Alan Ethridge would rather not talk about himself. The normally impish executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Council (MAC) instead wears a deadly serious look as he attempts to demur. It doesn’t matter that this is supposed to be a profile about him. Instead, Ethridge would rather talk about the arts organization he helms.
To be sure, there is plenty to talk about when it comes to MAC. The arts organization is in its 43rd year and has become a one-stop-shop for supporting Greenville’s entire arts community, regardless of the discipline of art or the experience of the artist. A generous and egalitarian grants program, arts advocacy, marketing assistance for artists and art groups, community outreach programs, and cultural programming form the backbone of MAC’s efforts.
Ethridge rattles off an impressive list of highlights: a growing endowment that surpassed the $1 million mark in 2016; another record-breaking year for MAC’s grants program, with more than $430,000 awarded in 2016 alone; a roster of more than 1,300 individual artists and 50 arts organizations supported by MAC; and more.
He gushes about the success MAC has had, attributing it to several things. “I’ve been incredibly blessed with great board chairs: Mike Zeller of Jackson Marketing Group, Mark Johnston of Community Journals, Mary Hipp, and Charles Ratterree. They’re very motivated, passionate individuals who love the arts and want to see the organization succeed,” he says.
There’s also the composition of the board. “We have people on that board in their twenties and almost in their eighties, and from every business sector on the planet. It’s a very diverse board, and that’s the way you want it. Every one of those board members is an advocate for us.”
Ethridge also concedes the fortune of being in the right place at the right time: “It’s kind of a confluence of a lot of great factors like civic pride, a philanthropic spirit, and a passion for the arts.”
What hasn’t made Ethridge’s list is any mention of his own leadership. It is a noticeable omission because he has helmed MAC since 2006, and whether he cares to admit it, MAC’s successes are inextricably entwined with Ethridge.
For those who have only seen Ethridge, this humility and deference might seem out of character. After all, Ethridge is rarely out of the public eye. On any given night, he’s likely attending three or four events, often while decked out in flamboyant outfits. On the strength of his charisma and his wardrobe, Ethridge is always a focal point, the life of the party.
But for those who know Alan, his humility and deference aren’t at odds with his conspicuous presence. Ethridge’s prominence is instead a function of his enthusiasm for the arts. After all, his public appearances are almost always at galleries or opening nights, and wherever he might be, Ethridge takes every opportunity to engage on behalf of MAC and advocate for Greenville’s artists.
Charles Ratterree, MAC’s current board chairman and a close friend of Ethridge, gives context to the value of omnipresence. “There’s nowhere in Greenville you don’t see Alan, and that commitment to presence is so powerful,” says Ratterree. “When you talk to him, he’s so enthusiastic about art in the community of Greenville, in all shapes and sizes, and it causes people to have enthusiasm for what happens here. That’s why Alan’s been so successful as an ambassador for the arts.”
Ratterree’s description of Ethridge as an ambassador is an apt one. Over the course of his tenure, Ethridge has built relationships throughout the community and unified what once was a fragmented arts scene. MAC’s intentionally diverse board is one example of Ethridge’s vision for a wide-ranging arts coalition, but he has also overseen outreach programs that nurture young artists in schools (SmartARTS) and encourage young professionals to become art patrons (MAConnect).
Mayor Knox White echoes Ratterree: “There was a time when people doubted the value of an arts organization like MAC. No more! Under his tireless leadership, Alan and MAC have shown that the arts in Greenville are strongest when artists and all creative groups work together—causing all of the ships to rise. From time to time, arts organizations need a voice in public policy. Alan is never one to shrink from that role, either. He’s relentless when he has to be. And that’s a good thing.”
“Less than one quarter of 1 percent of MAC’s funding comes from the South Carolina Arts Commission and the NEA,” Ratterree continues. “Our donor base is our friends and family in Greenville. Our funding comes from the people that live next door to you. Those are the people that make the arts in Greenville go.”
These aren’t one-time supporters either. Of MAC’s 1,100-plus donors, more than 80 percent are repeat donors. “It really is about the personal relationships Alan and his staff have with the Greenville community,” says Ratterree.
All those facets boil down to a philosophy that underpins and informs Ethridge’s leadership: art should be for the entire community.
“It’s not like I made this conscious decision that art should be for everyone,” Ethridge protests. “It’s just that I believe it’s absolutely unconscionable that tickets to a play like Hamilton are as expensive as they are. That makes art elitist. But on the other hand, that kind of stuff is counterbalanced by things locally like First Fridays and Open Studios and Downtown Alive. Whether you buy a piece of art or not, at least you can experience seeing art or hearing a band for free.”
From the perspective that art is for everyone, Ethridge is entirely justified for downplaying his impact. The Greenville community—this collective of donors, patrons, artists, and enthusiasts—is responsible for supporting MAC and expanding Greenville’s cultural footprint. But if that’s the case, then Ethridge must also allow that he has been responsible for nurturing that community. And that accomplishment is worthy of all the praise he is reluctant to accept.
Originally published May 2017.