Hilton Head arts leader Kathi Bateson wins SC’s highest arts honor, the Verner Award

Kathleen P. Bateson with husband Torrey Glass.
Kathleen P. Bateson with husband Torrey Glass. Submitted

Kathleen (Kathi) Bateson breezed in toward our table from an earlier meeting on Hilton Head Island.

She bore the distinctive, formidable appearance of a corporate executive as she threaded her way in my direction. No surprise, that she was stopped and greeted by friends and a couple who recognized her as the president, CEO and executive producer of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

Clearly, her sense of community and a shared sense of professional purpose accompany her wherever she goes.

We had scheduled our meet-up to talk about the important notification she had received from the chairman of the South Carolina Arts Commission board, Henry Horowitz, that she is to receive the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts in the individual category. The arts center has previously won it as an organization.

Earlier, Horowitz had explained the designation recognizes individuals and organizations that live out the service, commitment, and passion that help the arts thrive in South Carolina. He added that each of the Verner Award recipients makes a tremendous contribution, not just locally, but with a broad impact on the state’s arts community and beyond.

As she settled in, we chatted enthusiastically about our favorite topic, the cultural arts in South Carolina, generally, and on Hilton Head, specifically.

Hilton Head

Bateson shared some of her fondest memories of her beginnings on Hilton Head, arriving as a consultant to the arts center. She offered several asides and close-up looks at her favorite focuses and her favorite successes.

Though I’ve known her for close to 20 years, I’ve never enjoyed such a perfect setting and circumstance in which to ask her to “spill her favorite details.” Since our earliest beginnings, I’ve so enjoyed Bateson’s comfortable asides, and her ironic, kind of self-deprecating sense of humor. They contribute so impressively by adding an indelible dimension to who she is, what she does, and, by the way, reveals so much about the impact of her leadership style and outcomes ... the way in which she ponders logically to bring about success.

“One day, back in 1993, on a visit to Hilton Head from Philadelphia, where my husband and I were involved in the corporate world ... I was in arts management in a corporate position ... we had one of those life-changing moments,” she said.

“We were simply visiting — tourists, touring, taking in the sights of Hilton Head, when, really, by accident, we found a location ... a property investment opportunity, which we, the corporate couple from up North, actualized on the spot!

“That’s the beginning of the good news,” she said.

“Later, as we continued our new-property-owners’ trip around the island, still with no particular agenda, we saw some indications that the Hilton Head community had an outward and visible plan that would contribute to the arts in a major way ... right here on the Island ... and, further, it was happening, now.”

That project had just launched, as Bateson had noted firsthand as they continued their exploration of the island.

“There, on the side of Highway 278, kind of mid-island, was an abyss, orifice in the ground, a huge hole .... a crater, really .... and when we followed up, we found that this was the beginning of an arts project ... a Hilton Head arts center was going to be constructed right on top of that hole in the ground.”

Pursuing the arts

Now would be the perfect time to back up for a moment, to pass along the details of Bateson’s earlier years, her education, and the focus she had directed toward the fine arts, pointing out that even in the corporate world, she had a special interest in the arts— visual and performing.

She graduated from Seton Hill University, a women’s college in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and enjoyed early careers as an art teacher, a goldsmith, and a set designer, before changing course toward the corporate world, which nevertheless, was corporate art management.

Bateson was at the time of her arrival on Hilton Head, founder and president of Management for the Arts, a firm that specialized in institutional planning, organizational restructuring and new business ventures. Among her clients were such important organizations as The Cleveland Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Ohio Arts Council.

So you won’t be surprised when I tell you that Bateson would, some time later, receive a call from Hilton Head, asking her to become a management consultant to the board of trustees of this island’s arts center.

Ultimately, Bateson was asked to lead it. She and the organization shared a vision. They wanted to take the arts center to a new level. Her staff, board members and volunteers had a dream of making the arts center location on Hilton Head the cultural high spot in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

“We shared a number of goals, about programming, educational opportunities, and outreach efforts,” she said. “We wanted to ensure that the kind of programs and educational opportunities we provided would be available and would resonate with Hilton Head residents and visitors alike. We wanted to be inclusive.”

The programs have grown steadily, and the programming and scheduling have contributed to popular and well-attended art exhibitions and juried shows; special events that showcase local as well as national artists and companies; educational opportunities for all ages, with a broad focus; and the highly-regarded and particularly popular People’s Choice theater season, which presents top shows, inspired by equity directors and actors.

“Every time I am directing a show at the arts center, the first thing I think is, would Kathi like this,“ said New York’s Casey Colgan, actor, director and well-known leader in the performing arts on Hilton Head, and throughout the country.

“She brings amazing vision and dedication to every aspect of the arts.”

We wrapped up our time together talking about her career/volunteer balance, and the fortunate juxtaposition she enjoys as she fulfills her professional responsibilities at the arts center, and reaches out to the professional world and the community for expanded involvement in the volunteer sector.

“My professional life at the arts center blends so effectively with my volunteer activities in the state, the county and locally,” Bateson said.

The S.C. Arts Commission points out that Bateson is past president of the S.C. Arts Alliance board, served as chair and founding co-chair of the Arts & Cultural Council of Hilton Head, and was a founding member and is chair of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry’s Women in Philanthropy. And she has served as a cultural representative on international delegations to South Africa, China and Japan.

“What an honor to receive the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award,” she said, “and how fortunate I consider myself to be, as I continue to experience this balanced lifestyle in the arts ... locally and beyond.”

If you go

The 2019 Verner Awards will be presented with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Awards at South Carolina Art Awards Day on Wednesday, May 1, in a morning ceremony at the USC Alumni Center in Columbia. It is free and open to the public.

The S.C. Arts Foundation will honor the recipients afterward during an honors luncheon, also open to the public, at $50 per person.

For more information about the Verner Awards, please visit and for Kathi Bateson, visit

Folk Heritage Award

Beaufort County also will be represented at the May 1 statewide awards presentation by the Voices of Gullah Singers of St. Helena Island, recipients of the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award.

The S.C. Arts Commission will honor singers Gracie “Minnie” Gadson, Rosa Mae Chisholm Murray, and Deacon Joseph Murray.

“Each singer has a long and distinguished performing career, with deep roots in the praise house tradition,” the commission says. “As a trio over the past five years, Voices of Gullah have performed at many events, including Penn Center’s annual Heritage Days, The Original Gullah Festival, and local praise house services.

“Recently, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina presented the trio to seven schools in Beaufort and Jasper counties as part of its program, ‘Reach: A Gullah Musical Journey.’ The singers truly enjoy singing for students and teaching the next generation their rich legacy of Gullah-Geechee spirituals.”