Ann Hicks finds it ironic her first day as the arts writer for the Greenville News was April Fool’s Day in 1999.
Although she spent her childhood behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest, Hungary, in an upper-class family where original paintings hung on the walls, the sound of classical music filled the air and where appreciation of the arts was as natural as mother’s milk, she had no idea how to write a review.
“I went to Barnes and Noble looking for ‘Criticism for Dummies.’ There was none,” she said.
She wrote the first review and then scrambled to make her next one a bit better, dissecting the writing of established critics and plunging head first into Greenville’s burgeoning arts community.
Being the arts writer for the Greenville News is a job she relished for 11 years, the longest stint of any of her eight distinctively different careers which have included insurance adjuster, corporate mid-level management, executive director for a nonprofit organization, head hunter in the medical field and radio talk show host.
“I consider myself a rolling stone,” said Hicks, 72. “I stayed so long because, by far, this is the most intellectually stimulating job I’ve had. It demanded everything I had. Greenville has become a little Mecca vying for attention. It’s exciting as hell and it’s hard to leave.”
But, she said, the time has come.
“I’ve got this itch and it’s very profound,” said Hicks, who left her job last month. She has moved to Charleston where she plans to write two books – her memoir and a novel about a Hungarian refugee and a box of documents left behind – and work as a freelance writer. One project she has lined up is a trip to Iraq where American and Iraqi women who lost children in the war will meet.
She also plans to start a business which aims to instill an appreciation for the arts in children.
“I want to help raise the next generation of arts supporters,” said Hicks.
Hicks is well respected in Greenville’s art community even though she says she is not an artist herself.
“I’m a receptor of the arts, not a broadcaster of the arts,” she said.
She said her arts knowledge was built on a foundation started as a child. Her father wrote three novels by the age of 38. Her grandmother was a classically trained pianist who was not allowed to play in public under Hungary’s communist regime. Hicks said some of the first books she read were encyclopedias.
“I have a quest to learn, learn, learn,” she said. “It’s a hunger I absolutely cannot fulfill.”
She took that same approach to arts writing. Before an orchestra concert, she’d delve into her extensive CD collection to listen to the compositions on the play list. Before she went to see a play, she researched the play and its historic context.
And she surrounded herself by artists as much as she could.
“I schmoozed all I could because I loved the company of artists,” she said. “I had to be the face of the arts. I thought it was part of my job even though nobody ever said that.”
That knowledge and presence did not go unnoticed in Greenville’s art community.
“Ann has been a tremendous asset to Greenville’s art community, and she has always exhibited the utmost professionalism in her many articles and critiques,” said Alan Ethridge, executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Council. “What has been especially remarkable about Ann is her unique ability to cover virtually every major aspect of the arts in Greenville while exuding a sense of passion for all art forms.”
Hicks, who said witnessing Greenville Symphony Orchestra conductor Edvard Tchivzhel’s return to Russia to conduct the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in 2003 was one of her career highlights, admits she could have a barbed tongue in her reviews.
But, she said, Greenville News management never told her to back off.
“Being criticized is part of a critic’s life,” she said. “But as many people said they agreed with me as asked if we were at the same performance.”
Hicks arrived in South Carolina in 1957 as a political refugee.
She ran for the Spartanburg County Council twice. She ran for a countywide seat the first time and then ran to represent a solidly Republican upper-class neighborhood. She lost both times.
She also got involved in the feminist movement.
“My first memory of Greenville is from the YWCA and a hotbed of feminists talking about our bodies and ourselves, and the sisterhood that grew from it,” she said. “For the patriarchy, it was hard to give up an inch and we wanted a mile. It was just an explosion of experiencing democracy at work.”