The city of Sumter is a small mostly rural community of nearly forty thousand inhabitants that has recently become home to some of the most innovative and cutting edgeart events taking place in South Carolina. Sumter, the geographic center of the state is now also identified as an “epicenter” for the new and avantgarde in the region. There is a dichotomy present in this ostensibly typical southern town, on that is grounded on traditional values and life styles, but is also the venue for the southeast's longest running and most successful series of exhibitions featuring public installation art.
During the fall of 1998 the Sumter community experimented with their first installation art project which has subsequently evolved into a high profile annual event that has featured the sitespecific artworks of over one hundred and twentysix national and international artists. Typically, the work was installed in nontraditional, public venues located throughout Sumter‘s historic downtown district. This innovative annual art event, titled Accessibility, was initially ignored by the community but has grown in significance and meaningfulness and is not only tolerated by the local population but is now supported, conceptually and financially, by both City and County governments as well as by the private sector. The project that started as an experiment in 1998 is now fully integrated into the fabric of the Sumter community.
The numerous Accessibility projects have connected thoroughly with the Sumter community in part because of the very nature of sitespecific art, it is artwork that is specific, responsive and ‘connects’ to places, people and things. In 2003 the project focused exclusively on Sumter’s unique culture, history and environment. The curator for Accessibility2003 exhibition, New York artist, Jane Ingram Allen, made an international “call” that requested prospective artists to submit proposals based on the theme “from the outside in.” Artists interested in participating were then required to visit Sumter and further develop a proposal that was based on their interpretations, impressions and visions of the Sumter community, to define Sumter through their “Sumterspecific” art.
Allen’s concept, “From the Outside in,” proved to be very successful on many levels, but most importantly it provided a real and viable connection between art and community. The artists’ residencies provided opportunities for locals to meet, socialize and to discuss everything from cultures to art theory and practice with the national and international visitors; the “process” heavy and labor intensive sitespecific art required many ‘extra hands’ and provided ample opportunities for area residents to gain a real insight into ‘how’ art was done.
The Accessibility2004 exhibition was also formulated around the concept of “Sumterspecific” art and included a monthlong residency by famed South Carolina topiary artist Pearl Fryar who worked side by side with over 450 Sumter area students providing them each with an invaluable opportunity to see, touch and connect with art. Hopefully, these early ‘connections’ with art and the ‘process’ of the arts will ultimately help cultivate and develop future audiences who appreciate and understand the role of the arts in the society.
Accessibility project directors plan to continue working within the basic theme and framework of “art that defines a community” and will focus on sitespecific installation art that involves and includes the entire community in both concept and process of the arts, art that helps define a community.
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