Scott Watson’s month has been a blur of meetings and events, handshakes, and swapped business cards. As the new director of the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the recent New York transplant has a lot of shmoozing to do.
Back in January, Watson took the reins from former Office of Cultural Affairs director Ellen Dressler Moryl, who’d held the role for more than three decades (she still serves as the artistic director of Piccolo Spoleto). Watson most recently worked as the marketing director at Gluckman Mayner Architects in New York, and before that he held positions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Theater Workshop, and the Dublin Fringe Festival. His wife Maura Hogan is a Charleston native, and they liked the idea of moving back to her hometown.
“We decided that it’s a job that only comes up once every 35 years. How can you not consider applying for it?” Watson says. “It just seemed like it was a really good match to my professional experience that I’ve had, about 20 years work in all aspects of arts and culture.”
As founding director of the department, Moryl’s name has long been synonymous with the Office of Cultural Affairs. Piccolo Spoleto, MOJA, and the farmers market all bear her signature, and Watson has some historic shoes to fill. “I would contend that Ellen Dressler Moryl’s influence reaches far beyond the specific remit of the Office of Cultural Affairs, and very much informs the cultural animation of Charleston as a whole,” Watson says. “She has worked tirelessly to ensure access to the arts for artists and audiences across a range of scale and style, while respecting and celebrating what makes each discipline and creative form distinctive and special.”
The Office of Cultural Affair’s main mission is promoting the arts in Charleston. For Watson, that translates into serving as a resource for the arts community, whether he’s counseling young organizations or taking part in conversations when things aren’t going so well. And of course, events like Piccolo Spoleto, MOJA, and the farmers market have always been a huge focus of the office, and will remain so.
But before he rolls up his sleeves, Watson is focusing on getting to know the arts community. “Rather than asking people what my marching orders are, I’m first starting with a broader sense of the relative health of the arts in Charleston,” he says. And the self-proclaimed “cultural omnivore” likes what he sees.
“With one month on the ground, I take a lot of encouragement from the audiences I see out — whether that be a jam-packed opening at the Halsey or popular poetry readings or Sottile sell-outs — that’s great,” he says. “It’s really the reaction I was hoping for. Whether you hear through newspapers or anecdotal stories that the arts are in a moment of crisis, or that the audiences are down, then to immediately go down and see events that are very well-attended with eager audiences thrilled to be there is encouraging.”
That said, he recognizes the economic issues some organizations are dealing with. He expects the biggest challenge of his job will be communicating an air of optimism and encouraging people to be ambitious. “Those [financial] obstacles should not do anything to inhibit the pursuit of the creative impulse,” he says. “Good ideas should be pursued, and it definitely takes a leap of faith sometimes to do something that might be different or a rock-solid crowd pleaser, but the arts should remain focused on high-caliber ideas even though we’re facing real challenges.”
He sees collaboration between arts organizations as a good way to strengthen the overall community. “The more that the artistic and cultural community can activate a dialogue amongst itself, the stronger the level of conversation will be,” he says. “Audiences are open to that, and in some ways, they are desperately hungry for it.”
As Watson settles into his new role, he hopes to be accessible to everyone in Charleston’s art community. “My door is wide open to anybody that has a question, wants recommendations for where they should turn or what they should be thinking,” he says. “I’m always happy to make myself and staff available for specific needs to try to help people get over the stumbling blocks they’re facing on a recurring basis.”
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