Consultant proposes broad audience base for proposed arts center in Rock Hill

There’s no doubt Rock Hill has a strong arts community. But is it enough to sustain a dedicated arts venue in the heart of downtown?

That was the question facing the consultants hired by the Arts Council of York County to study whether an 800-seat performing arts center can support itself near the Fountain Place development.

On Tuesday, Duncan Webb shared his group’s findings with a meeting of arts supporters in the Gettys Center. The verdict is that to stay afloat, any arts center would need a wider constituency than the usual arts crowd.

“It can’t only be for the people who go the theater. It has to serve a broader audience,” said the head of Webb Management Services. “That changes it from an issue of supply and demand to one of community investment.”

The number of Americans who attend a traditional arts performance like classical music or dance – a select group to start with – has been on a steady decline over the last 30 years. At the same time, young people are seeking more active than passive forms of entertainment. The key to grabbing a new audience is to engage them with art forms they may not otherwise experience.

“A generation ago, people went to a performance for intellectual or emotional stimulation, but now they go more to be a part of a live social experience,” Webb said. “That’s what we have over staring at your device at home.”

The solution Webb proposes is a combination of a multipurpose performance space – something that can host a wide variety of shows and exhibits – along with an arts education center that can engage a lay audience in the “hands on” creation and appreciation of an art form.

“This would allow the creative sector to be an active part of the community,” he said.

The proposal got a positive reception from the crowd at the Gettys Center. David Wohl, dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Winthrop University, highlighted the importance of balancing the arts available in Rock Hill with what the same audience can find in Charlotte.

“We’re a bedroom community of 60,000 next to the 17th largest city in the country,” Wohl said. “You’re right to say we can’t just duplicate what Charlotte does.”

While a local venue can’t hope to compete with some of Charlotte’s “big-time crowds and big budgets,” Rock Hill’s larger neighbor does provide a high-income population with a pre-existing interest in the arts within driving distance of Rock Hill’s offerings, without compromising York County’s distinct identity in comparison to the Queen City.

“You don’t need to get 10 percent or 20 percent of their audience,” Webb said. “Five percent will fill a bunch of performances.”

Like most of those in attendance, Bradley Sabelli left the meeting feeling enthused about the community’s prospects.

“We can have our own identity as a separate arts community,” said Sabelli, president of the Catawba River Art Guild. “I moved down from northern Virginia, and Fairfax is able to have its own facilities even though it’s right outside of D.C.”

The artists he works with would love to have a venue like this to display their work. “There’s a lot of hidden talent here,” he said.

Having identified an audience, the next step is to develop a business plan that can depend on fundraising from the private sector to support an arts center. Webb hopes to have that proposal ready for a similar presentation in about two months.