Friday, February 19, 2010

Forum provides plenty of ideas for the arts

A few nights ago a few dozen people gathered at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art to talk about the arts in Columbia. 
The floor was open to anyone 9the title of the event was “What I Want The City of Columbia to Do For the Art Is ….”), but it turned in a question and answer session with the candidates for city of Columbia and Richland County offices. And that turned out to be pretty good. Certainly much better than the candidates forum on the arts at the Columbia Museum of Art a couple weeks back.
Here are some of the things everyone talked about and a few of my own thoughts.
•    The candidates, and a few others, complained that the city hospitality tax isn’t used for what it’s supposed to be used for: creating and promoting things that get people to buy food and drinks. The money, several said, had been siphoned away for other uses.
•    Council member Belinda Gergel, who is not up for re-election,  asked all the candidates to say if they’d support continuing the 2-cent hospitality. They all more or less said yes, although candidate for mayor Aaron Johnson said he didn’t believe the hospitality tax provided stable enough funding. Mayoral candidate Joe Azar said later that some of that money really needs to go to fund public transportation.
•    The idea of an “arts czar” who would work for the city came up. Several people objected to the very notion. Kirkman Finley,(top) a council member running for mayor, noted that the city had what amounted to an arts czar with Dot Ryall, former head of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties. And, he said, that was a disaster. The arts groups would be better served if the city provided funding for infrastructure rather than operating expenses and then got out of the way.
•    Mayoral candidate Steve Morrison (right) questioned the role of the Culture Council as it raises less and less money and is unable to provide basic advisory services to arts organizations. “It’s not functioning,” Morrison said. “If it’s not working let’s look at setting that aside.” (No Cultural Council board members or staff attended the meeting. Also missing were all the museums, theaters, dance companies and the arts at USC. )
•    Aaron Johnson suggested that the city have an art services office to promote the arts and assist arts groups and artists.
•    Several people brought up areas that would be good areas for artists: abandoned big box stores, the Tapps building on Main Street, the former State Hospital on Bull Street and Olympia. It was also suggested that empty buildings on Main Street be used by artists, but that’s been tried unsuccessfully because owners don’t want the liability. The importance of arts in redevelopment, as happened in the Congaree Vista 20 years ago,  were stressed.
    “Artists are like earthworms,” Azar said. “They go through the soil and make it     fertile again.”
•    Anne Sinclair, a former council member, said she’s always felt that the city should have a center where art classes could be taught possibly with a shop where artists could sell their work. (Surprisingly none of those in the commercial gallery ownes objected. And the city actually already has an arts center where classes are taught.)
•    She also wishes the city had more public art.
    “You go to other cities and they have art on every corner,” she said.
    The city through the Cultural Council has tried to do this and ended up with a lot     of second-rate art because the shortcuts were taken in the vetting process.)
•    The need for a couple of smaller performance centers, one seating about 1,500 and 500, came up.
•    County Council candidate Scott Winburn talked about his wife’s knitting shop.
•    Mayoral candidate and presumed front-runner Steve Benjamin did not attend.
•    Gergel said the city council has not sat down talked about the arts and she’ll push to make that happen.
(City council candidate Kevin Fisher sent me an email saying he said some really good things and that I should note who cared enough about the arts to show up and who did not.)
(Fisher sent me another email saying I should have said he was laughing then he said the first and was serious when he said the last.)


  1. Thanks for posting about what happened Wednesday night. I had gotten reports, but
    now this brings it all together.
    BTW, tell Kevin that I had a dental procedure
    earlier in the day and couldn't make it.
    Wanted to be there, but my mouth didn't.

  2. Great summary! I would love to have more sessions like this, both leading up to and, especially, BEYOND the election.
    -Aaron Johnson

  3. What I clearly said FIRST is that the H tax is not being fully used as advertised. $10 million is the gross fund, yet only $2.5 million is being disbursed by the H tax committee, meaning $7.5 million is being shunted elsewhere. I held up the documentation for anyone interested to review. Some of that money is going to a couple of dedicated arts facilities, but nowhere near 75% of it is being used for the arts.

    So SECONDLY, I suggested a better solution that has proven more palatable to our citizens, and that is taking 1/2 cent of the tax and using it for the bus system that is floundering and will fail without any new support in the coming 10 months, and then using ALL the rest, 1 1/2 cent, for the arts. That way the arts gets more and the bus system, which is a critical part of our community for those who desperately need transportation, can be saved. If the public is now asked to vote in another 1 cent sales tax, it will not pass and it is likely the public would ask for a reduction in the H tax on the ballot as well.

    The problem is there is no truth in accounting. H tax money is being siphoned off for the general tax fund, and NOT being used for the arts, as it was sold to the public. If they knew, they would surely be angry at being duped and taxed for the general fund, not for the arts as they supposed and supported.

    I did originally oppose the H tax as I knew it would be siphoned and abused, as our city is subject to do. I clearly remember the county council final vote meeting and the people in support and attendance. Arts groups that were in favor I had spoken with and were because they were promised a good share. Morrison was there speaking highly in favor and I told him my reservations and how I knew it would be abused. He blustered on about how it was great and would help the arts, blah blah blah.

    The vote was taken, it passed, and immediately another discussion and vote on how to disburse came about. What was promised and written BEFORE the vote was completely ignored and some of those promised were cut out. I looked over at them and did not need to even look like I told you so, for they knew they had been lied to and used simply as pawns to get it passed so it could go to those other groups that had the big people behind them.

    From the start it was abused, groups were abused, and it has been ever since. My emphatic point then and now is USE IT FOR WHAT IT IS SOLD AND PROMISED FOR AND TO, OR DO NOT CHARGE THE PUBLIC THIS TAX AT ALL!

    So the arts gets less than half of the overall H tax and it is used in the great shell game of city finance, a city in great financial distress and functionally bankrupt.

    The citizens and the arts lose, as always.

    That is what I said, what I meant, and what I have done and observed over the years. My proposal is reasonable, functional, beneficial, and a practical solution to 2 city problems and more willingly embraced than the other proposed solutions.

  4. Joe...i wasn't saying anything negative about your thought that some of the money might need to be used for transportation. Personally I think that sounds like a great idea; of course if the city had not managed to screw itself over on the bus system to being with this wouldn't be necessary.
    Although the H tax is apparently not being used as it was said it was going to be use, I bet the people and places benefitting from these uses like the way its being handled just fine. And I wouldn't doubt that those people have more of a voice than those in the arts. This has been going on for ages and I have yet to see the art leaders in this community take on the city on this issue. They're afaid to - and can one blame them?

  5. Jeffrey,

    As your mayor, I would push for truth in accounting, applying the money to where we have told the public it was going: no lying about it, no shell games as have been played with the money. The public deserves respect and the truth. Even if I cannot change council on truth in accounting, I can constantly inform the public so you can.

    You are right, the "elite" always have more say and power to push their weight around. Unfortunately, the majority suffer. And unfortunately, they never band together, they just keep taking it.

    Joseph Azar

  6. Wow, unbelievable that a Culture Council would ignore the obstruction (paper racks) to Gill Petroff's Mosaic Mural the largest most blatant act cast upon such a wonderful. Who are these people, to have personally notice and to ignore what should be there job, whether paid or not to correct such red neck event, shame on you.

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