By: Ian Wheeler, Guest Writer
With the cancellations of High Water Festival, Spoleto and numerous other high-profile arts events in Charleston this year, the Holy City’s arts and culture scene is undoubtedly taking a big hit. Beyond local businesses, artists and art institutions relying on these events each year for income—they rely on them to remind the Charleston community (and the many tourists who flock to Charleston) of our rich, vibrant cultural scene.
I left Charleston around 15 years ago. I moved to NYC for work in entertainment, with the goal of starting my own record label. Not a day has gone by where I don’t think about Charleston. I went to CofC and had many different jobs in Charleston—most of them working on boats. I studied jazz and researched the Gullah Geechee culture under the late Post & Courier jazz columnist Jack McCray. Charleston has an incredibly rich cultural history but, at the time, had no real ‘entertainment industry’ to speak of—certainly no substantive music industry, as the city doesn’t easily fit into tour routings.
My best (and last) job there was teaching sailing at CofC. One Sunday in June (Father’s Day, actually), Stephen Colbert showed up at the dock with his son, hoping to take a boat out. I helped him rig the sailboat and then towed them out of the marina. After their sail, while I was towing them back in, Stephen thanked me for helping him. I took that as a cue to (annoyingly) ask him for advice. I told him I was hoping to work in entertainment one day, and he told me that I should just move to NYC and find whatever opportunities I could.
I was completely torn – I loved my sailing job in Charleston and had an infinite list of reasons not to leave. I told my sailing boss about the Colbert encounter, and a week later he’d lined a job up for me teaching sailing out of Jersey City. So, I moved to NYC with two suitcases, and I interned at Rough Trade Records in the mornings and taught sailing afternoons and weekends. A few years later, I started Partisan Records, and eventually, our artists started playing Colbert, bringing everything full circle. I still see Stephen on flights to Charleston every now and then. I have no idea if he remembers me or knows the impact he had on my life.
Leaving Charleston gave me a career, but it also took a piece of me, it’s my favorite city in the world. So much of my desire to work with artists came from my time studying under Jack McCray. This led me to buy a little house on James Island about two years ago. I split my time these days between Brooklyn and Charleston.
Nowadays we’ve got Bill Murray around town and Danny McBride has based his company Rough House Productions here. Danny’s been lobbying state government for more tax credit support for filming that will create new jobs and ultimately help our local SC communities generate income needed in coming years to tackle problems like climate change. Ranky Tanky just took home a Grammy (a huge win for the awareness and preservation of Gullah culture), and locals Shovels & Rope and Band of Horses are huge national acts, with Susto not far behind.
Rialto Row represents the indie music studio and community that I felt was missing during my initial time in Charleston. I’m inspired daily by the work of Benny Starr and Ment Nelson. Under the leadership of Charles Carmody, Charleston Music Hall has become a local nerve center for music and film. At this very moment, the music hall is renovating its space to increase capacity, attracting even larger touring acts. The landscape has shifted considerably since I left Charleston.
Now that I’m back with more perspective I think it’s really important that, despite these devastating festival and event cancellations, we take a moment to recognize how much progress has been made in growing Charleston’s arts and culture scene over the past decade—and how much we have to look forward to. This will be a tough year, and we’ll need to band together to support our arts community. We will get through this, and when we get to the other side, Charleston will be ready to continue growing the vibrant arts and entertainment community that it deserves.
About Ian Wheeler
Ian Wheeler is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Talkhouse. Some of his first experience in the entertainment industry was writing about music for alt-weeklies Charleston City Paper and Athens, GA’s The Flagpole. He soon began managing bands and eventually co-founded Partisan Records, which led to a desire to improve the art criticism ecosystem and became the impetus for Wheeler and business partner Tim Putnam to start Talkhouse. To this day, he still apologizes for his early attempts to write about music and art, and now leaves that to the musicians and artists themselves.
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