A Greenville News article that just came out talks about the “rebirth” of Carolina cities (both North and South), and the leadership that municipalities have taken in forming private-public partnerships that have driven development. But the article leaves out one major step that is almost always paired with infrastructure improvements and private development – a public investment in the arts.
The two cities featured in the above article have each supported the arts with public dollars before they had a “rebirth”. Greer’s Cultural Arts Council was started in 1997 by the City’s Recreation Department, one year before the City formed a private-public entity “Partnership for Tomorrow” led by city and community leaders. The Arts Council of Henderson County’s (originally named Hendersonville Arts League) longest program, “Art on Main” began in 1975, three years before the article’s “start date” of that city’s revitalization roots in 1978. The Council is supported to this day by the County and the State of NC.
For years, cities across the Southeast, and especially South Carolina, have been leading a quiet revolution in the way the arts are used in small communities. Greenville had a delegation of community leaders visit Nashville, TN specifically to see how they incorporated the arts in their downtown in the early 1970s, leading to the City’s involvement in the Peace Center’s development alongside the construction of the Hyatt to create two “anchors”. Charleston’s city-funded and city-operated arts festival, Piccolo Spoleto Festival, began in the mid-1970s alongside Spoleto Festival and construction of the Charleston Place Hotel. Greenwood’s Arts Center received partial funding from the City as it began, and still receives support from them.
Even more interesting is the role public investment in the arts has shaped smaller SC cities such as Greer. Aiken has played a financial role in its downtown arts center; Sumter owns its downtown Opera House; Summerville supports its arts groups and has looked into using them to further develop their community; Union is currently contemplating its role in building an arts center; Fountain Inn’s “rebirth” is widely contributed to its Younts Center for the Performing Arts which is owned and operated by the City; and Mauldin owns and operates its own arts center and even created an “Office of Cultural Affairs” to widen the scope of the arts in the community. The list could go on.
Downtowns in the Carolinas historically revolved around textile or single-industry economies and local governments did not have to take on a role as truly helping drive the economy. As those kinds of jobs disappeared however, new industries have taken hold and diversity in business and population have driven the need for progressive policies. Municipalities have learned that they have a real and appropriate role to play in their city’s “rebirth” – and many of them are realizing that it should include the arts.