The Nickelodeon’s 2017 Indie Grits festival will kick off with a keynote address by Favianna Rodriguez, a transnational interdisciplinary artist and cultural organizer, who will share a message about the power of art to inspire social change. Rodriguez will speak April 19 at the Nickelodeon Theatre, 1607 Main St., Columbia. A reception will take place at 6 p.m., followed by Rodriguez’s talk and the premier of an Indie Grits film block, “El Sur.” Find the complete Indie Grits schedule online.
When the theater opened in 1936, it was one of five on Main Street in downtown Columbia between Blanding and Gervais streets. Now the old Fox Theater is all that’s left, a reminder of the days when Hollywood made escapist entertainments for those enduring the Great Depression and, soon after, World War II.
It lay dormant beginning in 1987. Then in 2012, the Nickelodeon moved in after a big renovation project was partially completed. It was a momentous occasion. In April 2015, the renovation was finished, resulting in a second theater for screenings and other events, such as music and variety shows. The team had succeeded in raising $5 million to fund the makeover.
The Nickelodeon, or The Nick as locals call it, had been located in a bank building just south of the Statehouse, but now it was in the heart of things. It harks to a time in the city mostly forgotten, and it symbolizes the new Columbia. In an unlikely turn of events it has become a cultural cornerstone of the city, one that has contributed to the revitalization of Main Street as a primary commercial and civic corridor and site of cultural activities.
“It’s the most adventurous venture in Columbia now,” said Ken May, director of the South Carolina Arts Commission.
The Nick was founded in 1979 by Carl Davis and Linda O’Connor. It started out as an art house for film lovers, a bohemian space for the alternative and academic crowd. Over the course of 30 years a lot changed: The movie business went digital, its commercial aspirations grew, distributors changed their practices. It was no longer sufficient just to screen indie and foreign films, not if The Nick was to become a vital force in the community.
So, in 2007 Andy Smith was hired to start a festival.
The Indie Grits Festival was an experiment in multidiscipline programming, an event that combined cinema, visual art exhibitions, live music and creative technology. The experiment has been working. It has drawn increasingly large crowds and expanded its offerings.
In the past couple of years, organizers have assigned a theme to the festival. In 2015, the festival explored how technology influenced art-making and culture, naming the event “Future Perfect.” Last year, the theme was water, apropos after the historic 2015 Midlands flooding. The title was “Waterlines.”
This year, the theme is Latin American culture, and the title is “Visiones.” The idea first was broached in the fall of 2015, with the intention of organizing a weekend event. But some grant money, input from artists, the powerful “Waterlines” experience and, finally, the myriad ways the theme resonates politically and culturally today convinced The Nick team to go big with “Visiones.”
The festival runs April 20-23.
The thematic approach was adopted when Seth Gadsden joined The Nick team four years ago. Gadsden, who was an art major at the College of Charleston and co-founded Redux Contemporary Art Center in downtown Charleston in 2003, brought a new dimension to the Columbia enterprise. He helped further integrate the visual arts, and he took the lead in educational outreach.
Late last year, The Nick announced that it was expanding its media education programming. Already it was providing resources to media artists, running a filmmaker-in-residence program and working with students in Richland School District One on an art project called “Come Around My Way” that delved into social justice issues. Now it would launch Indie Grits Labs, introduce the new initiative “TakeBreakMake” that provides a safe space for up to 15 young LGBT artists, and contribute to the festival.
Indie Grits Labs is no small venture. It signifies a moment of exponential growth, one that acknowledges formally that The Nick is about much more than movies. It is part of a larger reorganization. Smith was promoted to chief executive officer of the Columbia Film Society, the umbrella organization under which The Nick and Indie Grits Labs operate. A new Nick director will oversee the cinema side of things.
As a result of the change, Smith, Gadsden and their colleagues, all of whom have many interests, are better able to spread their wings.
“Everyone is connected to more than film,” Gadsden said.
Smith said the emergence of The Nick as an arts generator and incubator coincided with market and technology forces.
“At the same time as our move (to Main Street), Netflix is exploding,” he said. “We saw more interest in media education, we saw it as a way to deepen our involvement with the community. It was our chance to get into the creation of work, to help develop critical viewing skills.”
Gadsden pointed out that the school-age kids enrolled in “TakeBreakMake” or “Come Around My Way” might not have normally stepped foot inside an independent theater. Now some of them are volunteers.
“Kids would just show up,” he said. So the staff found them something to do. “It’s a safe place for people in a fairly conservative part of the country, where people could come together and explore ideas.”
If the “Future Perfect” Indie Grits theme demonstrated the great promise of the festival, it was “Waterlines” that brought The Nick to a new level. Before the terrible flooding of October 2015, the team was thinking about adopting a “river” theme.
It troubled them and others in Columbia that the Congaree River was so underutilized and underappreciated. Other cities such as San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn had redeveloped their waterfronts for public use. But not much was happening along the banks of the Congaree.
After the flood, water became the inevitable theme, but now with a large dose of urgency.
“How do we respond to what just happened?” the Indie Grits team asked itself. A $50,000 grant from the Central Carolina Community Foundation helped them decide. A cohort of local artists was invited to a brainstorming session. “It became a group-think, collaborative project,” Gadsden said. “I learned a lot about what you can do with a group of artists if you support them and put them in a situation where (they can thrive).”
“Waterlines” became a model that Amada Torruella, curator of “Visiones,” happily adopted.
She identified artists in South Carolina to form the 2017 cohort, seeking not just artists, but artists who are teachers and innovators and community organizers, 11 Latinos of various backgrounds who met monthly to formulate the festival.
The process began with optimism in the air: How was the Latino community changing the Southeast? After the presidential election, though, the tone darkened, for now Latinos were perceived by many as a threat, Torruella said.
“We had to channel the negative energy,” she said.
The cohort of artists includes a few Mexicans, two Colombians, two Ecuadorians, a Chilean and a Puerto Rican. Disciplines include photojournalism, music, filmmaking and more.
“Since the project is pretty heavy on identity, one filmmaker is making an ‘Identity Map’ for people to follow,” Torruella said. The map will lead patrons through the outdoor showcase from one video installation to another.
Screen printing workshops will be open to all in the Latino community, because “art should be as accessible as possible,” Torruella said. A puppet troupe from Mexico will perform. Food trucks will be strategically positioned downtown. And the musical headliners Lambchop and Curtis Harding will perform.
For the film component of the festival, 80 movies are scheduled (from 400 entries received). About one-third of them are by Latino filmmakers or have Latino themes.
The goal is to create a public space where people can share stories that humanize them.
The Nick’s staff constantly is thinking strategically about artistic and community purpose and direction. They team up with nonprofits such as the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which serves the Latino population, schools and government.
“They’ve just become this real groundbreaking organization, not just in the city, but in the state,” said May, of the Arts Commission. “It’s quirky, interesting.”
Ambitious, too, able to secure significant funding from groups like the Ford Foundation, he said.
“Andy’s a very thoughtful, smart young guy who makes an impression on people like that,” he said “They’re very communitarian, but also committed to adventurous art. When you see something like that coming out of a place like South Carolina, I think it gets extra points. … They just keep doing new things. And they’re restless.”
This probably accounts for the growing popularity of The Nick and its eclectic programming.
Smith said he and his colleagues always are asking questions, challenging themselves: “How can we strategically use the arts to make our community stronger, to make Columbia, to make South Carolina, a better place to live?” It’s an important consideration, especially in light of current trends.
“The support structures (for the arts) in our state have really eroded,” Smith noted.
Funding is always uncertain. The Richland-Lexington Cultural Council shut down a couple years ago. So the Columbia Film Society is positioning itself as a granting organization. And The Nick provides an opportunity to bring festival artists back into the fold after Indie Grits events are finished.
Today, The Nick has an annual budget of $1.3 million, half of which is derived from earned income. Its membership, now at more than 3,000 individuals, keeps setting records.
“We’re still scratching the surface of who we serve in the community,” Smith said.
Image above: Amada Torrulla (left) is curator of “Visiones,” this year’s Indie Grits Festival. Seth Gadsden (center), is co-organizer of the festival and in charge of The Nickelodeon’s education program. Andy Smith (right) is executive director and CEO of the Columbia Film Society, which oversees the Nick.