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Shrimp 'n Grits

Tough times ahead for the performing arts and tourism venues
Lee Walton

There’s and old saying: “It’s better to fix the problem than the blame.” But sometimes fixing the problem requires that we identify who’s to blame. Arguably, the worsening financial problems facing several local performing arts groups and tourism venues have two fundamental causes: The insatiable appetite of Charleston’s mayor for ever more world class self-aggrandizement and the reality that the Greater Charleston Area has exceeded its finite carrying capacity to support an ever increasing number of competing non-profit organizations that are dependant upon the same limited funding base from which to draw sustenance.

Given the relatively small number of loyal cultural elitists that are the quintessential patrons of the local performing arts and, thanks to Mayor Riley’s spoiled brat demands to have at least one of everything cities many times larger than Charleston are able to sustain, the taxpayers of Charleston are now being pumped for donations, support for questionable grants, or to underwrite dubious loans to keep many of these competing arts groups and tourism venues on life support. But are we all really getting the most for our money? And that’s where two little words – perceived value - come into play.

Would the overall quality, community benefits, and support of performing arts groups and tourism venues be higher if there were fewer to compete for the limited resources available in the Charleston cultural arts and tourism markets? Are the performing arts spread too thinly over a too broad spectrum that is locally unsustainable even in normal economic times? Are choices regarding the allocation of very limited public resources being made that favor a few pet groups at the expense of several others previously supported but now being left to fend for themselves? Are the demographics, changing preferences, and demands of leisure time consumers evolving faster than local performing arts organizations can, or are willing to. adapt?

There are very few among us that now doubt the seriousness of the current economic crisis facing the world’s economic powers, our nation, state, and the Lowcountry. These are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures to survive in today’s very lean and extremely competitive business environment. For those who have successfully weathered similar, albeit less severe, business cycles, there is a fundamental knowledge of what must be done – cut down, cut back, reduce, and hone competitive skills in order to survive. In tough times, yesterday’s necessities often become today’s luxuries, and yesterday’s luxuries become unattainable.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” has quickly become the cruel reality of everyday business life. We witness the failure of what were once thought pillars of national financial and business institutions; we also witness the closure and loss of long-term local businesses once considered immune to failure. Why should local performing arts groups and nonprofit tourism venues be treated differently from other local businesses? One’s job lost is just as traumatic as the other’s.

An old acquaintance of mine once said than in bad times “You just have to cut the pie to fit the pan.” This sage advice is now as applicable to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the SC Aquarium as it is to General Motors or General Electric.

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