When I heard that there was a plan afoot to turn the empty and enormous SCANA building at Main and Hampton streets into a dorm for 800 University of South Carolina students, I was worried. The street has just started emerging as a new center of the arts in Columbia and it didn’t seem to me like putting hundreds of random students in the middle of it would help that along. Would the dominating numbers of students completely shape the tone of the street? It seems to me that with that many students, the businesses on the street will cater to them – and who can blame them? Will we end up with a bunch of cheap eating and drinking spots instead of art galleries and boutiques and imaginative restaurants?
My concerns do not appear to be shared by others in the city, including those who run the art spots on Main Street, and the city has approved the plan. So Main Street is going to get 800 students.
How about we get the right 800 students? And by that I mean students who will benefit from being on Main Street and be beneficial to it. My suggestion is that the building not simply be a dorm, but a residential center for the Arts and Humanities. Along with serving as a home for art, music, theater, dance, writing, film-making students (and maybe even faculty members) the meeting rooms and a huge lobby can be transformed into alternative performance, rehearsal and gallery space and badly needed student and faculty studios. The center could be a gathering place where students and faculty in the various arts areas could interact - something that too rarely takes place at the university. It would also be a one-stop shop where the public could learn about all the great artists and arts programs at the university. More conversations among the art students and faculty with the larger arts community and the general public would be an eye-opening – and yes, educational – experience for all involved.
For art, dance, theater, film, music and writing students the location is perfect.
Just across the intersection is the Columbia Museum of Art where they can see art from the past 2,000 years as well as hear some significant classical music concerts along with more rockin’ sorts of things like Arts and Draughts.
They could wander up and down the street to see what’s happening in the emerging art venues such as Frame of Mind, Anastasia & Friends Gallery, S & S Art Supply, the Studios at the Arcade, and the Tapp’s Art Center.
They can duck into the Nickelodeon Theater to take in an independent film, stick around for an audience discussion and maybe show some of their own movies.
The Richland County library is only a block away and just beyond that the art galleries of the Congaree Vista.
They can pick up art supplies right on Main Street or over on Lincoln.
They can walk to the river and think.
They can head down to the State House and think about running for office – some artists in office would be nice.
Rather than being a place for students to store their stuff and get some sleep, this project has the potential to be something transformative for the university and the city.
-- Jeffrey Day
Jeffrey Day is s a local arts writer and critic who was the arts editor at The State for two decades. You can reach Day by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.