How a South Carolina Town Transformed into a Southeastern Arts Hub

Lake City officials are now eyeing year-round arts initiatives to secure economic growth

Kristi Eaton June 20, 2024

This story is the first in a series of travel-based dispatches from rural America. Over the next few months, Oklahoma-based journalist Kristi Eaton will travel throughout rural America in search of hidden gems. From public art festivals that morph small downtown corridors into artistic landscapes, to historic architecture restored into new community hubs, Eaton will get to know the people, events and organizations that are revitalizing rural and small town communities across the country, transforming their sense of place—and ours—in the process.

LAKE CITY, S.C. – Anna Burrows refers to the last week in April and the first week of May as Christmas.

For the last decade, Burrows has owned Seven Boutique, a clothing and accessories store along Main Street in rural Lake City, South Carolina. She also owns Shade Tree Outfitters, a men’s clothing store next door.

Every spring for the last 12 years, this community of 6,000 about 60 miles from Myrtle Beach doubles in population, drawing in visitors near and far to see art from across the South as part of ArtFields, a festival and competition that has transformed this historical agriculture community into an arts destination.

“It’s phenomenal for us as far as business goes,” says Burrows.

Though Burrows doesn’t have an exact dollar amount for impact, she says this year, like many previous years, has seen a substantial increase in business. At her boutique, she says the art she picked this year to host in her business venue is “the talk of the town.”

In 2024, there were more than 450 pieces of adult artworks and 300 junior pieces of art in 50 venues, many of them local businesses, says Roberta Burns, marketing manager for ArtFields.

“All We Need,” a sculpture made with neon, argon, aluminum and steel on a slip ring rotor by Nate Sheaffer from Louisiana. The sculpture was featured at Seven Boutique during the 2024 ArtFields festival. (Kristi Eaton, Barn Raiser)

“It’s really fully transformed the town,” Burns says. “And I would say when people say what’s the biggest change, it’s always the town. But I think there’s some things that have stayed the same. One is the prizes and the commitment to showcasing Southern art.”

Artists compete for more than $100,000 in prizes, including People’s Choice awards voted on by event attendees. There is a jury panel for the Grand Prize, Second Place, and Merit Awards. There are two People’s Choice prizes, one for 2D and 3D artworks, that are voted on by the public. (Check out this year’s winners.)

“I think what probably surprises people more than anything else, because this is a small rural town and an agricultural region which people don’t normally associate with cutting edge contemporary anything, much less art,” says Harry Lesesne, president and CEO of The Darla Moore Foundation, which founded and funds ArtFields from its $500 million endowment.

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The foundation earmarked $670,000 to the Lake City Creative Alliance in 2022 to “support a culturally-rich environment in [the] South Carolina region.” Moore’s foundation also runs a Botanical Garden, where she currently lives.

“But this community has really taken to [it], and they’re welcoming. Welcoming to people of all kinds of shapes, sizes, looks,” says Lesesne.

Darla Moore was born in Lake City before becoming president and partner of the private investment firm Rainwater Inc., and, in 1997, she was the first woman to be profiled on the cover of Fortune magazine. By 2012, she had accumulated an estimated $2.3 billion fortune. As a philanthropist, she has donated to a variety of causes, including education, land conservation, medical research and art. The business school at her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, is named for her.

“Objects on Display,” a sculpture made from cardboard by Miranda Pedigo from Spring Hill, Tennessee, featured at the Crossroads Gallery in the 2024 ArtFields festival. A camera, some photographs, articles of women’s clothing and a broken bottle set an enigmatic scene. “Women are displayed on screens, sometimes insidiously, often explicitly, to be consumed as sex objects,” writes the artist. Here, says the artist, “the viewer is asked to position themselves as both the subject and the photographer … What happened here? To whom? Who did it? Why? What role do I play?” (Kristi Eaton, Barn Raiser)

“The biggest spending element [for the foundation] is for the city, by far,” Lesesne says. “It’s about supporting and sustaining economic growth here …When you walk around town, you will see what the arts are doing for the economic sustainability of the town.”

“Sydney II” (tissue and acrylic paint), by Richlin Burnett-Ryan in Palm Coast, Florida, featured in this year’s ArtFields competition. Burnett-Ryan was born in Georgetown, Guyana, South America, and at the age of nine she came to the United States. “Sydney, my niece, reminds me of myself in some ways,” says the artist. “Her sense of freedom is what I admire most in this African American Haitian Guyanese young woman from California.” (ArtFields)

Seventy percent of the town’s residents identify as Black. More than 22% of residents live in poverty as of 2023, according to figures from the U.S. Census.

Carla Angus, a founding team member of ArtFields, recalls in a podcast about the festival what Lake City was like before the festival started.

Like many rural areas, there were very few businesses, says Angus: “a lot of storefronts that were empty … not a lot of action, not a lot going on.” For Angus, Lake City’s transformation has been “mind-blowing.” “Downtown is now a place where people go to hang out, people go to eat, people go to do things. And I really do believe with the power of art and what happened through ArtFields made that difference in our downtown.”

From boutiques to restaurants and bars and photography studios and more, Lake City is filled with small businesses.

“It’s all a strategy created around developing economic sustainability,” Lesesne says. “[It’s] giving people a reason to come here, stay, spend money, live their lives, be prosperous and productive citizens.”

“In Bloom,” a mosaic (on the left) by Russian artist Olga Yukhno, who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. Each panel progresses from early spring to late summer to depict the delicacy and beauty of each flower bloom and the inevitable march of time. (Kristi Eaton, Barn Raiser)

In the last few years, artists have started moving to Lake City, living here year-round and producing art for themselves and others.

Roger Halligan has been a professional sculptor since the 1970s. He and his wife, fellow artist Jan Chenoweth, moved to Lake City from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2019. The couple wanted to be closer to the family and were intrigued by the tiny community. They bought a building and turned it into studio space and gallery space.

“It’s fun to see the transition,” he says of the community. “And what’s happening and who moves in.”

Herman A. Keith is a muralist who was born in South Carolina. He along with others have created large-scale public works of art seen in downtown.

Keith says there are hundreds of small communities dotting the state that were once similar to Lake City.

“[They are] almost identical, depended on the same crops, historically … on the same type of economy,” he says. “Lake City had the courage to use art as an economic driver. So even though Lake City might not have towering skyscrapers, it might not have a thousand-foot waterfall, but it uses art to stimulate the economy.”

Burns, the marketing manager for ArtFields, says there is an effort to make Lake City a year-round art destination. With galleries, new studio space and public programming, Lake City looks to attract artists like Halligan and Keith as well as visitors to the area.

“People are coming to Lake City just for the art,” she says.

Kristi Eaton

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist in Oklahoma, formerly with the AP in Oklahoma and South Dakota. She covers social justice issues, gender, travel and more, with a focus on solutions-based stories. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com or follow her on Twitter @KristiEaton.

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