Ellen Dressler Moryl is bustling around her Meeting Street office preparing for a City Paper photo shoot. The idea is to replicate a 20-year-old photo of Moryl with her cello, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Wearing her signature round glasses and sporting short-cropped hair, she looks virtually identical to her younger self.
As founding director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Moryl plays a major role in Charleston’s artistic community. In 1978 she was serving as the arts director for the city of Montgomery, Ala., when she got a call about an opening in Charleston. She initially turned it down. “I thought it was Charleston, W.V., so I said no thank you,” Moryl laughs.
When she realized her error, she quickly made her way north for an interview and landed the job. Within a few years, she’d founded a black arts festival (which would eventually become MOJA) as well as a more localized offshoot of Spoleto Festival USA called Piccolo Spoleto. “Piccolo Spoleto provided a huge burst of energy to Spoleto because all these local and regional artists and performing groups have brought their entourages and relatives and friends to come see them perform at Piccolo, and many people that didn’t come for Spoleto came for that and became very enthusiastic audiences,” Moryl says. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination.”
It’s clear that the creation of Piccolo is a major source of pride for Moryl and will remain one of her greatest legacies after her retirement. Although some local news outlets suggested Moryl would be leaving her post this summer, we’re still awaiting a formal announcement of her departure and the naming of a successor.
Finding resources for arts funding has been another focus of Moryl’s career. “I worry that some leaders don’t understand the value of the arts,” Moryl says. “And I’m not talking about in Charleston, but there are people here and there who think it’s an extra or unnecessary and that it shouldn’t have government support. I think that’s not good thinking because government support, even a tiny bit, is a great leveraging agent for private donations, and it becomes a small part of a bigger mix, but if you have the good housekeeping seal of approval from the National Endowment for the Arts, from the state arts commission or the city of Charleston or North Charleston, it helps inspire giving from the private sector.”
Looking back on her years at the Office of Cultural Affairs, Moryl notes some significant changes in the local arts community, from the explosion of the contemporary art scene, the reduction of the symphony, and the loss of prominent figures like Robert Ivey and David Stahl. “Things change, but there’s always new things that are coming along. We just need to keep doing everything we can to help support the leadership in the arts community so that they can work hard to support their respective interests and make sure that the arts community is always robust and their work is accessible to everybody in this city.”
She adds, “We need all of our arts groups to be robust, fiscally healthy, and to produce excellent art, because if one isn’t doing well, it affects all the rest of them in some way.”