Columbia County is a great place to live. We invite people and businesses to our community based on quality of life and cost of living. We should be proud of recent achievements singling out our county as one of the best places in America to live.
One such benchmark is how well the community supports the arts. Experts determine how we rank as compared to the rest of the communities surveyed. This observation is not a critique of the community support, as we are supported quite well by the county based on what we ask for.
We just have not asked for the right thing yet.
When I was honored as the "Featured Person" in the August 2008 issue of Augusta Magazine, I was asked "What is my vision for the Columbia County arts community?" My answer was, and remains, "I am on a crusade to put Columbia County on the map with the visual arts. We have such a tremendous amount of art that has no where to go; we need an arts center where people can learn about art and experience it."
To make my case, the former executive director of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art in Augusta asked me to help establish a permanent presence in Columbia County. Many of their current instructors come from the county, and they offer as many courses as they can here.
The location they have for courses is a small classroom in a strip-mall church, which limits what can be taught there. This is not a put-down of the gracious offer from the church, but a strong statement: Is this the best Columbia County has to offer for teaching fine arts?
We cannot teach any painting course, such as oils, that are associated with strong odors and chemicals. We cannot offer any pottery courses because there is no place to store the materials or the kiln. I cannot teach digital photography there because the location in the middle of a car lot offers no aesthetic values.
And, I ask, is this the best Columbia County can do?
I teased the audience during our annual meeting of the Columbia County Arts Council by telling them what I see on the trip to my hometown of Bainbridge, Ga.:
• In Swainsboro, the Emanuel County Arts Council has turned a vacated church into a beautiful, full-time gallery and sponsors a "Second Saturday Art Stroll."
• In Wilcox County, the small town of Abbeville has taken a vacated school and modeled it into their arts council, complete with a performing arts theater (the old gym) and rooms to teach both visual and performing arts.
• In Bainbridge, the old firehouse has been converted into a gallery, and the old government complex alongside it, houses the Decatur County Arts Council, complete with smaller galleries and locations to teach.
• And, if I take a side visit to see my sister in Valdosta, a vacated bank now houses the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts - one of the more beautiful galleries in the state.
So what can Columbia County do to build our presence for the visual arts, as I see other communities do?
Perhaps I am being presumptuous. Maybe my dream is a solo dream, but I think not as this is not about me, but about the need for a place where we can teach and exhibit our many talented artists of the community.
Art brings us pleasure. It heals our soul. It makes us feel good. Art does nothing negative to our well-being. Why should we not want to showcase what we can do?
Art is in every home and business. It has to come from somewhere. It is not the responsibility of a single entity, such as our county government, to make this happen. Our county government does a great job of supporting what we ask for. We just have not asked for much, and that is our fault.
Maybe we don't want or need a place to teach or exhibit art. Maybe my dream is just one of those pipe dreams to nowhere. But I would find it odd that so much art has its presence in the communities surrounding us and we would not want it.
We need the support of the community. We need the support of the leadership of Columbia County. We need benefactors, such as Valdosta and Aiken have been blessed with. We need a resolve that we can teach and exhibit our visual arts in a location better than a kindergarten classroom in a strip-mall location that might lose its presence soon as well, leaving us with my back deck and other instructors' personal homes to teach art for the community.
My dream is the Columbia County Center for the Visual Arts. I believe there is someone out there willing to help see this dream fulfilled. It can be done. One only has to look at the new North Augusta Municipal Building, which houses the Arts and Heritage Gallery, to see and know what is well within the realm of possible.
All it takes to get started is a dream. Join me, please.
(Dwain Shaw is past president of the Columbia County Arts Council and the current vice president of the Columbia County Artists' Guild. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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