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Columbia Business Monthly

The Arts Mean Business, and More, in Greenville and South Carolina as a Whole

Dec 23, 2021 11:28AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

For the past 20 years, Greenville visual artists have been inviting the public to their workspaces. Every November, Greenville Open Studios draws thousands of people to watch them at work and, the artists hope, purchase some of their works.

The 2021 Open Studios event featured more than 135 artists, all of them within a 15-mile radius of downtown Greenville, working in just about every style of visual art you can imagine, from painting to jewelry, photography to pottery, fiber art to mixed media.

Clyde Lyon, a metal sculpture artist, participated in his first Open Studios in 2020, but he was a fan of the annual event long before he moved to Greenville from Raleigh, N.C. In fact, the arts community was part of what drew him to the Upstate when he retired from his career as an accountant. 

Lyon didn’t even start his second career as an artist until 2019, when he was trying to repair a metal sculpture he’d bought years ago.

In looking for the right nails to fix the broken piece, he found a company that made the nails, and he soon began using the distinctive nails to make his own designs, which he gave out as Christmas gifts to family and friends.

But it’s not just Greenville that makes artistic expression and aesthetic enjoyment a priority. The arts scene throughout South Carolina is vibrant, with many cities, including Columbia and Charleston, making a similar commitment to visual and performing arts.

The Columbia Ballet is one of the longest-running arts organizations in the state; it celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.

“We’ve consistently performed every year for 60 years,” Executive and Artistic Director William Starrett said in an interview earlier this year. “We’ve never not been in business. It’s pretty amazing for an arts group in the Deep South.”

The Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia and the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in Charleston, much like the Peace Center in Greenville, present live music, Broadway productions, and more. 

At last year’s Open Studios, Lyon had one visitor to his studio, but in the first 15 minutes of this year’s Open Studios, the traffic to his Eastside studio had increased by 500 percent.

Open Studios, he says, is “one of Greenville’s great assets.” 

Not every artist who showcases their work at Open Studios is able to make a living through art alone, but the event itself is proof of the city’s commitment to the arts, Lyon says.

The arts are “one of the magnets that pull people here from everywhere,” Lyon says.

As Greenville has made a name for itself in the past two decades, thanks to a revitalization that started with the blossoming of the downtown area, folks have talked about the arts scene here. 

But while the recognition might be fairly recent, the arts community has deep roots in the Upstate, and in South Carolina as a whole. 

The Peace Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors more than 30 years ago, the Greenville Chorale made its debut in 1961, and Greenville has enjoyed local theater for the better part of the last century. 

With Artisphere anchoring the springtime arts calendar in May, and Open Studios representing the autumn arts scene in November, it’s rare to find a month that doesn’t offer something to satisfy the desire for visual or performing arts in Greenville, or around the state.

Charleston benefits from its rich history, a number of arts schools, and the world-renowned Spoleto Festival. You can walk through the historic areas of Charleston and watch art being created, thanks to the artisans who weave traditional sweetgrass baskets right there on the sidewalk.

But the arts aren’t just something beautiful to look at or interesting to watch. The economic impact on the state is real and measurable.

The Spoleto festival, a staple of the springtime calendar in the Lowcountry since the 1970s, brings tens of thousands of visitors to Charleston each year to see world-class performers for a couple of weeks of performances. 

A report released by the festival in 2021 estimated that Spoleto’s annual impact on the Charleston economy totaled $42.7 million. The festival employs more than 500 people, between full-time, part-time, and seasonal staff members. Spoleto itself costs about $8.5 million to put on, according to the 2021 report.

And according to a fact sheet released by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the arts represent 2.5 percent of South Carolina’s GDP, contributing $6.2 billion and generating 54,244 jobs in the state. 

Fun fact: The Americans for the Arts Action Fund says that in 2019, arts and culture were a bigger industry in South Carolina than agriculture.

And the state of South Carolina’s commitment to the arts continues. The South Carolina Arts Commission released its strategic plan for 2021-2025, and its vision is simple: “We envision a South Carolina where the arts are valued and all people benefit from a variety of creative experiences.” 

But while the goal is simple, the plan is wide-ranging, and it includes making sure that arts grants are distributed in each of the state’s 46 counties and developing a robust grant portfolio for both arts organizations and individual artists throughout the state. 

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic weakened the arts scene in the state during the past 20 months. The Peace Center put its Broadway season on hold for 18 months, reopening in October 2020 with social distancing and masks for the production of “Hadestown.”

The Peace Center returned with a robust 2021-2022 Broadway season, a run that will include the return of the cultural juggernaut that is “Hamilton” next June. 

Similarly, the Koger Center took a break from its Broadway series, but returned this fall. Its latest Broadway production, “Anastasia,” was presented in November. 

Spoleto had to cancel its 2020 event, returning to in-person performances in 2021, but at a reduced capacity. The festival is looking to return in 2022 with a full lineup. The new season is set to be announced in February.

After the dark days of the pandemic, it’s thrilling to see the arts return to life. As we look ahead, let’s celebrate and rally around the state’s arts community. It’s time.

Donna Isbell Walker is associate editor of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine.