The Fine Arts Center has nurtured the artistic interests and ambitions of generations of students.
More than that, the Greenville school district’s magnet arts program may have actually saved a life or two.
“I really can’t overstate the effect the Fine Arts Center had on my life,” said Daniel Sollinger, a successful Hollywood producer with more than 350 commercials, music videos and short films to his credit.
Thirty years ago, however, Sollinger was a struggling student, hanging onto school by his fingertips. His future didn’t look very promising.
Then he found the Fine Arts Center.
“I was a lost teen who had been kicked out of Eastside High School and Riverside High School,” Sollinger recalled recently. “I was attending night school and I met someone who had been studying filmmaking at the Fine Arts Center.
“That moment changed my life.”
As students, faculty and supporters of the Fine Arts Center celebrate the 40th anniversary of the program, the first-ever of its type in South Carolina, they can look back on hundreds of graduates like Sollinger who’ve gone on to achieve success in the arts and other fields.
Sollinger’s struggles, in some ways, mirror those of the Fine Arts Center itself. There were times in the past when the program also hung by a thread but was successfully defended by its legion of passionate supporters.
The Fine Arts Center got its start in 1974 as then-Superintendent J. Floyd Hall searched for ways to bring communities together during desegregation, said Roy Fluhrer, the center’s longtime director.
One of the answers that emerged, Fluhrer said, was a high school magnet arts program, free to all Greenville County high school students, regardless of race and socioeconomic background.
“The arts have always been at the vanguard of change,” Fluhrer said.
With start-up money from a federal grant, district officials Virginia Uldrick, Margaret Gilliam and Ray Thigpen designed a curriculum for the Fine Arts Center, which would open at the renovated Hattie Duckett Elementary School on Washington Street.
Uldrick became the Fine Arts Center’s first director and would later create the Governor’s School summer arts program and finally the South Carolina’s Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a residential school open to students statewide.
The Fine Arts Center eventually outgrew its 22,000-square-foot building, and a new 65,000-square-foot facility opened in 2008 next to Wade Hampton High School.
When Fluhrer was appointed director in September, 1989, there were just 168 students in the program — compared to today’s 420 students, who take classes in seven art areas. Under those basic categories are 19 artistic subsets, ranging from chamber music to photography, ballet, modern dance and music history. Recently, the program became the first in the U.S. to offer architecture among its basic art areas, Fluhrer said.
Students attend one of Greenville County’s 14 high schools but also spend about two hours each day in classes at the Fine Arts Center. They not only have to audition to be admitted to the Fine Arts Center but have to re-audition every subsequent year they wish to attend.
Not everyone makes the cut. Some get placed on a waiting list.
“Our teachers are constantly reminding students that they’re capable of more,” Fluhrer said.
Last year, 88 students graduated from the program, earning $10.8 million in college scholarships. That represents about 2 percent of the graduates in Greenville County schools garnering almost 10 percent of the scholarship money awarded that year.
“The Fine Arts Center is an outstanding example of the life-enhancing and, in some cases, life-altering opportunities for growth available to students in our schools,” said Greenville County Schools Superintendent W. Burke Royster.
The program challenges students to test their limits but also appeals to young people who already are highly motivated. A recent dance graduate, Mireille Fehler, was valedictorian at Eastside High School and now attends Case Western Reserve University, majoring in dance — and aeronautical engineering.
Such success comes as no surprise to Fluhrer, who sees arts education as vital not only for overall educational achievement but national economic prosperity as well.
“Our future will belong to those with the creative imagination to solve problems,” Fluhrer said. “The arts have a signicant role to play.”
Surviving the cut
The past four decades, however, have not always been easy ones for the Fine Arts Center. The school at one time faced possible closure.
Several years ago, in fact, a top Greenville Schools official delivered a sobering message at the school: Due to budget difficulties, the Fine Arts Center would probably have to shut down.
“An immensely talented group of kids would have educational opportunities ripped out from under them,” Fluhrer said.
The students, however, were not going to take the news sitting down.
“They mounted a respectful and passionate defense of the arts and of what the Fine Arts Center meant to them as students,” Fluhrer said.
Efforts to close the center were defeated. The program’s future now seems secure.
“When you think of the trials and tribulations that the Fine Arts Center has gone through, it’s very special to have reached 40 years and to have the support we have in the district and community,” said Fluhrer.
“I think we’ve made a contribution to the community as well and we continue to have a significant role to play.”
Kimilee Bryant attended the program for only one year but believes it contributed greatly to her later success as a Broadway actress.
“The Fine Arts Center was the highlight of my senior year,” said Bryant, best known for playing Christine in the Broadway production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“I wish I had been able to attend all four years and all day my senior year,” Bryant added. “I knew I was going to be a performer and I really felt at home at the Fine Arts Center.”
Sollinger, the producer, echoed Bryant, saying that the Fine Arts Center provided an avenue for him to express his energy and ambition.
“Part of the reason I had gotten kicked out of the other schools was that I didn’t really fit in,” Sollinger said. “I was an artistic person but had no place to focus that artistic energy. The Fine Arts Center gave me the ability to find myself as a creative person and gave me the confidence and the curiosity to see how far I could take my talent.”
After first hearing about the Fine Arts Center, Sollinger was able to get back into Eastside High School and then successfully applied to the Fine Arts Center.
“I never realized that film was something you could study, let alone make a living doing,” Sollinger said. “I can pretty much guarantee I would not be living in Hollywood and producing movies had the Fine Arts Center not been there.”
Young artists are surrounded by “other students with a passion for their craft,” said Rory Scovel, a comedian, actor and writer who attended the Fine Arts Center in 1998-99 and went on to do standup on Comedy Central and network talk shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson.
“The Fine Arts Center did more than just educate me in film and filmmaking, courtesy of the great Eric Rogers,” said Scovel, who also played the character of Harvard on the TBS sitcom “Ground Floor” and guest-starred on such shows as “Modern Family.”
“The school actually made me understand the overall need for every kind of art and the respect all of it deserves,” Scovel said. “I think receiving an education about respecting art matures not just a student but a person. That’s what the Fine Arts Center gave to me.”
Artists who teach
Scovel and Bryant believe a big part of the Fine Arts Center’s success is its top-notch faculty of teaching artists.
For Bryant, the late voice teacher Michael Rice particularly left a lasting impression.
“I was so lucky, as were many other voice students, to have had Mr. Rice as a teacher,” Bryant said. “He was world class, more than a teacher — a real mentor and friend.”
Bryant would parlay her Fine Arts Center experience into a career that encompasses not only Broadway but opera and concert appearances worldwide. She’s the only actress to play all three leading female roles — Christine, Carlotta and Madame Giry — in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The talented, enthusiastic student body makes the Fine Arts Center a coveted place for teachers, Fluhrer said.
“I think the faculty will tell you it’s an absolute thrill to go into your classroom,” Fluhrer said. “It’s a very rewarding environment for teachers. Why would you not want to help a student release their inner Van Gogh?”
When an teaching opening comes up, searches are conducted nationwide. A recent position for a painting teacher generated 90 applicants from across the nation.
“We have incredible teachers,” Fluhrer said. “You could put us in an open field and the teachers would still find a way to make everything work.”
Fluhrer recently announced that he would retire in June, 2016. The center’s assistance director, Charles Ratterree, is Fluhrer’s designated successor.
At 26 years, Fluhrer has been, by far, the longest director of the center, following the leadership of Uldrick, James B. Senn, Charles W. Welch, Thomas Drake, Jesse Beck and Gene Wenner.
“The leadership of the Fine Arts Center has been so completely devoted to the students, and the success rate of its graduates has been remarkable,” said Alan Ethridge, executive director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council, an umbrella arts organization that has provided modest funding for some Fine Arts Center projects.
For Fluhrer, who has a doctorate in theater history and criticism, part of the Fine Arts Center’s success is that it gives students ample room to indulge their creativity — even if they come up short before finding their way.
Fluhrer likes to quote playwright Samuel Becket: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
“We have to have the arts and give students the freedom to experiment and try new things and even fail,” Fluhrer said.
As he looks toward retiring in 2016, Fluhrer said his long tenure at the Fine Arts Center has been a labor of love.
“I get to see kids who are engaged and loving every moment that they’re with us,” Fluhrer said. “This place is a jewel.”