Monday, June 4, 2007

Reporting on the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina

I spent a few days last week at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina where air conditioning is state of the art. The Festival, now in its 31st year runs from May 25th to June 10th, presents about 150 performances involving opera, chamber music, symphonic music, theater, world music, dance, jazz, and the visual arts. It's sort of like Charleston cuisine that features some grits in every dish, only in this case, Spoleto offers an artistic experience for everyone in the space of 17 days.

I was in Charleston during this time in order to attend a music critics conference. I'm a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which consists mainly of newspaper and magazine critics, and we can obtain press tickets to a number of events. I heard two chamber music concerts, an opera, a symphony concert, and a play.

You can get a serious dose of culture during the festival, because that is part of its intention. The critics were treated to an hour-long discussion with Nigel Redden, general director of the festival. He told us that the budget of this year's festival is $7.5 million. Wow! That is quite a pile for a city that only has 120,000 residents and a metropolitan area of less than 500,000. Redden said that $2000,000 in funding for the festival comes the City of Charleston and another $800,000 from corporations. I'm not sure where the remaining $6.5 million comes from, but a hefty amount is from ticket sales which has been trending steadily upward for the past seven years. I assume that the state of South Carolina ponies up some cash and perhaps some other governmental agencies and an endowment figure into the final tally as well.

Redden mentioned that coming up with the artistic schedule each year is something "like making sausage." There are many variables to consider and sometimes an invitee will cancel and that causes the management to scramble. Redden did rail against the current visa process for artists who are foreigners. "The visa process is out of control," he told us. "It's a big hassle to comem to the US. It's very expensive and complicated. For example, if you need to use premium processing to speed things up, that costs $1,000. Getting artists from some parts of the world is a nightmare, because some nations are considered terrorist nations, and if an artist comes from that country, then it's..."

Regarding the attendance figures, Redden said that 60% of the attendees come from outside the Charleston area. Dock Street Theatre, which holds about 460 people, will close down after this year's festival in order to undergo a multitude of repairs, so the festival management will hopefully have Memminger Auditiorium, which is undergoing a total restoration process, ready in some form or fashion to take up the slack.

As general director of festival, Redden is obliged to attend a lot of parties. "I went to 45 parties in 17 days," he mentioned. "I'm sacrificing my liver for the arts." Redden is also the general director of Lincoln Center Festival, so his liver surely undertakes serious challenges in NYC as well.

The success of Spoleto Festival USA makes me wonder what Portland could do. We have a much larger city and metro area. We have access to more money. A collaborative festival of this kind would really help to boost Portland. But it would probably take a big name with a big vision to kick things off. Spoleto Festival USA started in 1977 because of the effort of Gian Carlo Menotti, and has survived some ups and down because of Redden who rejoined the festival in 1995.

No comments: