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The Arts Whisperer

The Arts Whisperer
May 2013
Meet Scott Watson, the new leader of the Office of Cultural Affairs, and learn what the regime change means for banking on the arts in Charleston

The big corner office is all windows and exposed brick. His sprawling desk is like a collage—an art installment in progress—with playbills, promotional flyers, ticket stubs, memos, and whatnot scattered and layered willy-nilly, any minute now it might morph into some sort of paper sculpture. The young guy behind the desk could be a banker—all clean cut and appropriately suited up. He fits right in given that this Meeting Street office space is actually part of a bank building, which is fitting yet again, since Scott Watson (the clean-cut collage-creator behind the desk) is charged with managing and growing one of Charleston’s most strategic and valuable assets: her arts and cultural affairs.

As Piccolo Spoleto launches its manic display of creative wow later this month, Watson’s desk collage will likely grow even more layered and artsy. The new guy will be busy collecting playbills and taking notes during the 17-day festival, his predecessor’s pièce de résistance, and her last hurrah. The indefatigable Ellen Dressler Moryl birthed Piccolo Spoleto in 1979 as an accessible and affordable complement to the worldlier, splashier Spoleto Festival and an opportunity to showcase more homegrown and regional talent. And even though she officially retired after more than three decades as director of the Office of Cultural Affairs in January, when Watson took the helm, Moryl will see her baby through one more festival season, serving as director (emeritus) for the 35th time. After that, it’ll be Watson’s turn to run the Piccolo show, or shows—all 700 of them.

“This office came into being to coalesce the various arts initiatives in Charleston,” says Watson, whose past experience includes serving as marketing director for an architecture firm specializing in the design of museums, galleries, and artist studios; working as an arts publicist, consultant, and communications specialist in New York; stints at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York Theatre Workshop; and as executive producer of the Dublin Fringe Festival in Ireland. “My diverse resume, in a weird alignment, mirrors the varied nature of this job,” he notes. Indeed, producing Piccolo will be but one of Watson’s many responsibilities, in addition to producing the MOJA Festival and other special events, overseeing the City Gallery at Waterfront Park and the Farmers Market, and serving as a resource to support local arts groups in general.

For Watson, the job’s appeal was its hybrid nature: there’s the management role and the opportunity to produce festivals, but mostly there’s that last line, the bit about supporting local arts groups in general, basically the throwaway line that sounds a lot like “other duties as required.” The position fits him well because at heart he’s an investor, because he believes in arts’ ROI for the greater community, and because, as a “very engaged cultural consumer,” he loves a good show, a dynamite jazz riff, a soaring symphony. The numerous playbills and ticket stubs cluttering his desk are proof—a definite job hazard.

Hallmark of Excellence
“People are incredibly proud of the cultural life of Charleston,” Watson observes, and he feels they have reason to be proud, as is he. “I don’t go to performances or art openings because it’s my job,” says Watson. “I go because it’s my community. It’s why I want to be here. I didn’t come to Charleston to sit around and look at the four walls of my living room.” Watson’s wife, Maura Hogan, works in publishing and is a Charleston native, and the two have been supporting various Charleston cultural organizations and events ever since they were married here five years ago, with jazz musician Charlton Singleton playing at their wedding and reception.

“We became Charlton fans then. We were in on the ground floor to see the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC) come into being,” says Watson. The newlyweds would make special trips down from New York to go to a JAC concert; they came for the Halsey Institute’s Aldwyth opening (“a truly exceptional show”), and for the Gibbes Museum’s Alfred Hutty retrospective. “What we kept coming back to and discovering as jaded New Yorkers was a very refreshing sense of Charleston, both the hallmark of excellence in the established institutions like the Gibbes and the good energy at places like Redux,” Watson observes. “Whether it’s watching Twitter to see that Pecha Kucha sold out in two minutes instead of seven or going to restaurants and seeing everyone out supporting each other, it’s clear that people here are trying new things.”

Now that he is planted here full-time, Watson has spent his first months on the job making the rounds, going to performances and events most nights of the week, meeting with artists and nonprofit leaders every day, doing a lot of listening and observing, getting a feel for the challenges that local arts groups face, and celebrating their successes. His Twitter feed (@CHSArtsGuy) is a play-by-play of a hip arts omnivore on the prowl. Don’t let the banker’s uniform fool ya.

Making the Case
As a kid growing up in Baltimore, Watson was not particularly artistically inclined. He suffered through beginner piano lessons and dabbled briefly (and painfully, for those in earshot) with the clarinet, but lacked the talent and ability that his mother—“a phenomenal singer”—and brother—who plays everything with strings, from the mandolin to the guitar—both had. In college, he had a work-study job in the script library of the theater department and was once on stage for 30 seconds as an extra, but that’s pretty much the extent of Watson’s artistic portfolio.

“I don’t play an instrument or draw or sketch. I never felt any strong passion to create, and aesthetically I was always wary of my opinions,” he says. But a fundraising internship at a regional theater company in Connecticut led to an entry-level job at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), where he was promoted and stayed for five years. “I realized I had an ability to make the case for the arts to the broader public. I could explain what these programs were about and put it into language that was evocative and compelling,” he says. “My talent may not be in performance or in the mechanics of creating art, but I can bring ideas to fruition in ways that artists find helpful.”

“I’ve come to appreciate that Scott has this uncanny ability as an arts whisperer,” says Hogan, who initially met Watson while she was also working at BAM, then reconnected with him years later when she was in graduate school in Dublin and he was at the Dublin Fringe Festival. “He is acutely attuned to how the artist’s mind works, but he also knows how to get things done. He brings an openness to the creative process and appreciates that it should be wildly divergent, and at the same time, he’s so grounded in pragmatism—a combination that makes for an exceptional arts administrator, I believe,” says Hogan, who also lets slip that her culturally astute husband is a rabid Yankees fan, and by extension, a big RiverDogs fan, and therefore Watson may well be enjoying jazz or the symphony at the Sottile one night and yuckin’ it up to cheesy antics at The Joe the next.  

Setting the Stage
The arts environment that Watson finds in Charleston is more robust than the world that Ellen Dressler Moryl entered in 1978. Local arts consumers and patrons today are progressive and intrepid, and certainly in greater number due to, if nothing else, local population growth. The current arts landscape melds in with a thriving culinary scene, a sophisticated fine arts and gallery cohort, and a college/university population that has more than doubled the size it was in the late ’70s. Spoleto and Piccolo are well-established and internationally renowned, MOJA has firm footing, and the construction of a new Gaillard Center is underway, which, as Watson notes, “will set a new standard of expectation for audiences.”

The plans for a new Gaillard were part of what made this job enticing to Watson, whose office will not manage the space nor benefit directly from it for its own productions. Nonetheless, says Watson, the Gaillard Center, which will include both a convention facility and performance halls, “offers a great opportunity to put the arts very much forward in our focus on tourism. Today, with Charleston widely recognized as a marquee destination, it’s a very different moment than it was for curtain-up for the first Gaillard Auditorium,” he says. “It’s a great thing that people coming to town for a convention will see the arts front and center—here is a physical manifestation that arts will remain center stage in the city.”

Yet as any good pair of theater glasses will zoom in to reveal, there are blemishes that stage makeup attempts to minimize. Despite growth in number of performing groups (and perhaps even because of it) and expanding audiences, there remain challenges for local arts organizations: look no further than the recent demise of the Charleston Ballet Theatre as a case in point (pun not intended).

In 2006, a group of concerned citizens led by businesswoman and arts supporter Nella Barkley formed the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts (CRAA) for the purpose of addressing concerns about diminishing facilities and performance spaces available to arts groups in the area. Then in 2009, according to the CRAA website, “an awareness emerged that not only were the tri-county’s facilities in dire need of assistance but our arts organizations overall required support to sustain themselves and ensure viable and optimistic futures.” This support, evidently, was greater than what the Office of Cultural Affairs alone was providing. Currently, the CRAA website lists 58 different local arts groups and organizations as Alliance collaborators.

“The competition for local arts dollars has become fierce,” says Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, who notes that many corporate sponsorship dollars get directed toward Piccolo Spoleto Festival and Spoleto Festival USA, leaving smaller organizations scrounging for crumbs. “It sucks all the oxygen out of the room, and for arts groups here working year round, it can come as a bit of a slap,” Sloan continues. “However, it’s hard to argue with what Piccolo and Spoleto have done to raise the arts profile in Charleston.”

Sloan praises Dressler Moryl’s ability to connect the arts with different audiences, which, he says, is “the real hallmark of her long tenure. She has a way of reaching a really large public, with good instincts for what would play well here.” He notes that her touch is “visible everywhere in Charleston” and admires that rather than becoming stagnant and comfortable in a position she has held for so long, Dressler Moryl “was constantly tinkering, adjusting things, and learning.” Watson, he believes, is exactly the type of person who can fill her big shoes. “He has absolutely the right head for the job,” says Sloan. “I’m imagining Scott will use a different combination of ingredients. He’s interested in revitalizing and refocusing, with particular emphasis on the health and well-being of the arts organizations here year-round.”

Gut Check
Charlton Singleton echoes Sloan’s assessment. “If the office [of Cultural Affairs] can find a way to look out a little bit more for the organizations that truly need the help, that’d be great,” says Singleton, who wears various hats as band director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, now in its fifth season, and artistic director of Jazz Artists of Charleston, which will host 12 concerts during Piccolo. “I think Scott will be looking to spread the love. He wants to know what’s going on and has a wide interest.”

During various points in his varied career, Watson has been in the trenches; he knows how much behind-the-scenes work goes into staging a production. “I understand the fatigue, the kind of bludgeoning that can happen on a daily basis for a noncommercial arts entity,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense for me to be just a cheerleader for the arts. We all would like unlimited budgets and audiences, but the realities that artists find themselves in define their creative environment.” The Office of Cultural Affairs, Watson believes, can provide a “day-to-day reality check, a gut check,” especially in working with smaller groups. “I recognize that there are some artists and arts groups that are in our blind spot right now,” he adds.

“My job is outreach, it’s monitoring, it’s helping promote the arts as a vital part of Charleston, so people know that the arts happen here every day, every night. That artists are at work in your community making it a better place, and so you should go—you should buy tickets. The way you support the arts is by attending,” affirms Watson, who encourages people to be “omnivorous and adventurous” in their cultural consumption.

Is the health of the Lowcountry’s arts community a factor of resource allocation alone? If so, is there a limit to what the market will bear? Not a hard and fast limit, according to Watson’s banking ledger. “I believe that there is room for everyone,” he says. “Let the artists lead and give them the opportunity to engage with ever-growing audiences, because the creative impulse that inspired them will inspire others.”