In the mid-1970s no one could have imagined staid, conservative Charleston welcoming an invasion by more than 150,000 people for seventeen days each year. That they should come for the arts seemed entirely fitting. Charleston, after all, was the site of the first ballet performance and one of the first theaters in the colonies. The modern city possessed the oldest museum and the oldest musical society. But who would have expected Charleston to welcome a French hip-hop ensemble or drama performed by one-inch ninja turtles?
In 1977 the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, chose Charleston as the home for the American counterpart of his festival in Spoleto, Italy. He ran the festival himself. When he angrily pulled out in 1993, few thought that the festival would survive. It nearly did not. By 1995 it had only three employees, and by 1996 it was $3 million in debt.
But by the start of the twenty-first century, Spoleto was flourishing. It developed a substantial endowment and an even more substantial reputation for quality, variety, innovation, and, not least, for nurturing young artists. It offered more than 120 performances, and its companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, run by the city, added more than 700 events, most of them inexpensive or free. Performances frequently have included the offbeat, but there has been enough opera and ballet to satisfy the most traditional tastes. In 2000 visitors to these festivals spent $43.1 million in the Charleston area and generated $67.8 million in economic output in South Carolina.
Hetzler, Sidney. “Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1990.
Kinzer, Stephen. “Still Setting the Tone in the Southeast.” New York Times, June 5, 2001, pp. E1, E6.
Walsh, Michael. “Carolina’s Grand New Opry.” Time 145 (June 12, 1995): 66–67.