University of South Carolina Alumnus Rethinks the Way Columbia Looks at Its History

Born into a Columbia, S.C. family steeped in social justice, Robin Waites left her hometown for college, earning an undergraduate degree in art history and Russian from Middlebury College in Vermont. But she returned to the University of South Carolina, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, to pursue a master’s degree in art history.

“I wanted to do something that could impact community in some positive ways. I ended up going the art history route because that was a way I felt I could do something at some level that was important but still cultivate something that I really love, which is the arts,” Waites says.

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“The way that I come to the arts is with a social lens,” Waites added. “I love to look at work and figure out what the artist was doing, why they painted it, what was going on in the world at the time, and how it’s a commentary on life.”

After earning her master’s in 1996, she worked in a variety of jobs at the S.C. State Museum, eventually becoming the chief curator of art. In 2002, she moved to Historic Columbia, and in 2004 she became executive director of the nonprofit dedicated to preserving Columbia and Richland County’s historic and cultural heritage.

Waites has made her mark by rethinking the way the city looks at its history, renovating and transforming the organization’s house museums and grounds, creating partnerships with a wide spectrum of communities, and advocating for preservation of historic structures.

In December, she was honored by One Columbia for Arts and Culture, the city’s arts advocacy organization, with its Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award. The award is given to a Columbian who reflects the values and qualities of the late Morrison, an attorney, arts patron and former One Columbia board chairman. Waites was specifically honored for accomplishments such as the renovations at the Mann-Simons site, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and the Hampton Preston mansion and gardens.

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“All of these property transformations opened spaces that are much more than just historic homes,” reads the One Columbia press release for the award. “They present and elevate the roles enslaved persons and post-emancipated people of color played in shaping Columbia. They are now centers for connected thinking and dialogue that challenge visitors to make broader connections and appreciate people different from themselves—key ingredients for social awareness and community involvement.”

The description illustrates Waites’ commitment to expanding the conversation to tell a full story of Columbia’s past.

“It’s what we do,” she says. “We’re helping people find ways to establish a sense of place for themselves and to find that through different mediums and different ways.”

This article was edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of South Carolina website.

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