Culture, Creativity, and an Art House Cinema Spur Revitalization in Columbia

Jun 2, 2014 by Andy Smith on The Nickelodeon Blog

I’ll be honest, I’m starting to get pretty tired of hearing “I can’t believe this is happening in Columbia.”

Recently it’s become a common phrase on the streets of Columbia, South Carolina, thanks to the dramatic transformation we’ve seen on our Main Street. In just the past two years we’ve seen sidewalk cafes opening up, the launch of a popular Saturday morning farmers market, and monthly gallery crawls and annual street festivals all blowing up. This summer, an 800-bed residential development will open in the shell of a previously abandoned office tower. We now have an Ethiopian restaurant, a raw vegan restaurant and a falafel joint all on the same block. That’s pretty damn cosmopolitan.

My organization, the Nickelodeon Theatre, has worked together with a tremendous group of other arts organizations, private businesses, residential developers, local government and residents to help foster and shape this transformation. In August 2012, after completing the first phase of our capital campaign, we opened the doors to our new home – a renovated 1930s movie theater in the heart of Columbia’s downtown. The move represented a shift not only in our physical location but also in how we think and talk about ourselves as an organization.

Since its founding in 1979, the Nickelodeon, like many art house theaters across the country, has served as a much-loved alternative cinema for the intellectually and aesthetically curious citizens of our otherwise very red state. As part of the move, however, we realized that we now had the opportunity, and maybe even the obligation, to shift from seeing ourselves as an alternative cultural refuge towards being a leading cultural anchor for our “new” city. Key to this shift was not shying away from the provocative and aspirational programming we’ve done in the past, but instead finding ways to develop more impactful work, strengthening how we promoted that work, and then clearly articulating the effects of that work to the community and funders.

We reshaped our mission statement and rethought our programmatic offerings to make sure we weren’t limiting ourselves by the traditional understandings of how an arthouse functions. Showing movies is the easy part. We challenged ourselves to develop strategies that bring people into our new space while also developing new programs that can take place outside of our physical structure.

To celebrate our grand opening, we organized a parade along Main Street comprised of all of our favorite parts of our city (including other arts organizations, cultural groups, high school marching bands, drag queens, cyclists and more). Our annual Indie Grits Film Festival routinely seeks out underused spaces around our city, transforming them into untraditional screening/performance spaces.

This year, a hidden parking lot, located at the end of an alley behind our theater became a vibrant party space, with projections on the surrounding brick facades, live bands and food trucks.

A new slate of media education programs takes Nickelodeon staff into local schools and libraries while also filling our otherwise dark theater with field trips and camps.  Though what takes place inside the physical theater is still critical to what we do, we no longer feel defined by it.

There’s something incredibly empowering in realizing that the very things that once defined you as an outsider now position you as a leader. The Nick’s fostering of community, conversation and creation, are now understood as important economic tools for our city. The diverse array of artists, students, and filmgoers we’ve always attracted are now drawing in even more folks, attracted by the vibrancy they see at our events. And, luckily, funders in our city are starting to appreciate how all of this activity, rooted in creativity and dialogue, is contributing greatly to quality of life in the community.

Getting to play a role in the revitalization of one’s hometown is incredibly rewarding work. I’m so proud of how the Nick has leveraged both the skills of its staff as well as the assets of our growing creative community to make Columbia an even more livable place. This work has seemed so organic to me, stemming from the potential many knew was here in the community. I guess that’s why I still bristle when locals express surprise in our success.


This blog was originally posted on the NAMAC blog here.