Midlands-area Cultural Council closes formal operations

From The State:

COLUMBIA, SC — The Cultural Council of Richland/Lexington Counties – a major funding source in the Midlands arts community for more than 25 years – has closed its office operations and will function strictly as a volunteer-only group going forward.

The nonprofit – which at its peak more than a decade ago distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to various artistic and cultural venues – officially shut its doors late last week. Agency leaders say the decision was primarily a financial one, citing a drop-off in funding.

“It’s very unfortunate that we find ourselves in this position, but in all honesty we have cash flow issues,” Cultural Council board chairwoman Cindy Cooper said this week. “It’s a funding issue.”

Cooper said the council’s executive committee plans to maintain its nonprofit status and hopes to honor all outstanding grant commitments, though she did not have the exact amount. She said the council also hopes to continue making grants, although it wasn’t clear how that process would work without full-time paid staff or an executive director. The most recent executive director, Norree Boyd-Wicks, resigned in late September and was not replaced.

“We’re in the position of evaluating where we are and will take it from there,” she said, adding the executive committee will run the day-to-day operations.

Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, a longtime Cultural Council and arts supporter, said the evolution facing the council is the same being felt by many nonprofit groups in the Midlands.

Coble said rather than giving to umbrella groups and letting them decide which organizations to fund, more businesses are making those decisions internally.

“They want to give directly, I think,” he said. “Umbrella groups are not as essential today.”

What’s more, Coble said, many businesses have merged, and more decisions are being made out of state and with more scrutiny. “Quite frankly businesses are more bottom-line oriented,” he said.

Such changes are prompting more groups to rethink the way they operate.

“As things transition,” Coble said, “it’s sometimes a tough decision, but the right one to make adjustments.”

As recently as the early 2000s, the Cultural Council was raising about $400,000 annually and distributing funds to arts groups. That dropped to about $350,000 around 2004 and has been decreasing since.

Last year, the group gave out about $102,000, Cooper said.

Another shift in recent years has seen more arts groups directly approaching local governments, including the city of Columbia, with requests for hospitality tax dollars to fund cultural events and related activities.

Along with individual contributions, the council, founded in 1984, has been funded through the years by various cultural and governmental agencies including The South Carolina Arts Commission, Central Carolina Community Foundation, city of Columbia, and Richland and Lexington counties. But the council has seen its contributions reduced or eliminated by some area governments, either because it did not apply or was not approved for specific grant funds. Lexington County, for example, has not given the council any funding since the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The Cultural Council revised its grants program in 2010 to better incorporate art and culture in local economic development efforts. Even so, Cooper said, fundraising for the arts has grown increasingly difficult in the face of many human service outreach efforts.

“While the arts is vitally important to the community, it doesn’t have the same impact as (saying) we need food for people who don’t have it, (or) shelter for those who need it.

“It’s been a tough three or four years for all the nonprofits. It’s easy to see how that (type plea) takes priority.”

For a time, under the leadership of executive director Dot Ryall, the council expanded beyond funding groups and took an active role in programming and helping fund numerous public art projects, including the Steel Palmettos and the cancer garden at Maxcy Gregg Park. Ryall, energetic but controversial, resigned in 2003, after 15 years with the group.

Now, the council’s reorganization could pose challenges for those many cultural and artistic venues that have long relied on it for portions of their annual operating budgets.

Columbia City Ballet artistic and executive director William Starrett said replacing any lost funding is becoming an increasing challenge.

“It is difficult for us,” Starrett said. “Every arts organization is struggling and is in need of every resource.”

Starrett said the $15,000 his group most recently was awarded by the Cultural Council already is a fraction of the nearly $100,000 it once received in the 1990s. But even the loss of another $15,000 can be devastating, he said.

“We’re already facing terrible challenges,” Starrett said. “We have to turn over many, many rocks.”

Recent Cultural Council fundraisers have included “Tales of Beatrix Potter,” a narrated children’s ballet featuring the Carolina Ballet junior and apprentice companies at The Township auditorium; and Madame Magar’s Fashion Fete, the finale of Madame Magar’s Workshop installation and a fashion performance at 701 Center for Contemporary Art, both in April.

This summer, the council partnered with the Columbia Metropolitan Airport to present the first classic car Cruise-In, which offered car lovers the opportunity to show off their classic cars and chat with other owners and aficionados.

Many grants from the council have supported smaller individual projects.

Eugene “Gene” Washington, a 64-year-old Columbia filmmaker, recently received an $800 grant from the Cultural Council for a project depicting how early South Carolina civil rights pioneers endured hardships to bring about justice.

Columbia Children’s Theatre has received funding from the council the past eight years and most recently received a $6,000 grant for the 2013-14 budget year.

“A lot of organizations do rely on them for annual support,” said Children’s Theatre managing director Jim Litzinger. “To lose a significant source of funding that everyone has come to count on is definitely going to have an impact on the arts community.”

The Cultural Council maintains a website. To contribute, email Cooper at Cindy.cooper@bcbssc.com.