Spoleto Diary I

For the past few days, I’ve been in Charleston, SC, for the opening of the Spoleto Festival USA. The festival is something I try to make every year, partly because it’s one of the premiere performing arts festivals in the country and it’s held in my hometown. But I also work at the festival–more precisely I do projects for my friend and mentor Mary Jane Jacob.

Mary Jane is an “independent curator,” which may sound a bit odd. But what it means is that her whole career since the late ’80s has been based on a critique of museums–their limitations as spaces where the public can encounter art. Shifting her workplace to the street, MJ has done a series of of provocative community-based art installations, starting in 1991 at Spoleto with “Places with a Past”–which engaged directly, provocatively with Charleston history of slavery and segregation–and continuing through “Culture in Action,” “Conversations at the Castle,” “Evoking History,” and “Places With a Future.”

The teams are interdisciplinary and collaborative–we engage deeply with communities that are disenfranchised, forgotten. The one I joined in 2004 included the disciplines of visual and conceptual art, landscape architecture/design, and poetry. You can see images of the project we produced, “Water/Table” on my website, and Thursday night saw the grand opening of one of the sweetest fruits of that collaboration, “Alicia’s Garden,” a memorial garden dedicated to the memory of Countess Alicia Spaulding-Paolozzi, designed by the Places With a Future Collaborative: Mary Jane, Walter Hood, Ernesto Pujol, and little old me.

Seems like something that was worth a party.

Kendra at Memminger

But actually, the party was for the reopening of Memminger Auditorium, a 1938 WPA opera house in the middle of the peninsula of Charleston that had fallen on hard times. Upstaged by a glitzier facility in the city in the 1960s, it had been allowed to fall into disrepair–Hurricane Hugo punched holes in the roof in 1989, the building had been officially condemned, it was a home for bats and pigeons basically–until the festival’s director, Nigel Redden, saw it and fell in love with it.

He staged amazing, daring stuff there even when the place was barely habitable. (We won’t talk about those wooden seats, which were a crucifixion even during my 8th grade graduation, 30-odd years ago, not to mention the decades worth of grime and pigeon poop–and please! let us never mention again those the bathrooms…).

But somehow, Nigel made it all cool. Festival fans are still talking about Heiner Goebbels’ post-apocalyptic Surrogate Cities, in 2000. And The Peony Pavilion, an epic-length Chinese opera that turned the building into a fantasy land, all bamboo forests and lotus-filled pools, in 2004. Then there was that sexy Don Giovanni in 2005 that was so popular they had to bring it back for 2006. All the while Nigel was raising money to completely renovate the building…

As we saw Thursday night.

Memminger by Night

Cool, huh? It changed colors all night… Hmmm, having a full production staff at your disposal … It must be an event planner’s dream…

Another view

The interior was no less spectacular…

Theater interior

The production was Amistad–an appropriate choice for the bicentennial of the end of the Atlantic slave trade. But more on Amistad later. Let’s get back to the garden. It turned out to be exactly what we thought it would be… a great place for a party.

Alicia's Garden

The Places With a Future Collaborative could relax and have a glass of champagne. The professionals had taken our vision and made it a reality….

Memminger Team

From left, you see Russell “Rusty” Jacob, Ernesto Pujol, Mary Jane Jacob, and Ernesto’s friend and collaborator Valarie Samulski. And last but certainly not least, there’s Walter Hood, with one of his architect buds.

Walter Hood

1 comment for “Spoleto Diary I

  1. Monty Ross
    August 27, 2008 at 5:11 pm


    It was a pleasure to see you and meet and greet at LeRoi’s Celebration. As soon as I have your email address I will forward materials we have prepared for a proposal and or a grant for Dr. Roland Wiggins and LeRoi’s work in music and education. Thanks so much for agreeing to participate! You will help us make a difference.

    Monty Ross

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