When industries consider our community for new locations, the first things that they ask about are the educational level of the population and the availability and health of arts in the area, says Andy Witt, executive director of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties. “Every state offers incentives to relocating industries, so what distinguishes Columbia from Birmingham? Our arts community can make a difference in their decision. People want to live in a lively, vital place. What’s more, the arts are very important in a knowledge-based economy. Kids who study the arts score higher on standardized tests, stay in school longer and learn to be problem-solvers and team players. Arts are very important for education.”
Local businesses agree, and their long-standing contributions to the arts prove it. “We see it all the time,” says Claire Fort, director of community relations at McNair Law Firm, P.A. “When our attorneys are talking to someone who is looking to bring a facility here, once the infrastructure questions are taken care of, the very next question is, ‘What is the quality of life?’ If the new companies are bringing people in and training them for highly skilled areas, they want to have a quality of life that keeps those people in this area. That’s universal. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a client we were dealing with who didn’t at some point ask that question.”
“One of the hallmarks of McNair Law Firm is our long standing commitment to serving the communities in which we are located,” says David J. Tigges, the firm’s managing shareholder and CEO. “We recognize that our clients are what make our firm successful, and, in return, we are dedicated to helping make their communities, and by extension our state, vibrant and successful. We are fortunate to have many members of our firm who understand the importance of the creative arts in a community and who take active roles in supporting and leading organizations which provide those services. We would have it no other way.”
David J. Tigges, managing shareholder and CEO of McNair Law Firm, says his company has supported the arts since the firm’s founder, former Gov. Robert E. McNair, established the S.C. Arts Commission.
McNair Law Firm has deep roots in support of South Carolina’s arts. The firm was established in 1971 by former governor of South Carolina Robert E. McNair, who, as governor, established the South Carolina Arts Commission by executive order. Claire says, “The reason he did that was because he was one of the first and most aggressive governors to actively promote international economic development. He knew that in addition to workforce skills, you also had to have a quality of life to attract the people who came with those larger industries. It was something that was very important to him and very important to our state. I can’t remember a time when our firm has not supported the arts on some level or some basis, and that’s in all nine of our offices.”
The Cultural Council itself was conceived, formed and funded by area businesses in 1984 when AT&T, BlueCross BlueShield, Colonial Life, SCANA and Banker’s Trust donated $100,000 each to the initial fund. “That measure of support of the arts was just incredible,” Andy says. “I wish that level of support for The Arts Fund was still there, but the way businesses support the arts has changed over time.”
When Cultural Council was founded, it served as a traditional united arts fund. Andy says, “Essentially, corporations and individuals would make one large annual donation and then Cultural Council would dispense that through grants to various arts groups. Now, organizations that we call our ‘grantee organizations’ are going directly to corporate decision-makers and funders, and not just for general funding, but for sponsorship and marketing, in effect, because corporate philanthropy has been replaced with sponsorship and marketing dollars. Many companies are seeking a return on investment instead of doing good in the community. As a result, a central funding agency like Cultural Council has seen a reduction in support.”
The struggling economy also has hurt arts funding. Still, local companies continue to keep the arts in the Midlands thriving, some to an extraordinary degree. BlueCross BlueShield was named to the Business Committee for the Arts BCA Ten in 2010. This award means that BlueCross was recognized as one of the 10 best companies supporting arts in the nation. A news release on BCA’s web site states: BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina recognizes that the arts help create thriving and dynamic communities that in turn contribute to South Carolina’s economic development. BlueCross clearly demonstrates its strong commitment to the arts not only through monetary donations but also through in-kind gifts and employee involvement programs. Employees at all levels are also engaged in supporting the South Carolina arts community, from a workplace campaign to support the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties to board service at numerous area arts organizations. Since 2004, BlueCross BlueShield has donated over $4.7 million to South Carolina arts organizations.
Columbia’s businesses find generous and creative ways to support the arts. Kara Sproles Addy, APR, assistant vice president for corporate and external communication at Colonial Life, says, “In 2010 our company’s outreach and investment efforts included partnerships with more than nine arts organizations. Our partners include performing and visual arts organizations as well as the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties and state foundations.”
In addition, Colonial Life is a proponent of arts education. “We believe supporting arts education can have a significant impact on the developmental growth of children. It promotes individuality, bolsters self-confidence and can improve overall academic performance,” says Randy Horne, president and CEO.
Randy Horne, president and CEO of Colonial Life, is proud of the firm’s Art in Business program, which showcases a collection of original art from South Carolina professional artists and students.
“Colonial Life is home to ‘Art in Business,’ a program that brings a collection of original art to our workplace through exhibitions featuring work from South Carolina professional artists and students,” Kara says. “As a supporter of the arts, Colonial Life offers these exhibitions to create awareness of featured artists and their works and to deliver a cultural experience to our employees and guests. Artwork is periodically rotated within our gallery space to maintain visual interest and variety. So far in 2011, we have held three exhibitions – two that featured professional artists and one that featured the work of young students – as well as photographs from one of our performing arts partners.”
In 2010, Colonial Life granted more than $705,000 to nonprofit organizations in South Carolina. Of this amount, approximately 14 percent was invested in organizations and programs that support arts and culture. “In addition, our employees logged more than 10,000 volunteer hours in support of their favorite causes, including the arts,” Kara says.
“Colonial Life supports organizations that enhance the quality of life in our communities. We recognize the role that arts and culture play in attracting and maintaining quality economic development,” says Kara. “These investments help position our company, our community and our state for success.”
SCANA, also a Cultural Council founder, continues to give to the arts. Therese Griffin, manager for marketing and philanthropy, says, “We have been giving to the arts for a very long time. We try to do our part and make an investment in the community. What these arts organizations are able to do to double or triple our investment in the community is amazing.”
SCANA is particularly interested in outreach and education. “We provide schoolchildren with the opportunity to view a professional stage production, such as at the Columbia City Ballet and Columbia Classical Ballet,” Therese says. “We bring in schoolchildren from around the community to have special viewings of the productions. They wouldn’t otherwise have this experience or exposure.”
“That the arts organizations are able to bring in a thousand schoolchildren, and if one child is touched by that experience and it changes one life … you can’t put a price on that. And it happens,” Therese says.
SCANA donates 10 to 15 percent of its community contributions to the arts. As the economy has changed, SCANA, like many Midlands arts supporters, has changed how it makes its donations. “We want to do our part to help out,” Therese says, “so we put a focus on educational programs in a conscientious effort to support arts in our school systems and fill the gaps where those programs no longer exist or have been minimized. We can’t do it all, but we obviously want to do our part. We realize that we are uniquely positioned to support the arts in our community.”
Joe and Melissa Blanchard have generously supported the Columbia Museum of Art through sponsorships over the years, but their business also gives in-kind support. Blanchard Machinery, a local heavy equipment company, literally works behind the scenes to put up major exhibitions at the Columbia Museum of Art. “They bring in their heavy equipment to help us hang things in the museum, especially for major exhibitions,” says Allison Horne, public relations manager for the museum. “That’s unique because you don’t usually think of a heavy equipment company being such a huge supporter of the arts. If it weren’t for them, we’d have to rent the equipment and spend a lot more money, so it helps us keep our costs low.”
The museum, like many area arts organizations, has also developed creative ways to help area businesses while helping themselves. One example is the museum’s new Arts and Draughts program, which brings together more than 50 businesses and the public on selected Friday nights for evenings of art and fun at the museum. More than 800 people attended the first event. Each one is different, but all feature local businesses, microbreweries, food, hands-on experiences, live music and art, and a gallery tour conducted by a local person with a unique perspective to share. Earth Fare, WXRY Radio, the Free Times and The Whig are the main sponsors of this series and help put these festive evenings together. “Cooperative events like this are a two-way street,” Allison says. “They create an integrated community where everybody supports each other. The businesses support us by promoting our events and encouraging people to support the art museum, and we help them get exposure.”
As Columbia grows and changes, so might the role of our arts community. While it will always be important for economic development, there may be new reasons to support the arts. Andy Witt says, “Based on the 2010 census data, Richland County is now a majority multi-ethnic county, with growing multi-ethnic populations. There are 50 languages spoken by Richland County residents. What that means for us as an arts council is that a lot of people don’t know very much about the cultural heritage of these various ethnicities. That can cause problems.”
“Arts in Mexico, Africa, China and other places go back thousands of years. The idea of creating understanding for people who don’t speak the same language is very important. Arts can help bridge the cultural gaps,” Andy says.