Americans for the Arts staff member visits SC for Cultural Districts Network convening

A big thank you to Ruby Harper, director of Local Arts Services for Americans for the Arts, who recently visited the South Carolina Arts Commission to participate in the first convening of the S.C. Cultural Districts Network. Here’s her blog post about her experience.

rubyharperheadshotI’m starting to think that every moment in my life that I write about begins with, “I was terrified when they asked me to [insert anything here]”—but, I guess that is what makes life so interesting and what brings learning and new adventures and explorations into the world. This time was a quick trip to Columbia, S.C., at the request of the South Carolina Arts Commission (SCAC) to present to their network of Cultural Districts at a day-long convening hosted at EdVenture.

To give some background: SCAC established their Cultural Districts designation program in 2014 through legislation ratified by the South Carolina General Assembly and signed by Governor Nikki Haley. The goals of the program were specified in the legislation:

  • Attract artists, creative entrepreneurs and cultural enterprises to communities
  • Encourage economic development
  • Foster local cultural development
  • Provide a focal point for celebrating and strengthening local cultural identity

In the first year and a half, they processed six applications from cultural districts around the state—Rock Hill, Lancaster, Spartanburg, Congaree Vista, Beaufort, and Bluffton. According to Rusty Sox, Senior Manager with the Arts Commission, it was stronger participation than they had anticipated.

One of the benefits of being a designated Cultural District is access to a support network and resources. The day-long convening I attended is part of that support plan. The group began with sharing what they wanted to learn about during their time together, whether through potential programs and leveraging assets or learning what’s working for the cultural districts individually and as a group. To prep for the meeting, I read the applications to get an understanding of how the districts saw themselves and what they were focusing on to benefit their community.


Convening in EdVenture’s meeting room

My part in the process was to share information about Americans for the Arts and highlight tools and resources related to Cultural Districts and arts and culture administration. It was clear they felt I had much to share, and I thankfully did, but in the end, I learned as much from the groups that presented as I am hoping they learned from me and the others in the room.

Five of the six cultural districts shared highlights from their year and the genesis of their creation. Some came from a long-standing love of arts and culture; some came from thoughtful growth and planning. Two potential districts shared their challenges as they move into the application process. My favorite line from the convening was “Our district has been built like a string of pearls,” and the stand-out learning moment was finding out that Ursula is shortened to “Uschi” in German.

I shared information about the National Cultural Districts Exchange (NCDE). Its creation and resource area—as well as all the great tools we have throughout the site—can benefit them in developing and promoting their district as well as casemaking for community and advocacy support. We talked about social media tactics and cross promotion—for example, who is the cultural tourist and how can you engage them? We also talked about where we are hoping the NCDE will go next and how they can be a part of that evolution.


I met “Eddie,” a prominent feature at EdVenture.

Columbia is a dynamic city! As the capital of the state, I had the luxury of being near enough to the statehouse to walk a portion of the grounds. My hosts took me on a driving tour around The Vista and I got a sense of how the college (University of South Carolina, the mighty fighting Gamecocks) plays into the structure of the city. I got to see the newly built minor league baseball stadium with the adjacent abandoned insane asylum, and learned how the city is renovating and repurposing the buildings (watch for a new restaurant opening in the former morgue!). We ended the tour at a much loved local bar called Art Bar, where I had the pleasure of meeting Clark, an artist who is known for his civic and community work in developing the Vista district—and also for being affected by the gentrification that is driving artists out of their spaces as the neighborhood develops and gains popularity. I had some wonderful dining moments and learned about the historical ties to the development of the district that the restaurants played in its development.

By the end of the day, I was struck by the desire of each district to develop relationships with the others—one district looked at the program as a “sister city” and had ideas of how to work together to promote each other’s cultural assets and build knowledge about the state across the state.

I’ll be curious to see how their story plays out in the coming months and years. Programs like this have such potential to improve, strengthen, and grow local economy and bridge arts and culture experiences statewide.