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SC Arts Commission 40th Anniversary

Tell Your Story!

Individuals have submitted stories based on their experiences. The Arts Commission has not verified all facts.



Dave Sennema

Columbia, S.C.


The South Carolina Arts Commission – The Beginnings


Wednesday, August 16, 1967, was an exciting day for me and a significant day for the state of South Carolina. The state legislature had passed legislation creating the South Carolina Arts Commission (in June 1967). I had been hired as its first executive director, and this was my first day on the job.


The late Marvin Trapp, who had been appointed chairman of the SCAC, had driven over to Columbia from his home in Sumter just to give me a pat on the back and hand me a key, along with a 3 x 5 card that had an address and office number scribbled on it. I drove to the office building on South Main Street, just a couple of blocks south of the State House, walked up to the second floor, put the key in the lock, stepped into the two-room suite, and found an unconnected phone on the floor of two completely empty offices. That's how it all began.


In the next few days I scurried around from one government office to another, asking lots of questions (how do you start a state agency from scratch?), meeting with furniture, equipment and office supplies vendors, and talking with a temporary job agency about hiring someone to help out until I could hire permanent staff.


I should clarify that although this was the beginning of the Arts Commission, there had been an Interagency Council on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by Governor Robert McNair, created on April 29, 1966, which had laid the groundwork for the Commission. E. N. "Nick" Zeigler of Florence had been named chairman and Robert Smeltzer, a talented photographer from Greenville, South Carolina, had been retained by the Interagency Council to do a survey of the arts in the state and to produce a printed report. The survey idea had been suggested to every state in the country and came with a $25,000 outright grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the new federal government arts agency. It was, of course, a carrot (and a very successful one) that was offered in hopes that states would establish their own arts agencies.


Mr. Smeltzer worked diligently to complete the report, but it was still in draft form at the time the Commission was established and his tenure expired. So my first order of business was to complete the survey within the deadline established by the National Endowment for the Arts. On Thursday, August 24, 1967, we had our first commission meeting, and I got permission from the commission members to hire a writer and a designer to work with me in finishing the survey.


With the help of writer Howard Hellums, graphic designer David Suggs and Dick deMontmollin with The State Printing Company, we did complete the survey report titled "The Arts in South Carolina," but not until after the Arts Commission had been up and running for several months. That report stands today (probably in the state archives) as a milestone against which we can measure how far we have come in the past forty years.


For its first year of operation, the SCAC had been allocated $65,000 in state funds and another $24,500 in grant funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. A plan had been sent in to Washington and approved for the expenditure of the funds from the Endowment, but after careful study we determined that the plan was not feasible. So our second order of business was to write a new plan for the agency's first-year program.


Having had no experience in doing so I decided that we would craft a plan based on the one that had been used by the New York State Council on the Arts in its first year of operation. After drafting a plan I phoned Bill Hull, director of the Kentucky State Arts Council, the closest state arts agency director with any relevant experience, and asked if he would be willing to take a critical look at the plan. He graciously invited me to visit him at his home in Lexington and on August 31 I drove up to Kentucky. With Bill's blessing (after a bit of tweaking) I sent the plan in to the Endowment, along with apologies for being late, and received approval to proceed within a few days.


By now we had a couple of desks, chairs, a typewriter and a copy machine, so on September 11, we were pleased to greet Sally Battle as the SCAC's second employee. I had gotten to know Sally while she was doing volunteer PR work for the Columbia Choral Society, while working as a copy writer for WIS-TV. We installed her at one of our two desks and she became receptionist, bookkeeper and secretary...or, as we sometimes referred to her, "Rebookretary."


With Sally holding down the office I could now begin traveling around the state, meeting with key people in arts organizations and explaining what the SCAC was all about. These were the golden days in the state arts council movement. Councils and/or Commissions were popping up all over the country as governors and state legislatures responded to the $25,000 grants being handed out by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Our first big program in that first year of operations was called the "Touring Program," through which we would make grants to local organizations that wanted to sponsor events featuring artists willing to travel from their home bases to other communities in order to perform. We would subsidize the fees of the performing groups. Another early program was called "Technical Assistance," which was a means by which the SCAC would pay the fee and travel expenses of a consultant to spend time with an arts organization. Consultants were hired to give artistic and administrative as well as technical advice.


I became a regular guest on a show on South Carolina ETV hosted by Phyllis Giese, did numerous interviews with Audrey Hunt of WIS Radio, and other interviews with local radio personalities Mackie Quave, Bill Benton and John Wrisley, all aimed at letting the public know about this new state agency called the South Carolina Arts Commission and what it could do to assist those who were interested in the arts.


I invited the state arts council directors and state recreation agency directors from North Carolina and Georgia to meet in Columbia to compare notes and talk about how the arts and recreation people could work together. Later we brought the director of the Waterloo, Iowa Recreation Department to Columbia to meet with local recreation directors from throughout South Carolina to pass along his philosophy that the arts were just as important a part of recreation activities as athletics were.


As we began to wind down our first year as an agency it became obvious that some of the programming we had adapted from New York State was not what was needed in South Carolina, so we began rethinking what would work better for our own state. Out of that came the Personnel Development Program and the State Art Collection.


Through Personnel Development we offered local arts organizations matching grants in which we would pay 2/3 of a salary for a new staff person in the first year, ½ in the second year, and 1/3 in the third year. This was to encourage local groups to hire full-time administrators, tech people or artistic directors, whatever they needed, with a three year commitment from the SCAC (assuming that funds continued to be available). This became a very successful program which was adopted by other state arts councils across the country.


The State Art Collection was started because it had three advantages:


  • To support visual artists in the state by purchasing their work
  • To give exposure to those artists by sending their work in traveling exhibits to small communities around the state.
  • To provide exhibits of quality visual arts to the people in S.C. communities.

It did not even occur to us at that time that the collection would ultimately become a valuable historic resource, preserving the work of our most significant artists and documenting what sort of work was being done in various periods.


Another favorite program that was started in our second year was the "Small Community Development" program. We did, on a smaller scale, what the National Endowment for the Arts had done to encourage the founding of state arts agencies. We offered $5,000 non-matching grants to the mayors of three small towns – Bennettsville, Walterboro and Union – if they would hire persons to act as arts administrators and see if they could start the ball rolling in their communities.


The experiment was successful in two of the three communities, and the degree of success was directly related to the mayor's interest in the program and the person he/she hired to carry it out.


In years two and three we had a film and some public service TV spots made promoting the arts in South Carolina; worked with S.C. ETV in producing films on the native crafts of Catawba Indian Pottery and Gullah Basket Weaving; were the first state arts agency to sponsor an Affiliate Artist; produced a South Carolina composers' symposium; gave student scholarships for Brevard Music Center; produced a publicity workshop featuring Zane Knauss (which included a publication on that topic); and brought the director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Nancy Hanks, to Columbia for a statewide arts conference.


As we moved through those first three years of the SCAC's history we gradually added wonderful staff members: Naomi Abrams, Helen Lupo (who started with the Commission on May 27, 1968, and stayed on the job until retiring in 2006), June Breland, Winona Darr, Jeanette McDonald and John Bitterman. John had been artistic director at Columbia's Town Theater before joining us as deputy director.


I wouldn't take anything for my three-and-a-half years with the South Carolina Arts Commission. Our commission members gave me great freedom to try out new ideas; I worked with a terrific staff; and I got to meet an amazing array of artists, arts administrators and volunteers from all corners of the state. I was given the opportunity to grow in the job, which made it possible for me to move on to new challenges at the national level.


On February 1, 1971, I went to work for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., as assistant director of the Federal/State Partnership Program, the Endowment's grant program to state arts agencies, and as assistant director of the Special Projects Program of the Endowment.



Submit your story by e-mailing Milly Hough.

40th Anniversary background

For more information, contact Milly Hough, Communications Director (803-734-8698).