Who needs the arts, some might ask? In addition to providing inspiration and pleasure to the residents of a community, the arts are a vital component to the quality of life that large employers consider when deciding where to relocate or expand. Businesses want to attract and keep good employees, but more is required than a good paycheck or good work environment. That’s where the city plays a vital role in providing life experiences beyond the workplace.
While Columbia is recognized today for its vibrant arts culture, that has not always been the case. Back in the early 1980s Columbia was growing, but the arts scene was in its infancy and needed a catalyst to spearhead its growth. That catalyst was Dot Ryall, then executive director of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties. “The arts community needed funding in order to grow, and the Cultural Council was formed largely as an initiative from (the late) Mayor Kirk Finlay to provide that need,” Dot explains.
Thirty years ago in the second issue of CMM, we featured Dot about her commitment to the arts. Following that feature, Dot became a staunch supporter of the magazine and even served on our initial advisory board for many years. She not only gave great counsel to us over the ways we could use CMM to serve the community, but she also provided much needed encouragement for Emily and me as we strived to get our young business out of the red.
Dot grew up in Kershaw County and lived in Grosse Point, Michigan, and Miami, Florida, before returning home to South Carolina in the mid ’70s. After several years working on the creation of Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, Dot was chosen to lead the Cultural Council, which she successfully directed for almost 20 years. “In order to raise money and stay in the forefront for the arts, we had to do things to get people’s attention. First Night Columbia, which was a New Year’s Eve alcohol-free family event downtown, was one way we showcased performing artists to hundreds of people,” Dot says.
The Cultural Council expanded the exhibition of public art through the Palmetto Trees and the Doors, many of which are still on display today. After seeing the widely successful Cows of Chicago come to life, Dot, in a fit of creative brainstorm that was her unique style, came up with the Palmetto Tree Public Art Project, featuring specially cut steel palmetto trees that had been turned into works of art by artists in the Midlands. She also credits Marvin Chernoff as the sponsor and co-founder of the project. At that time, this was the Columbia area’s largest public art installation ever. The Doors of Columbia followed, with the Trees and Doors located throughout the city for people to admire.
Through her successful efforts championing the arts, Dot has been recognized many times for her achievements, but the one that stands out to her is the Order of the Palmetto. “I came to Columbia Rotary Club one day and there was my grandson, Adam, who was in uniform and on a 10-day leave from the military in Afghanistan. He was there representing Gov. Mark Sanford, and he presented me this award,” Dot remembers fondly.
In reflecting on the early days of Columbia Metropolitan, Dot says, “I remember this young couple who came to my office with a passion to start a city magazine, and I knew we needed to help them. It was the right time for Columbia to have one.” When asked why Columbia or any city needs a magazine, she quickly replies, “They are incredible economic development tools. Columbia Metropolitan shows what a great quality of life we have here. It shows that Columbia is cultured — you name it, we’ve got it.”
The energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of people like Dot Ryall have given Columbia not only the expansive arts scene but also the quality of life that is so important today and in the future.