Sunday, February 7, 2010

The candidates and the arts - unanswered questions, but upcoming chances to ask more

During many years of attending art events I’ve noticed how rarely one sees elected officials in the audience. (Many others one would expect to see are also rare birds, but let’s save that for another time.)

A few months ago I emailed art questions to the Columbia mayor and city council asking about their involvement in the arts – what they attended, what groups they were members of, if they purchased art.  I heard back from two of the seven (Tameika Devine and Belinda Gergel) even after several reminders.
That was a dead end, but the mayor’s race was heating up so I moved on to those candidates.
Not much response there either.
To give the non-responders the benefit of the doubt, they may have no idea that I’ve been reporting on the arts for a long time and was not always self-employed. At the risk of sounding self-important if they don't know me they probably aren't that involved in the arts.

Who responded and they said:

Joe Azar, candidate for mayor in almost every election, goes to art shows and musical performances of all kind.
“I actually play more than I attend as I am a musician,” said Azar, right, who owns Upstairs Audio.


Sparkle Clark, an environmentalist, said she has on and off regularly attended plays at Trustus and movies at the Nickelodeon and gone to art shows. She’s also a nature photographer.

Steve Morrison’s involvement in the arts (Columbia Museum board, Spoleto Festival USA board, 701 Center for Contemporary Art Board and so on) is extensive and well known. I could fill a whole column on it, but that wouldn’t be fair in this context.
I see Morrison, let at left, and his wife Gail (who has been on the board of the Columbia City Ballet and headed the search committee for a S.C. Philharmonic music director) all over the place, from small shows to operas at Spoleto. They’re members of many arts organizations including the Columbia Museum of Art, S.C. Philharmonic, Columbia City Ballet, Workshop Theatre and so on.

I reached candidate Gary Myers by phone and he talked passionately about the importance of the arts as part of the city’s big picture. He grew up in public housing and said his life was improved by arts events at the nearby Benedict College and Allen University. As a kid he spent summers with relatives in New York where he got a dose of art. Before moving back to Columbia, Myers lived in Miami where he went to arts events (and he talked knowledgably about the specifics.) He is not a member or a regular participant in Columbia arts.

Aaron Johnson, co-owner of a camera shop, didn’t respond. He addresses the arts on his campaign website with a statement that sounds like it was written by a veteran arts administrator who has learned all the right words – innovate, facilitate, incubate and so on. His web site states “there is no excuse for (Columbia) not being a national headquarters for the arts.”

Two of the three major candidates, Kirkman Finlay III  and Steve Benjamin, did not respond to the questions and their websites do not speak to the arts.

I contacted Finlay, left, both as council member and a candidate for mayor several times. Not long ago I was at a party for Finlay at the home of Lee Lumpkin, Columbia Classical Ballet board president. He stood on the beautiful staircase and said times are hard and don’t count on more money. Finlay is good at facing facts. Finlay also spoke from the Koger Center stage before a recent performance of the Classical Ballet (and stayed to watch.) I see him at various arts events, mostly the big ones.

Benjamin, right, was mum too although I sent several messages to him and contacted his campaign manager. I have never seen him at any arts event which doesn’t mean he hasn’t been to any.

In the big realm of important issues in Columbia even I put the arts fairly far down the list. The city has so many problems – crime, poverty, the exodus of businesses - and the city government has just as many - fiscal mismanagement, poor planning and development, enormous pay raises for staff, insider dealings and lack of vision.
That’s doesn’t mean the arts aren’t important and can’t be part of the solution to the other problems.

Over the years I’ve ask elected officials why they don’t go to more art events. The usual response is what the rest of the world says: too busy. Someone who has worked in campaigns and has a lot of contact with those holding public office tells me they are in constant demand to meet with various community organizations and business openings as well as taking care of city duties.  Most have full-time jobs too and some have younger children - although I think it’s possible to take children to museums and plays as well as soccer practice.

Still I regularly see doctors, owners of businesses big and small, college deans and presidents of universities at art event. They’re probably pretty busy too. The only conclusion is can draw is that most local elected officials just aren’t very interested in the arts.

You can ask the candidates your own questions about the arts at a couple of upcoming forums.
The Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties holds a forum on the arts for the candidates Monday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Columbia Museum of Art. All the candidates for mayor say they are coming as well as many running for council seats.
Then Feb. 17 the 701 Center for Contemporary Art is holding a public meeting called “What I Want The City of Columbia To Do For the Arts Is…” If you want to speak, you sign up and can talk for up to five minutes. Alice Perritt, owner of HoFP Gallery, will moderate. It looks like a bunch of candidates as well as well as City Council and the Richland County Council are coming.


  1. I know I am more attuned to public art than someone who has no particular interest in art, but when I visit a city that has an obvious policy of investing in public art, it makes all the difference in the world in the character and ambiance of the place. Even from a purely political and economic point of view, I don't understand why governmental bodies can't see the advantages in enhancing a city's appearance this way.

    Several years ago (well before the current recession) I sent a message to city council members asking them to consider committing a very small fraction of the city's budget each year (say, 1/10th of a percent) to investing in public art projects. (Even 1/10th of 1 percent of the city's budget would provide a goodly amount of money from an artist's standpoint.) As you might predict, I didn't hear a peep back from most of them, but the one who did respond said emphatically that my suggestion was not even a possiblity.

  2. Sparkle Clark>>>>to Jeffrey Day:

    Wonderful article! Thanks for the information.

    I will be at the candidates forum tonight at

    the Columbia Museum of Art.

  3. We as a city don't understand that to create "Love" for art, you have to create art "Lovers". My love for art started in Elementary School and continues even today. Most schools have dropped art or limit art to a bare minimum exposure. That is sad. It will not change until you elect a leader who is capable of leading. One who understands the importance of art in growing a city.

  4. Great article! Just to make it clear, this is the exact verbiage of my response to the "Participation" question:

    "As a candidate AND an artist, I'm in a sensitive position because I do not wish to politicize my participation in the arts.

    Do I attend arts events? Yes, avidly. Do I have season tickets for arts organizations in Columbia? Yes, and with great satisfaction. Am I currently involved in ongoing arts programs? Yes, passionately.

    My status as an artist is distinct from my participation in this political race. I think that distinction is important to maintain the artistic legitimacy and integrity of my efforts and the of those with whom I collaborate. My candidacy is distinct from my participation in the arts and I prefer it that way.

    I do feel comfortable talking about some programs that relate directly to my arts policy. I attended the South Carolina Artists Retreat last year, and I am providing feedback and input in the planning for this year's Retreat, which will be in Columbia. I run three arts-related businesses.

    There is not enough time for me to go into why this is important, so I will be providing copies of our arts policy outside the museum on your way out. Please pick up a copy. There just isn't enough time here to properly address the issues that face our precious arts community."

    The full policy will be made available soon at

    In the meantime, if you email us (our address is at I would be happy to get email you a copy of our full arts policy.

    And for the record, we did consult with several veteran arts administrators about how we can solve the issue of fostering the arts without a lot of money. After talking to them and after participating with the Arts Ventures program, the Arts Retreat and several other programs, I believe that developing an Arts Services Office is the best way to maximize our investment in the arts.

    As always, I welcome comments, ideas, feedback, etc., and I hope anyone passionate about this or any other issue will let me know about it. Even if you aren't going to vote for me, I will bring up good ideas that I hear about and they *will* influence the debate.

    -Aaron Johnson
    Artist & Candidate


Post comments under the anonymous listing if you do not subscribe to one of the services listed.