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Spoleto Festival USA comes of age  
By Wayne Caparas

The fine arts is a lucrative industry, as evidenced by the growing success of Charleston’s annual Spoleto Festival USA.  The event has had some lean times, but for the last three years has prospered as a prestigious money-making venture.  The Spoleto team and its benefactors have a shared passion for excellence, a winning formula that promises more good things to come.

Bumpy road smoothes out

Since Spoleto’s beginnings in the late 1970s, many Charlestonians have hoped that the festival would one day become the city’s champion for cultural revitalization and international recognition.  Yet there were seasons when even the most faithful professed disappointment and doubt for the beleaguered cause.

When the festival’s founder, Pulitzer Prize winner Gian Carlo Menotti, stepped down amid much controversy in 1993, both Spoleto’s defenders and its account ledgers were seeing red.  While skeptics implied that “the fat lady had sung” and the show was over, the City of Charleston acted swiftly to support Menotti’s successors.  Overcoming detractors, the city pumped in nearly $100,000 and wrote off many more thousands of dollars in debt owed by the old festival.

Now that perseverance has paid off.  Board Chairman Joel A. Smith, III reports that the festival has finished “in the black” three years in a row. Critics worldwide now herald the Spoleto Festival USA as a premier annual arts event.

According to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, “The festival now brings $42 million directly into Charleston each year,” resulting in an annual economic impact of “more than $100 million.”  Riley also takes pride in the city’s own Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which runs concurrently and contributes to the celebratory atmosphere promoted by its big sister event.

With ticket sales and attendance up 11 percent and 12.3 percent respectively over 1997 numbers, analysts agree that the true test of the festival depends on continued growth over the coming years.  “We are currently 60 percent ahead of last years [ticket] sales to date, and all indications are good that we will surpass last year’s sales,” reports Marie Lawson, director of public relations. 

Growth in leadership, marketing, sponsorship

Lawson credits the surge in ticket sales to several factors, most notably the strength of this year’s program and positive word-of-mouth about last year’s successes.

“The mood at last year’s festival was incredibly upbeat, and there was a real sense of electricity in the air during the entire 17 days,” says Lawson.  She credits Spoleto’s success to the wealth of the year-round positive press that is now generated by the event.

Lawson also stresses that both the leadership and the board of directors are the best in the festival’s history.  Mayor Riley agrees, and gives the lion’s share of credit to the festival’s board of directors and General Manager Nigel Redden.  “It’s through their efforts that the festival achieves such great success,” says Riley.

Notable improvements during Redden’s watch include the development of a professional in-house public relations team and the application of sophisticated market research (which is performed pro bono by McKinsey & Company).

Arguably the most important factor is greater involvement by major sponsors such as NationsBank and Wachovia.  “Not only do they fund performances, but they also take part in the actual marketing of the festival through internal newsletters, direct mail pieces, and contests open to the public,” says Lawson.  “We are fortunate to have this type of corporate support and involvement.”

For more information on events or sponsorship for the 1999 Spoleto Festival USA, visit