Ken May

Farewell reflections by Ken May

A 33-year tenure ends today


(Ed. note: Ken May’s last day at the S.C. Arts Commission is today. While his last day as executive director was June 30, for the past two weeks he’s served as a consultant to provide that coveted on-the-job training to his successor, David Platts. The Hub welcomes him today for a guest post.)


Almost exactly 10 years ago, in a year catastrophic state budget cuts prevented the presentation of the Verner Awards for just the second time since 1976, I was lucky enough to become acting executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission.

I say “lucky” with only a little irony, because getting to do this job has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not that “great” always equates with “fun.” I’ll admit that this job has not always been a pleasure, but it has been a privilege.

In that period as acting director, which lasted a little more than a year, I had two important tasks. I had to get control of an agency budget that was in free-fall, and I had to produce a new long-range plan for the arts in South Carolina.

Since 1980, the Arts Commission led major, public planning processes to set long term goals for the arts in the state, and it was time to start the process again. Since 1990, this process, known as “A Canvas of the People,” produced 10-year plans. The goals of these plans were deliberately broad. They were intended to remain relevant over time and to be open to multiple approaches to implementation.

In 2009 we decided that, in a time of such uncertainty, it was all the more important to think beyond the present moment, to take the long view, and to set ambitious goals for a better future. So, we embarked on a process to create a new 10-year plan.

The plan we produced attempted to weave together larger public aspirations and more specific arts outcomes and to find productive intersections between them that would create public value in the arts during the decade 2011 through 2020. The plan envisioned five major outcomes for the arts in South Carolina, and we have focused our efforts toward these goals since 2011:

  1.  South Carolina citizens and visitors benefit from diverse opportunities for relevant, rewarding arts experiences in communities throughout the state.
  2. South Carolina’s professional artists are able to produce exceptional art and build satisfying, sustainable careers in our state.
  3. Students receive a comprehensive education in the arts that develops their creativity, problem solving and collaborative skills, and prepares them for a lifetime of engagement with the arts and productive citizenship.
  4. South Carolina art organization and other arts providers have the capacity and necessary resources to deliver relevant, high quality arts experiences to citizens and visitors.
  5. There is broad recognition within the state and beyond its borders of the value of and unique contribution made by the arts in South Carolina.

So how did it go? How have we done?

Well, we made this plan in the midst of a terrible recession, in the belief that times would change. And they did.

They got worse.

State revenues continued to decline, and by FY12 the Arts Commission’s budget fell to its lowest level since the 1990’s. And the political climate became more hostile to public funding for the arts, with some key elected leaders attempting, repeatedly, to eliminate that funding altogether.

But I am proud to say that, even as we fought for our existence and pursued our work with very limited resources, we kept our sights and our efforts focused on the goals of the plan. And so did our partners and our constituents.

We worked together to make our case for the public value of the arts and to increase that value in our communities. And a broad, bipartisan majority of our elected leaders listened, and continued to invest in the arts, and increased that investment over time.

There is a lot of evidence that we have made real progress toward each of the plan’s targeted outcomes, and I’ll just share a few indicators of that progress. Most of these are drawn from data on the Arts Commission’s grants and programs, but I think they reflect the trends in the larger arts community as well.

  • In FY10, the year before the plan started, we awarded 367 grants totaling $2.2 million. These grants were matched by $92 million at the local level. In FY18, the last year for which we have complete data, we awarded 452 grants, totaling more than $4.2 million, matched by $187 million. In that period the number of arts experiences supported by those grants rose from about 7,000,000 to more than 8,000,000. Preliminary totals for FY19 suggest another rise.
  • Since 2014, we’ve reduced the number counties that have consistently not received Arts Commission funding from 8 to 3 and—for the first time—in FY19 every county in South Carolina received an Arts Commission grant. This is largely due to new ways of working in communities, developed through programs like The Art of Community: Rural SC. These approaches rely on building relationships and trust, rather than following the conventions of traditional grantmaking.
  • Since 2011, 36 artists in a broad range of art forms have received Individual Artist Fellowships, and 32 artist/entrepreneurs have won Artists Ventures investments. More than 400 artists have participated in Artists U, a program that provides guidance on how to make a sustainable life as an artist.
  • The number of schools and school districts receiving Arts in Basic Curriculum (ABC) Advancement grants grew for 48 in FY10 to 78 in FY18, and the number of students served increased from 37,000 to more than 167,000. These schools and districts are leaders in providing comprehensive arts education to all students, and they are models that are emulated by others.
  • In FY16 we secured $1,000,000 in new, recurring Education Improvement Act funds to support arts education expansion and new initiatives to increase access. New funds enabled us to restore the commission’s arts education staff position, which had been vacant since 2010. We were also able to develop new summer arts learning programs in high-poverty, rural school districts.
  • Despite numerous vetoes that had to be overridden, the Arts Commission’s state funding rebounded from its low point of $1.9 million in FY12 to $4.9 million in FY19 to around $5.5 million in the just-begun year.
  • And finally, the arts in South Carolina have drawn positive national attention for our state. Last year our Poetry Out Loud state champion, Janae Claxton of Charleston, won the national competition. The Art of Community initiative has been featured in several national publications, conference sessions, and a documentary. It was also showcased in a briefing and webcast at the National Press Club. And this fall, Oxford American magazine will feature South Carolina in its popular annual music issue.

So, we’ve made progress, and we have momentum. But with only one year remaining in the current plan, it’s time to start work on the new plan. That will be one of the first big jobs for my successor, and I wish him well in that effort. I would ask all of you to join in the process of making the plan, and then to become active partners in realizing it.

Whatever ups and downs may come in the next few years, I think there is an exciting future ahead for the arts in our state, and I look forward to sharing that future with you. I’m deeply grateful for all the opportunities and support you’ve given me, and for all the wonderful experiences we’ve had together. It has been an honor and a joy to serve you.

Now, as I step aside, we move forward. As my good friend and mentor Jo Ann Anderson would say, Godspeed!



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