Time to Shine: Arts, Culture and History on HHI
Author: Daniel Brock
Having recently been voted the best island to visit in the Continental United States by the readership of Travel + Leisure magazine, this slice of paradise now sits atop the atoll. It’s heady (and well-deserved) stuff that speaks to the myriad things the island does well, particularly the beach lifestyle and golf.
Now, many in the island’s arts, culture and history (AC&H) community—along with Town of Hilton Head Island officials—feel it is time to shine a light on what those experiential pursuits can offer both in quality of life and economic impact here.
“If you look around, we have so much to offer in terms of arts, culture and history, but up until now those things have been lacking a cohesive theme or hub,” said Greg DeLoach, Hilton Head Island assistant town manager. “We want to help address that.”
Not only do local artists, musicians and cultural sites stand to benefit from increased exposure, but leaders believe extra support is a key ingredient for the island’s long-term success.
“Hilton Head Island is an incredible place to visit and live, and it will be for years to come,” said Town Council member, Kim Likins, who chairs the Community Services Committee. “What the town is asking is how can we make it even better? And how can we anticipate shifting demands of residents and visitors? The beaches and environment are always going to be an amazing draw, the golf is top-notch, but we think experiences afforded by arts, culture and history can put us into the stratosphere.”
To that point, the town is now investing in arts, culture and heritage in ways it never has before. In January the town-appointed Arts & Cultural Strategic Planning Committee released a wide-ranging report that called for the establishment of the Hilton Head Island Cultural and Arts Network—and with it, a salaried executive director position.
That recommendation was approved in the town’s most recent budget, and the search to fill that role will get underway this fall. It’s the first time the town has invested significant dollars in the arts, and the chosen individual will be asked to help lead efforts to raise the profile of on-island arts, culture and heritage.
In the meantime, the town is already undertaking a robust public outreach campaign aimed at crystallizing its message, driving conversation and soliciting ideas from the community. Officials are buoyed by data showing there are nearly 70 for-profit and non-profit arts and cultural businesses and organizations on the island and that private donors contribute some $3.3 million annually to AC&H organizations. And that’s to say nothing about the economic impact of arts, culture and history on Hilton Head Island, which conservative estimates put in the eight-figure range.
“The demand is there,” Likins said. “What we’ve heard over and over again from those involved in arts, culture and history efforts is: There is a lot going on, what we need is a central focus point to rally around.”
A place to call home
Pearl Jam came to Hilton Head this summer. Not to perform, mind you, but the Seattle rockers made a sojourn here after cancelling a show in North Carolina. One may wonder: What if there was a place where bigger acts could play on HHI?
This spring the town’s Venue Committee kicked off work, examining whether an arts campus was feasible and, if so, how it would be paid for, operated and to what extent the town would be involved in those operations. The process got off to something of a confusing start as possible sites were bandied before the committee even began to meet.
“That was a situation where assumptions put the cart before the horse,” said Venue Committee chair Cindy Creamer, a realtor on the island. “Our group is a separate entity, independent of anything that has come before. There are no preconceived notions here. We have a job to do and a focused group that is working very hard to accomplish our goals.”
What the final recommendation looks like, well, no one can say at the moment. It could be a large performing space, multiple smaller sites, some hybrid combination—or nothing at all.
Over the summer, the Venue Committee has been hearing from arts, culture and history organizations during its monthly meetings. Martin Lesch, one of the island’s preeminent musicians, told the group that in the past year, Hilton Head Island has missed out on acts such as blues legend Dr. John due to venue constraints.
“When you have someone at that level, you’re going to pull from Charleston; you’re going to pull from Savannah,” said Lesch, who pointed to Asheville, North Carolina as a barometer for arts and culture success. “We just didn’t have anywhere suitable to host him.”
“We’re taking a serious look at this, and the data is going to drive our recommendation,” Creamer said. “There is obviously a thriving arts scene and an appetite for entertainment experiences, but this process needs sincere research and unbiased evaluation, which includes a verifiable, sustainability plan, if it’s going to become a reality.”
Town officials say they recognize while there is widespread support for arts, culture and history on the island, there are also discrepancies among residents as to how large a role those offerings and opportunities should play on Hilton Head Island.
Likins is at the forefront of an ongoing listening and dialogue effort, leading community coffee chats and receiving feedback from a forthcoming Facebook page, as outreach efforts grow throughout the fall.
“The ultimate goal is to make our island the best it can be,” Likins said, “which we believe is truly great.”