Conway has a large number of talented artists and musicians who want to see the city emerge as an arts mecca, and now it looks as if they will have the money to make that happen.
Conway Cultural Development Corporation President Dr. Dennis Stevens says the Knight Foundation has recommended that Conway get a $50,000 grant for the arts, and the Waccamaw Community Foundation has signed off on it.
The only thing the area’s artists need now is the support of the Conway City Council, whose members did not discuss the issue in March after hearing from representatives of the S.C. Arts Commission, who explained the process of making Conway a cultural art district.
One of the presenters, Joy Young, the SCAC’s arts coordinator for Horry and Georgetown counties, returned to Conway recently to meet with more than 35 artists and musicians in an informal setting to assess the arts possibilities in Conway and see what’s needed to move the city forward.
Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy attended that meeting at Conway Glass where she offered encouragement to the group.
The SCAC is in the nascent stage of creating a network of art districts throughout the state. Areas already carrying the label of cultural art district are Spartanburg, Rock Hill, Lancaster, Beaufort, the Congaree Vista area in Columbia and, the most recent city to join the group, Bluffton.
Florence is working now to create a district in that city.
“It’s not really a network like an art trail or anything like that,” Stevens said. “I think it’s more driven by the place and the resources that are in the place and enhancing the community and cataloguing resources. I think they have a specific vision that enables the place to enhance itself.
“It’s less about the network of communities and more about the individual place putting forth its best assets.”
Stevens says the agency defines the arts broadly so the term includes visual and performing arts, theatre and all kinds of music. Even a writer attended the recent gathering at Conway Glass.
One idea Stevens likes is stepping up arts education in low-income areas, perhaps in the Whittemore Park or Racepath communities in Conway. This could be done with an artist-in-residence who might give art lessons, help youngsters secure orchestra instruments or, perhaps, help improve the looks of some of the U.S. 378 corridor, a project getting a lot of attention from Conway City Council recently.
Becoming a cultural arts district will open the door for state grants, coordination with other cities and counties and advice from the SCAC.
The Cultural Arts Development Corporation is already talking with consultants who can help the group get the process moving and guide its leadership in the direction Conway should go; however, the consultants won’t be signed until at least August when Stevens hopes everybody is on board and the Knight Foundation money is in-hand.
If Conway City Council gives its blessing to the program, a board of stakeholders will be created to help guide the process.
Supporters of the program say the arts and culture are economic engines that draw people to an area to shop, dine, buy gas and stay over night, and they make a city more livable.
They point to Asheville, N.C., and Walterboro in this state to prove their point.
Rusty Sox with the SCAC says the art districts program is relatively new, existing for only about 18 months now.
He says developing the districts has given him interesting travel around South Carolina.
The state’s mission is to create an environment where the arts thrive for all South Carolina citizens, he told Conway City Council back in March.
The program hopes to provide quality arts education for youngsters in kindergarten through 12th grade, help artists develop their talents into sustainable careers and improve life for South Carolinians.
He says the SCAC can help by offering the assistance of its staff, developing partnerships with other organizations, implementing professional development and training through conferences and meetings, and giving grants to individual artists, schools and arts programs.
Some of their ideas include creating studios where people can watch artists work; opening retail shops, galleries, art centers, educational spaces and more.
The program takes note of significant architecture and uses nontraditional settings, bank lobbies for instance, to offer art displays. Some cities also offer storytellers and performers.
Through all of these activities the arts enthusiasts hope to celebrate and capitalize on an area’s local identification, or, in other words, the things that make each community unique.
After the stakeholders are appointed, they will take public input, designate a cultural district and solidify a list of goals.
Communities must be reviewed and recertified every five years to remain cultural art districts.
Young and Sox recommend identifying a compact, walkable, easily-navigable area for an art district. They categorize it as a place where people can park and walk.
Conway and its surrounding areas already have a good start on promoting the arts, according to area artists.
Another issue that Stevens and Barbara Streeter with CREATE! Conway are pursuing is an office for arts groups. Streeter and other artists asked at a recent public hearing at Conway City Hall for space for art exhibits and performances in the old Conway Post Office/Horry County museum.
Stevens points out that during the tenure of the late Mayor Greg Martin, he helped work on Conway’s comprehensive plan, which calls for a Waccamaw artisans center. He’d love to work out something with the Burroughs Company to see the center located in Conway’s riverfront district.
Stevens says once the CCDC has its grant money he expects things to start happening quickly. By the fall of this year he hopes to hold some public meetings to discuss the needs of the arts and cultural community and to start things in motion to meet those needs.
“I think everybody is engaged and excited about the possibility of arts and culture in Horry and Georgetown, but specifically what Conway can do to facilitate that,” he said. “There’s no central leadership now. We’re trying and we’re trying to do it in a new way.”
Stevens says anyone who’s interested in becoming part of the process should talk with a member of city council because they’re the ones who will ultimately make the decision.
“If they say no, I don’t know what comes next,” Stevens said.