Philanthropy and the Arts


A short walk through downtown Greenville illustrates that our community cares about art. We have sixty arts nonprofits in Greenville County, according to Alan Ethridge, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Arts Council. But when people are hungry, or sick, or in need of education, or without jobs, why do arts matter? The September 2016 Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy meeting explored that topic.

The Arts and Economic Development

The arts generate an economic impact of over $200 million in Greenville County each year. Visitors to arts venues spend money on restaurants, hotels, and other items when they participate in the arts.

The small city of Fountain Inn in Southern Greenville County provides an excellent example of the impact of arts on the economy. Van Broad lived in Fountain Inn for over eleven years before becoming Economic Development Director in 2007. At that time, 60% of downtown buildings were vacant, and he had witnessed more than a decade of failed plans and disappointments for Fountain Inn’s revitalization. He knew the city’s residents were hungry for change, and he believed the arts could be the vehicle for that change.

“I saw what was happening in the City of Greenville, and I reached out to arts organizations downtown to bring what they were doing to Fountain Inn,” said Van. “Greenville Symphony Orchestra did a spotlight series in our old school building.  Theatres and visual artists brought classes for our residents.  Russell Stall at Greenville Forward looped us in to the many conversations that were happening about Greenville’s success.”

In time, the old school became the Younts Center for Performing Arts, and it catalyzed a transformation in Fountain Inn. “In our first year, 6,000 people came to Younts to see a performance, and they’d ask where they could eat before or after the show,” said Van.  “I used that as a recruiting tool to bring restaurants to the city.”  Now, downtown is 98% occupied, and its most recent new business – a Bojangles restaurant – surpassed its first year earnings projections and is the most profitable Bojangles franchise in Greenville County.

Artists themselves are generators of economic impact.  “During our 2015-16 season, we employed 202 people with paying stage jobs through our mainstage alone,” said Jason Johnson, Interim Executive Director with The Warehouse Theatre.  “These folks spend money out in the community because they get their inspirations in coffee shops, in restaurants, in stores, and experiencing life in Greenville.”

Jenna Tamisiea with GLOW Lyric Theatre agrees.  Like The Warehouse Theatre, GLOW uses both local and regional actors for its productions and design. “When you hire local and regional actors, you get regional audiences.  Not only is it bringing hard business – where you can see the dollar exchange – into Greenville, but it’s also raising awareness of what a fabulous place this is to be and to work as an artist and beyond.”

The Arts and Employment

In order to have a vibrant arts community, there must be enough opportunities for artists to make a living.  Arts leaders agree that the Greenville area is becoming a hub for professional artists. Jason Johnson said, “Actors are discovering that living in Greenville is cheaper than Chicago or New York, but that they can still easily get to bigger hubs for auditions.”

Lauren Imhoff, who now teaches at the SC Children’s Theatre  and Anderson University agrees.  She began her career in New York, toured with Broadway shows, and performed in regional theatre throughout the nation.  She was surprised to hear that opportunities for her would be plentiful in the Upstate. “Since I’ve moved to Greenville, though, I just haven’t stopped.”

Jason points out that arts training is excellent preparation for even a non-arts career.  He spent 14 years working with a health care corporation where he was Vice President of Operations.  In this role, he hired, supervised and coached hundreds of people, and he began to notice a difference in those people who had a true arts experience in their formative years.  “Technical theatre people are great problem solvers because they understand working within constraints such as space and budget. Actors are able to take someone else’s words and tying them to their own emotional core. Musicians use the language of music to communicate. Dancers and visual artists create an experience and meaning for someone without using words at all. These all translate to valuable skills in the workplace.”

The Arts and Community Conversation

Art has long served as a way to introduce topics of discussion that can be difficult for communities to tackle head on.  Consider pivotal works through the years, such as Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun about a black family’s experiences in a poor urban neighborhood or Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle on the brutal conditions of the meatpacking industry.

Jenna Tamisiea says, “Arts have the ability to speak to being a human and to bring someone who might be a protestor into just a questioning individual and to have a conversation about our disagreement or to see things from a different perspective.”

The Arts and Sense of Place

Art can transform the way a community thinks about itself.  Will Ragland, Executive Artistic Director of Mill Town Players  has seen this transformation first at Woodmont High School  in southern Greenville County and now in the small town of Pelzer, where he also serves on the Town Council.

In the early years of his teaching career, Ragland was frustrated that his students at Sue Cleveland Elementary in the rural Piedmont area of Greenville County we unable to come to Greenville to experience live theater because of the distance and cost. Because of this, he staged his first play, a low-budget, black light production of Alice in Wonderland with 60 children. During the course of rehearsal, he saw a dramatic change in the students who participated – increased confidence, enthusiasm, hard work, responsibility – because they knew they were part of something big.

He took the model to Woodmont High School, which many of those same students would later attend. At that time, Woodmont was growing out of an undeserved reputation as being considered “less than” by many other schools in the district, and many Simpsonville families were initially displeased when rezoning sent students from the more affluent Hillcrest High School to its blue collar neighboring school of Woodmont. In his 8 years building the award-winning theater program, in which the offerings grew from a single class to 6 courses, 2 full-time theater teachers, a state championship, and some of the most attended high school productions in the state, he witnessed a new reputation emerge in which students applied for special permission to come to the school for the theater program.

Ragland recalls the massive staging of Peter Pan, in which a theatrical flying company from Las Vegas was hired to give flight to the student actors: “When I stood in the wings on opening night and saw our Peter Pan – a boy who had previously struggled in school – become this beaming, confident force on stage who could literally fly, I knew that we’d created something magical that had enabled our community to dream.”

Ragland believes that every student needs a special connect to the school they attend to help them persist through graduation. For some, that’s academics, for others, it’s sports.  Arts can be that connection for a significant number of young people.

Ragland has since turned his sights to the Town of Pelzer, where he launched the Mill Town Players in 2014 in an historic school auditorium. There, residents can take in a show featuring some of the Upstate’s top talent for just $10.

“When you search ‘Pelzer’ on the Greenville News website, unfortunately you see stories about homicide, arson, shootings, murder,” says Ragland. “But then you’ll see a collection of rave reviews for Mill Town Players productions. We are hoping to create a change in perception of our town that features the good things Pelzer has to offer.”

And the number one question Ragland is asked when people travel to the small town to see a show?  “Where can we get a bite to eat in Pelzer?”  For now, the answer is nowhere.

But Ragland believes, like what happened in Fountain Inn, it’s just a matter of time.

For more information on art and philanthropy, see the following:

Funding for the Arts Sometimes Benefits All of Us

An Act of Faith: Why Should Philanthropists Fund the Arts?

Why philanthropists should not fund the arts



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