of this rant is directed to the visual artists in town.

How about we storm the Bastille?  I’ve got a proposal:  There are empty walls all over the Clay Center–in the lobbies, the great hall, hell, even next to the restrooms.   How about local artists be given the chance to loan their works for display, for a month at a time, with full contact AND PURCHASE INFORMATION?  Of course there’d have to be a selection committe, but their sole job would be to screen out over-the-top offensive material, like dieties submerged in bodily fluids and robot porn.  Anybody who wants to submit a piece for display should be allowed to-one piece at a time, once every six months or so.  It’d be Democracy in action.  There would be no money involved, in the grand Radio Free Charleston tradition.  The Clay Center would simply allow the artist to put a single piece in a single place for a set amount of time.

Fill up the empty spaces.  Give more local artists the chance to say they’ve had their work hanging in the Clay Center, and give us something to look at when we get to an event an hour early.  Imagine the novelty: being exposed to art while attending an event at an arts center.

And why isn’t there an artspace in the Capital Market?  Where are the stalls for artists to show off their work.  Hey Soho’s, you’ve got fantastic food, but you have the ambiance of an urban Goth club.  How about slapping some more artwork up on those stark, industrial walls? 

Visual artists are not going to be able to make a living off of the Clay Center.  What this city needs is more small galleries.  People like Chuck and Connie Hamsher, Ann Saville, Sherry Lovett, the Lucases–they do great work, but we need more of them.   The city should be actively encouraging the creation of more small galleries and art spaces around town. 

Maybe Slack Plaza could become home to some artists stalls.  Heck, Danny Cline is up at the old Sunrise Museum, maybe when he’s not flying his magic car around town or fighting Godzilla he could make room for a small gallery in that building, just for old time’s sake.

Is there artwork hanging in City Hall?  South Charleston has a print of Guernica hanging in their hallway.  What does Charleston have? I think there are some blank walls in the old Courthouse, and the Mall has some empty wall space, too.

You want the city to be a living work of art?  Then let’s get out there and plaster it with art, dammit!   Smother the city with art. Make art ubiquitous.  Don’t just complain because more people like the music.  Music is good, too.  But you can’t stick it on a wall.

In the remaining installments of the arts rants series, I’ll address the role of charity in art, and talk about the other various performing arts in town, plus I’ll offer a little constructive criticism about things that can improve FestivAll in the future. Unless they have me killed before then.

By the way, my Latin is dreadful, but the title of this rant is “Art is Forever, Bitching is Foreverer.”