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Jul 30, 2023

Culturally Speaking: Town of Hilton Head Island’s ‘Queen of Culture’ Natalie Harvey

Linda Hopkins

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Upcoming projects Harvey is excited about include the 2023 Crescendo Celebration beginning Oct. 10 and culminating in the Hilton Head Lantern Parade (Nov. 18)

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Natalie Harvey poses with two jellyfish lanterns on Coligny Beach. This year’s Lantern Parade will return on November 18.

Natalie Harvey steps into her office and looks over several small stacks of paperwork on her desk, each one lighting a tiny fire in her eyes. What she sees is neither piles nor clutter, but tidy packets of potential.

2022 was a big year for Harvey as she celebrated a half century of round trips of the sun and took a giant step up the career ladder. Starting in October, she exchanged her title as Vice President of Collections and Interpretation at the Coastal Discovery Museum for a bright new opportunity as Director of Cultural Affairs at the Town of Hilton Head Island.

It was a change and a challenge she couldn’t turn down. “I knew I wanted to make this leap, but after 25 years [at CDM], it was scary. It’s a lot of the same community outreach I was doing at the museum, but it’s times 10,” she said.

“What’s different here is that it is much broader—being able to touch the entire community—the residents, whereas I was working a lot with visitors and students before,” Harvey said. “All these things are open to our visitors as well, but getting to know how we can touch our local population and getting young people to experience the arts … I’ve been trying to keep my mind on how to do that in the future.”

Not surprising to those who know her, Harvey hit the ground running. The week she donned her new hat, the annual Crescendo Celebration of Arts, Culture, and Heritage was in full swing, and the annual Lantern Parade was less than a month away. With great appreciation of her predecessor, Jenn McEwan, these events were successful and went smoothly. Next, she was full throttle into the public art installation at Shelter Cove Community Park. The town officially celebrated the Shelter Cove Sculpture Trail opening at the May 1, 2023 ribbon cutting.

Defining culture

Say the word culture, and many people’s minds go immediately to the high-brow world of opera, ballet, and fine art. But according to Harvey, culture is so much more.

“Locally, our culture encompasses our Gullah history, our ethic about the environment, our connection with the environment. Newcomers are attracted by the natural beauty here; that’s part of our culture. Certainly, our thriving arts—performing, visual, music—all of that is encompassed,” she said.

“The breadth and depth of the arts and cultural and heritage and history offerings we have here beats any place, I think,” Harvey continued. “We’re not Charleston. We’re not Savannah. We’re certainly not the Metropolitan Museum. We have our museum. We have our art league. We’re not trying to be something we’re not; we are a unique experience.”

Citing our local passion for sea turtles, Harvey elaborated on the intersection of environment and culture. “People don’t live their history separate from their environment,” she said. “But they also don’t live it separate from their creativity—their music, their cooking, etc. Having that view of how our community operates has helped me think about culture beyond the theatre, the music and the art.”

Small town, big opportunity

Describing herself as “a big department of one,” Harvey explained her new role at the town. Many people think it’s just about planning events, but a lot of it is behind the scenes—getting to know our community, connecting organizations and individual artists, Harvey explained. “Our community is very fortunate to have so many volunteer-run organizations. Sometimes I can help connect them with resources of people or treasure [grants]. That’s fun!”

There is no typical day in Harvey’s world. It’s planning and meetings but also research about future public art. “Public art helps create a sense of place. We have beautiful parks. We have the sculpture trail at Shelter Cove. It’s something that is unique to Hilton Head,” she said. “It’s been great to see the town embrace that there are spaces for public art—non-traditional places [e.g., our parks, Hilton Head Island Rec Center] where people can interact with art, have a relationship with a piece. It’s approachable.”

The sculpture trail at Shelter Cove features several large art installations like “Liquid Sunshine” by Michael Alfano. 

Collaborative efforts and upcoming projects

One of the most fulfilling aspects of Harvey’s position is seeing organizations work more collaboratively. For example, for the Gullah Me, Gullah You Cultural Series, held in the 2022-23 season, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra joined hands with Mitchelville Freedom Park and the Gullah Museum for a concert, dinner, history, storytelling, and more.

And when Lean Ensemble presented their original production of Mitchelville, Harvey, with the help of several Arts Council members, was able to write a grant to offer a student matinee with 125 students and another 25 community members attending for free—an example of something special that wouldn’t have happened if the Office of Cultural Affairs wasn’t opening doors.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Harvey said. “I got a note from one of the teachers saying, ‘The conversation on the bus on the way back was absolutely amazing. These kids got it.’ Being any small part of that is really rewarding.”

Upcoming projects Harvey is excited about include the 2023 Crescendo Celebration beginning Oct. 10 and culminating in the Hilton Head Lantern Parade (Nov. 18), which she is working to make more accessible; and the town’s 360/40 celebration (Aug. 26-Sept. 16), marking 360 years since William Hilton’s first sighting of the land that is now Hilton Head Island and 40 years since incorporating as a town. Details coming soon!

Fueling the passion

You may be wondering how Harvey got so clear about her life’s mission and how she landed here. She credits her parents for her initial interest in all things cultural. “We would go on long vacations. Museums were a big deal and historic sites. So, I grew up thinking, that’s what you do!” she said.

Born in Indiana, Harvey grew up in Palm Beach, Florida and started vacationing with her family on Hilton Head Island during her middle school years. She went away for high school in Connecticut, and while she was there, her parents decided to move to Hilton Head, making this Harvey’s home since the late 1980s.

Harvey was later afforded the opportunity to attend Wake Forest University where she studied art history with the intention of someday working in an art museum. During her junior year, she traveled to Venice, Italy and lived in the Wake Forest House (Casa Artom) for a semester while continuing her studies.

After graduating with a BA in art history, she attended grad school at the University of South Carolina, earning her master’s degree in public history with a concentration in historic preservation. She wrote her thesis on the history of Hilton Head Island between the Civil War and pre-bridge.

Next, she returned to Hilton Head for an internship at the Coastal Discovery Museum and, lucky for us, never left. She has lived and breathed our local culture since.

In addition to her day job, Harvey currently serves on the Arts Council of Hilton Head Island, where she has held several leadership positions, the Hilton Head Audubon board, and the Beaufort County Historic Preservation Review Board. As a former chair of the Arts and Cultural Council of Hilton Head, she helped lead the organization in creating Crescendo, an annual celebration of arts and culture on Hilton Head Island.

When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing what she preaches—attending local and regional arts and cultural events. She also enjoys birdwatching in her backyard and traveling.  

What Would Natalie Do?

If you’re seeking more cultural opportunities on Hilton Head Island, Natalie Harvey suggests you look at what’s happening: “Click on CultureHHI.org [for event listings and a cultural trail map]. Pick one thing that’s not in your normal view. Put a list on your refrigerator. This year, I would like to…”

Suggestions:

• Attend a live music event or free concert

• Visit the Coastal Discovery Museum (it’s not 

   just for tourists)

• Take in a performance at the Arts Center of 

  Coastal Carolina

• Go to a play at Main Stage Community 

  Theatre

• Peruse local art at the Art League Gallery 

• Experience the sculpture trail at Shelter Cove 

  Community Park

• Find the poetry trail

• Sign up for a turtle talk

• Take a nature walk/guided tour

• Attend a festival

• Participate in the Lantern Parade

• Picnic or take a walk at a local park

• Sign up for a Gullah Heritage Tour

• Visit historic cemeteries or churches

“You can’t do it all, so don’t be overwhelmed,” Harvey advised. “Pick one thing a month and expand your definition of culture.”

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