THREE DECADES OF DISTINCTION

By Bill Thompson

When Jason Nichols took the helm of the Charleston Concert Association (CCA) in 1984, his headquarters was a small rental house on Stoll’s Alley with an upturned door for a desk. It was also his home, mainly distinguished by an eccentric ticketing device.

“I knew every subscriber,” he recalls, “and every place in the Gaillard Auditorium where they sat. So people would call me directly to buy their tickets. As I got the ticket order I’d grab an envelope and write ‘Mr. John Smith’ on it and tape it outside between the hardwood and screen doors. I’d tell people, ‘Just come by and pluck your tickets off it.’”

Today, the non-profit CCA’s ticketing system is a bit more sophisticated, its offices decorous and its reputation sterling. Regarded as one of the great success stories of the Charleston arts scene, the CCA has prospered under Nichols’ stewardship. Currently celebrating his 30th anniversary as executive director and president, he approaches the new season’s program with characteristic enthusiasm.

And why not, with a lineup featuring Branford Marsalis and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia (Oct. 23), the choral and spoken performance All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Nov. 18), pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton (Feb. 16), Tango Buenos Aires (March 9) and the Russian National Ballet’s Cinderella (April 7).

After three years away, Nichols is excited about the CCA’s return to its longtime home, the Gaillard, whose renovation is scheduled for completion next April. Meanwhile, he is utilizing other venues: the Sottile Theatre, Charleston Music Hall and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.

Founded in 1936 by Martha Laurence Patterson, the CCA had a modest war chest of $34,000 when Nichols, a 1974 music education graduate of Mississippi College, left his native state for Charleston. His tenure has seen steady growth in membership, donations, sponsorships, community outreach and collaboration with other local arts groups.

“This business is a constant education, and it’s more complicated than it used to be,” says Nichols. “I was well grounded in the arts when I arrived, but had to learn arts administration ‘on the street.’ And the biggest challenge for an arts organization is financial solvency.”

Consider: How do you pay to fly in 100 musicians from Munich, house and feed them and put them on stage, when you can’t begin to charge a ticket price that would cover it all? How do you book a superstar act at $100,000 to $150,000 a pop—plus a private jet, 5-star hotel and other perks—without taking a bath financially?

“We’ve been very fortunate over the years to have great patronage, and we operate with a streamlined staff. But you’re still constantly on the phone, constantly writing grants, producing fund-raisers and auctions that have nothing to do with making the curtain go up on time”.

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From Yo Yo Ma to Momix, Nichols and company have attracted top-drawer international touring companies here by developing strong long-term relationships with the New York talent and booking agencies. And they’ve never had to default on a payment.

“You can negotiate the fees down as low as you can get them, but then you had better deliver. Over the years, because of these relationships and the trust we’ve built, agents will contact me if a play date opens up and when an artist becomes available. That way we can showcase acts like the Czech Philharmonic, Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Ballet de Monte Carlo.”

Nichols takes the term “mover and shaker” literally. “You always have to be in communication with your audience, keeping them informed and involved. You don’t want them to forget about you.

Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.