Step into the vibrant world of Artisphere, Greenville’s premier arts festival, presented by TD Bank, with Kerry Murphy, the festival’s Executive Director. Learn about the festival’s history, growth, and the dedicated year-round effort that goes into organizing this artistic celebration. Discover the importance of community support and philanthropy in sustaining this free event, and how Artisphere continues to enrich Greenville’s thriving arts and culture scene. Whether you’re an art aficionado or just enjoy strolling Main Street to enjoy good food and art, this episode offers a fascinating look at the impact and significance of Artisphere.
Katy Smith: Artisphere, presented by TD Bank, is one of Greenville’s largest festivals, bringing nearly a hundred thousand visitors to downtown Greenville, $1.5 million in sales to artists, and $11.9 million in economic impact to our area. It’s made possible by dedicated volunteers from the Artisphere board to Festival Day helpers who contributed over 1100 hours last year, generous support from philanthropy, and partnership with government. I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and today I’m joined by Kerry Murphy, President and CEO of Artisphere, to give you all the details. I hope you’ll take a visit to Artisphere this weekend and see what the excitement is all about.
Kerry, thanks so much for being here today.
Kerry Murphy: I’m excited. Thanks for having me.
Katy Smith: Great. Well, Artisphere is regularly listed among the top arts festivals in the country with really astonishing impact on our community and on the artists who participate. But can you give us a brief history of how Artisphere came to be in Greenville?
Kerry Murphy: I’d be glad to. Yes. So, for folks that have lived in Greenville for probably 20 or more years, they might remember the River Place Arts Festival. That was in downtown Greenville in the area, in the vicinity of the Peace Center. And it was around for about 30 years until 2003, which ironically was just about the time when they were doing fabulous things in the park.
And the bridge, the Liberty Bridge was coming online, I think a year or two later. And so it was very much the desire of the city to create an event, bring back an arts event that could showcase that area. And so Mayor White approached Metropolitan Arts Council in 2003 and at the time, the chair of the Board of Metropolitan Arts Council had come from Oklahoma City where he served on the board of the Oklahoma City Arts Festival. Mayor White said, “is this something that Metropolitan Arts Council would like to take on?” And Henry Horowitz said, “no, it really needs to be its own 501(c)(3).” So brought a group of visionaries, community leaders. As you could imagine, the usual suspects all took a road trip to Oklahoma City for that arts festival.
And our show is essentially just fashioned after that. So 2003 they did articles of incorporation, got the 501(c)(3) bylaws put together, a board hired an executive director, and the first festival started in 2005. They had 282 applications for a hundred spaces on Artist Row, and I think average artist sales were somewhere around $2,400. Fast forward 19 years later, we have had as many as 1,163 applications.
Katy Smith: Oh my gosh.
Kerry Murphy: This year will be the largest number of artists for 143 spaces. So, um, last year we had 950. 1,136 was pre pandemic, but we’re creeping back up there. We’ll probably break a thousand next year.
Katy Smith: Wow. Kerry, that is amazing. And how has the attendance changed through the years?
Kerry Murphy: Attendance is one of those things that since we are a gated festival and people don’t buy tickets, it’s always an estimated attendance, and so until we were able to capture drone footage and really take a look, a bird’s eye view of the people that we have on the street.
Calculate the square footage that you have on the festival site, the average amount of hours people spend on the festival site. You can really come up with a better estimation. So, early years, it was really quite hard to estimate, but I can say this with certainty that the popularity of the festival and the expanse of its notoriety across the country certainly just, you know, runs parallel there with the rise in attendance year over year.
Last year we estimated about 90,000 attendees. Again, getting out there with some drone footage has really been a game changer. And then we work with Clemson’s Real Economic Analysis Laboratory at the Strom Thurman Institute on Clemson’s campus. They actually come out and do patron surveys every five years.
So they’ll ask patrons, where are you coming from? Where are you staying? How much are you spending when you’re here? Are you staying in a hotel? How many nights? How much are you spending on restaurants, retail, et cetera, et cetera. And from that, they create our multiplier. So we plug our attendance in to the multiplier to come up with our economic impact, which was $11.9 million in 2022.
Katy Smith: That is just astonishing and all of us benefit, even if you’re . Not a, an art lover or you don’t go to Artisphere, which I hope everybody does, but everyone benefits from that impact.
Kerry Murphy: Yeah, for sure. We’ve been very fortunate that Mother’s Day weekend has become a sort of tradition for folks and I love to hear people say, “yeah, we go, we go to church, we bring mom out for brunch, and then we let her, you know, stroll the streets and pick out something for Mother’s Day.” And it’s also typically either Clemson or Furman’s graduation or both.
So there’s a lot of people in town for those graduations that get an opportunity to experience downtown, beautiful downtown. If we’re lucky, beautiful weather. Just a, a great backdrop and a great showcase. I mean, it, it just really highlights Greenville at its best.
Katy Smith: That’s wonderful. Well, if someone’s never attended Artisphere, like maybe they’re new to Greenville, they’re traveling here, they’ve just never made it downtown, what can they expect?
Kerry Murphy: So we are both a fine arts festival and a community event. Like I said, you’ll see 143 artists. 40 of those are brand new. 17 of those are local. 17 different medium categories. Everything from jewelry and glass, wood, metal, painting.
There’s also plenty to do for families. There’s kids activities, there’s demonstrations, there’s a multitude of stages with not just musicians, but dance and theater and all sorts of street performers to just create a lot of fun. And this year we have a new area for high school students. It’s called Rising Stars, which will represent an exhibit from the Fine Arts Center students, a visual arts exhibit.
There’ll be a stage for our high school students to perform musical acts. I think there’s some poetry, perhaps even a little bit of theater. And then the Greenville Culinary Centers, the career centers, their, their culinary program is gonna be out there doing a food booth. So giving all of those artists in the visual, performing, and culinary arts, an opportunity to have a platform and, and see what it’s like to, to be out there in front of tens of thousands of people.
Katy Smith: That is so great. It’s a great way to lift up community assets, but also preview for those students what a career in the arts could look like should they pursue that path.
Kerry Murphy: That’s right.
Katy Smith: That’s great. There’s probably a lot of people listening who are very curious to go to Artisphere, but they’re not arts collectors and they don’t know exactly how they fit in the space.
What would you say to someone who’s not yet an arts collector?
Kerry Murphy: I would say come one, come all. You don’t have to be a collector to appreciate the liveliness on Main Street. Uh, the thing that is so special about art shows like Artisphere is the opportunity to meet the artist. He might go to a gallery on the opening night of an exhibit and have an opportunity to meet the artist, or, you know, if you go to a museum, you don’t actually see the artist.
There is nothing more inviting than walking down the street and seeing an artist in a 10 by 10 tent sitting in a director’s chair in comfy clothes, and they’re just hanging out, wanting to talk. So that’s the fun, the fun part about Artisphere is getting the opportunity to meet the artist and perhaps listen to their process.
Strike up a conversation. But you’re, you’re also going to see in, in the 143 different booths, a multitude of variety of price points. You can find something for $25, you can find something for $2,500. And again, you don’t have to be an aficionado. You, you don’t have to feel like, ” I don’t know anything about the arts. It’s gonna be lost on me.”
It’s amazing what will pull you in and, and what will speak to you. And then even further, you get to know the artist. “Oh my God, I got to know Katy Smith. She’s this amazing painter from Greenville. And we struck up this conversation and come to find out her grandmother lived down the street from my grandmother in this small little town in Florida.”
Then they have a. I have a story to tell about the piece. But no, I would not at all be intimidated about if you, if you don’t feel like you’re an arts aficionado, and like I said, price points really do vary, so I, I think there’s something for everybody.
Katy Smith: That’s great. I completely agree. Anytime I go, it is such a treat just to look at beautiful works of art.
Kerry Murphy: I’ll tell you, one of my favorite things to do when I go to an art show is I read the artist statement of process because I can look at the work and I can say, “oh, you know, I enjoy that.” But then when I read what the process is, I’m like, “oh my God, I didn’t even know that was happening. I didn’t know all that was happening.”
And, again, it goes back to you don’t have to be an aficionado. You don’t have to be an a student of the arts. When you read that artist’s process and you understand how it is that they arrived at this piece, it, it again, it just all kind of clicks. And that’s my favorite thing to do, is to read the artist’s statement of process when I go into their booth.
Katy Smith: That’s a great tip. I love that. Well, we’re lucky that we have so many outstanding festivals and outdoor events throughout the year, and Artisphere is one of the largest. What does it take to put on an event like this? And I know artist here is a year round endeavor because on your social media you can see it all unfold throughout the year.
Kerry Murphy: So I’ll, I’ll go back to that group of visionaries that went to Oklahoma City. We have a very strong vision and a board that created a solid mission as well that we stick to. And that board advocates for the arts. They talk to legislators about how the arts and culture are important to the community and make sure that the arts stay on the South Carolina budget via the South Carolina Arts Commission, our local county and city budgets as well. And, and so I would say that’s key to the success of the festival all year long is the work that the board does, their, their vision, their leadership. It’s absolutely impossible to pull off Artisphere without a strong group of fundraisers on our board. Again, with Artisphere being a free event, most festivals revenue model is 80% earned revenues, which would be gate fees or concert tickets, kids’ rides, merchandise, food, beverage. And the other 20% is grants, government funding, corporate sponsorships, foundations, individuals.
We are the exact opposite. 20% of our revenue comes from those, those earned revenue streams. And I think it, it would probably be interesting for folks to learn that the artists do pay a booth fee for their space on the street, but we don’t take a commission on their sales. 80% of our revenue comes from corporate partners like TD Bank, who has been with us as our presenting sponsors since day one.
Other fantastic partners like the city and the county and South Carolina Arts Commission, as I mentioned. The support from those organizations and other corporate partners and individuals is absolutely critical to our success. So we are fundraising all year long and building relationships. Building relationships with our government leaders, building relationships with foundations, with our corporate sponsors, with individuals, with our patrons, with artists.
I mean, our business is relationship building all year long. So the work for 2024, which will be Artisphere’s 20th Anniversary, will begin immediately following the festival. We will wrap up the 2023 Festival, all of our numbers and such, and do our sponsor summaries, their return on investment statements.
Having a presence because, you know, people don’t always think about Artisphere year long.
And so having a strong presence on social media is really important, not just so that Artisphere stays top of mind, but even after the show’s over, we still try to continue to promote our artists and their work and, and garner some sales for them and maybe some followers. So, You know, if you don’t already, please follow us on social media, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and don’t forget to visit our website.
And then in July we will begin the process of recruiting artists. It’s our mission every five years on one of our big anniversaries to do a public installation. And we’ve already begun that process to contribute another piece of public art to the city’s… well to Greenville’s public art landscape.
So we’re excited about that.
Katy Smith: Can you name what a couple of those are that people might be familiar with?
Kerry Murphy: There is a piece called Paradigm Pathway by Steven Kishel, which is just behind the Peace Center. It goes across the footbridge. There is another one just outside of Hall’s Restaurant at the south end of the Main Street Bridge by John Acorn called 10 Artist Spheres.
And there’s a piece in the village just outside of the Anchorage restaurant in the West Village called Spindle by Blessing Hancock, and that was the one we did most recently in 2019. So right now our public art committee is vetting location options as well as potential artists to partner with.
So we are working hard to make sure that we unveil that in May of 2024.
Katy Smith: Oh, that is so exciting. Your point about the role that philanthropy plays in helping bring Artisphere, I’m so glad you made that because artisphere is really a gift to the whole community. It allows all of us who are not arts aficionados to come and just experience it and enjoy it and read the artist statements as you described for free because of the work that you all have done.
But it also shows what a smart investment it is by philanthropy, because it just has a huge ROI, as you said, um, in terms of those tax revenues, in terms of sales, and in terms of drawing people to Greenville and seeing what a great community it is.
Kerry Murphy: We are so fortunate in Greenville. When I talk to my colleagues across the country about our show and the things that we do and the support that we have here. They just shake their head and look at me and say, Kerry, you have something really special there. And you know, it just, it warms my heart, but it’s so very true.
Greenville really values its quality of life, and that means a strong, thriving arts and culture scene. The sponsors, the individuals that get behind Artisphere, that get behind the Peace Center, that get behind Warehouse Theater or the Greenville Symphony, it’s, it’s because they love what they contribute to the community and, and the specialness of the community. Again, what we have here is really special and people outside of the area that that. Do what I do they recognize it. They’re, they’re a little envious of it, I’ll say that. But we do, we have some great partnerships.
I mean, what the City of Greenville does, I, you mentioned a couple of other events, other big events that the city does. I mean, they are professionals and to be able to pull off what they do with tens of thousands of people coming down multiple times a year for special events, and they feel safe and it’s well organized and it, it looks great.
And you know, eight hours later it’s like nothing happened.
Katy Smith: Like nothing happened. It’s astonishing. Everything’s gone. You’d never know what was there. Well, if people are excited about what they hear and they wanna get involved, as a volunteer, as a donor, what can people do?
Kerry Murphy: So right now volunteer signup is open. So if you go to our website, artisphere.org, you can both sign up to volunteer. If you’d like to make a contribution, every single contribution makes an impact. Every single contribution makes it possible. So, you can also donate on our website.
We’ve got all of our stage schedules. You can peruse all of the artists that will be there and check them out and make sure you get to their booth. It’s, you know, our, our festival site, if you’ve never been before it’s, it’s really quite easy to navigate. It starts right at City Hall, at Court Street, and runs south down Main Street to Wardlaw.
So you can’t miss much. It’s not like it’s circling city blocks or anything, but we do have maps. But please do check out the schedules for the stages and see all of the different things outside of Artists Row. The demonstrations, the special exhibits that I’ve mentioned. One of the other things that I love about our show, Artisphere features our local restaurants. And that’s important. So we have five or six local restaurants out there, and of course there’s fantastic restaurants right there on the festival site as well. But come hungry, come eager to, uh, see something new and different and, um, pray for good weather for us.
Katy Smith: Every year. Yes.
Kerry Murphy: But yeah, we, we hope to see it May 12th through 14th. And artisphere.org has all of the information that you’ll need.
Katy Smith: Awesome., Kerry. I’ve volunteered in many different capacities and I could tell you there’s a fun job for everybody, whether you’re pouring beer, whether you’re handing out maps and answering questions, or helping let artists go get a snack. It’s all so much fun and there’s some jobs you can do with your kids, your older kids that are really great too.
Kerry Murphy: That’s correct. Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you’re a younger kid, yeah, you do have to be there with your parents, but you know, it’s fun to be in the Pepsi booth with mom or dad.
Katy Smith: That’s right.
Kerry Murphy: Lots, lots you can do.
Katy Smith: Well, Kerry, we are so grateful for your leadership and bringing this amazing event to Greenville, not just on Mother’s Day weekend, but really throughout the year. We appreciate your leadership.
Kerry Murphy: Well, thank you for having me. It was fun to be here. I appreciate all the work that you do at Greater Good Greenville, and we appreciate all the folks that come out and patronize Artisphere. We look forward to seeing you May 12th through 14th. Thank you for having me.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.
Image via Flickr.