Five Minutes With: Susie Surkamer, former director of the S.C. Arts Commission

May 6, 2011 

Susie Surkamer started her career in South Carolina as a dancer. She retired as the director of the state commission to support the arts.

Two years after leaving as chief of the S.C. Arts Commission, the Bluffton resident was honored this week with the McNair Award, given to those who have shown dedication to advancing the arts in the state.

Surkamer, who grew up in Virginia, came to the Palmetto State in 1974 as a dancer in residence with the commission. She moved into administration, advancing to the top post in 1994. She settled in Bluffton shortly after retiring.

Surkamer discusses the state of the arts.

Question. How did you end up in South Carolina?

Answer. I needed the job so I took it. It was only a nine-month job, and I thought I'd only be here for nine months and find something else. I loved the work, and I loved the state, and I stayed.

After several years and 150 performances, I decided I wanted to do something else. So I went into administration.

Q. What are you most proud of during your time with the commission?

A. The advancement of arts education, especially in certain times when money was tight and we were able to move it forward. South Carolina has more arts education than a lot of states. Also, we got some money in the last several years for an out-of-state foundation to work with individual artists to help them run their endeavors. Essentially, it helps them run it like a small business. We also did a lot of work to build the arts in our rural areas. Basically, no matter where you go, you can find something going on. You don't have to go to major cities to see the arts.

Q. How do artists or arts organizations cope in down economies?

A. Partner as often as you can. It may not be another arts group, it could be a business, it could be a nonprofit (organization). It stretches your resources, and it can lead to more innovative projects. Secondly, try to fundraise over all levels. There are a lot of businesses and people who aren't active. Sometimes what happens is an arts organization goes after a big company and overlooks some of the smaller businesses that might be willing to contribute. Thirdly, focus in on your essential services.

Q. What are the challenges facing the arts in the state now?

A. The economy is a big one. Some aspects of the political climate are another. In South Carolina, the arts have enjoyed bipartisan support. But cuts in state government are an issue, especially in trying to have resources in areas that are critically important. If you look to bring in jobs, you've got to have good schools, highways, amenities -- meaning something to do, like the arts. The arts is a very critical part in developing the economy in our state.

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