Expanded view: Longtime Lexington arts leaders on the state of area arts

In my column in the 2012-13 Arts Preview section of the Sept. 9 Lexington Herald-Leader, a handful of Lexington arts leaders who have been serving 15 years or more offered their opinions on how the arts have changed in the area over the last decade and a half and the current state of the arts. Of course, the print edition offered limited space for responses, but as we have said before, the web is a different story. So here are the unedited replies.

Jeanie Kahnke, vice-president of communications for the Muhammed Ali Center, and Everett McCorvey, University of Kentucky voice professor, lead children in the village of Dondon, Haiti, in singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

I am going to start with University of Kentucky voice professor and director of the UK Opera Theatre Everett McCorvey, because he answered in the body of the questions I posed, so it will let you know what everyone was responding to.

Q: This year, I was interested in hearing from folks who have been active here for a long time to get your impressions of how the arts in Central Kentucky have changed and stayed the same.

A: I love Kentucky and the appreciation for the arts. There are so many talented artists in our midst and it’s great to be in a city that supports artists and their work.

Q: What sorts of things have happened you never thought you’d see, or maybe you wish you’d never seen?

A: For me the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games were amazing. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to serve as the Executive Producer of a world event. I was very honored to have been asked. I was equally as proud of the local artists, technicians, businesses and volunteers who we were able to engage to perform and participate in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Everyone stepped up to the plate in an amazing way. It was a memorable event.

Q: What has been most surprising, affirming or disturbing?

A: When I arrived in Lexington, I was told by someone … “Everett this town will never support opera! Go somewhere while you are still young that will support opera.”  I’m happy to say that this person was wrong! Lexington truly is an opera town. UK Opera Theatre was recently recognized by the Richard Tucker Foundation of New York as one of the top twenty opera training programs in the country for young singers. Pretty amazing!

Q: What is the state of the arts in the Lexington area, from your perspective?

A: We must guard very carefully our love and participation for the arts and not let the economy, video games and decreased legislative funding dim the importance of the arts in a community. Lexington is the community that it is because of the arts. The arts bring a vibrancy, an excitement, a sense of life and happiness to a community. The arts bring people together and they help us grow as human beings. I have long thought of doing research on towns that have high crime rates to try to discover how much hands-on art that particular city might have. I’ll bet the lower the participation in the arts, the higher the crime rate. The higher the participation in the arts, the lower the crime rate. When you take arts out of the schools, you take the reason that some students get out of bed in the morning to get to school. I was in the band when I was in elementary school. It was the excitement about being in the band that got me up every day and got me to school. It was music that carried me through my classes and helped me to appreciate the importance of discipline and responsibility so that I could practice my art. It is proven that children in the arts do better academically and are more successful in their chosen field, even if they choose to pursue other careers. The quality of life is improved by a community actively engaged in the arts. An active arts community draws more creative, fun and intellectual people to the city. Great cities also have great art. I think that’s been proven over and over. Please Lexington, don’t change. Don’t lose your fantastic appreciation and support of the arts. The arts make Lexington special.

Jefferson Johnson, director of choirs at the University of Kentucky and music director of the Lexington Singers

Jefferson Johnson conducts the Lexington Singers in a rehearsal.

From my perspective I am really proud of the “choral culture” that has developed in central KY. Since I came to Lexington in 1993 (this is my 20th year as Director of Choral Activities at UK) I have witnessed a proliferation of strong choirs at every level. The high school choirs in this region have gotten stronger–several of them are conducted by former students (I’m proud to say).

The community choruses are thriving as well: the Lexington Bach Choir is a fabulous new group, and the Lexington Chamber Choir is doing extremely well, as are community choruses in Georgetown, Winchester, and Richmond, to name a few. The Kentuckians barbershop chorus is thriving.

Of course I’m most proud to be only the third director in the 55-year history of the Lexington Singers. We have grown from 110 to 180 voices over the past 15 years and have performed at Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Cathedral of Notre Dame, and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City while taking concert tours to Europe, South America, and within the U.S. We started the Lexington Singers Children’s Choirs (under the Artistic Direction of Dr. Lori Hetzel) in 2004. That organization has grown to include four choruses, touring annually.

Our choral program at UK has grown from 2 choirs (65 voices total) to 7 choirs with over 200 students involved each year.

When we started the acoUstiKats in 1993 there were no other male a cappella groups in central Kentucky that I could find. Now they are a feature of many high school choral programs and nearly every area college. Our choral music education graduates, expertly shepherded by Lori Hetzel, are teaching throughout the state and running many of the best choral programs.

The level of music in area church choirs is also very high, and these church music programs frequently serve the area with gracious use of their facilities.

It would be interesting to see how many people in Lexington are singing in some kind of a choir. I would guess over 5,000 easily.

Outside of choral music, I have noticed a flourishing of musical theater groups. Paragon, the Rep, Grand Night, and other groups and events have put on high quality shows (including the Lexington Singers annual Pops concerts). SCAPA and other schools are doing amazing things with musicals.

The UK Orchestra, under John Nardolillo, has become a major player in the arts scene. John’s ability to attract internationally acclaimed artists to play with the UKSO has transformed the local arts culture. Chamber music is also making a statement in central Kentucky with two annual festivals.

In summary, I am very proud (and somewhat surprised) that a city with the population of Lexington has been able to foster and grow so many high quality arts groups–especially in light of the cuts in state and federal funding. Its a tribute to the hard working artists but also to the philanthropic individuals who have supported these artistic endeavors. The financial support of the arts by corporations and individuals has long been a hallmark of strong artistic societies. I think we have one here in Lexington.

Robert Parks Johnson as Hastings in SummerFest’s 2011 production of “Richard III.”

Robert Parks Johnson, actor and contributing Herald-Leader arts writer

Since our arrival in Lexington in 1995, I don’t remember there being as many really fine companies doing consistently good work. Our community was once dominated by a handful of personality cults. You were loyal to this director or that one, this company or another. Actors are much more willing to go where the work is exciting, and right now, that’s just about everywhere.

Casting is still much too white. The theatre community has failed to encourage and develop African American and Latino artists. There is still a sense of novelty and tokenism when we see anything other than Caucasian faces in lead roles.

LexARTS has grown into an expensive organization whose contribution to the community seems disproportionately modest. I’m sure they do more than this, but their most visible activities seem to center around raising money and being landlords. Companies like Actors’ Guild and Balagula are proving that theatre can work in non-traditional spaces, but much of that effort is made necessary by the prohibitive costs and burdensome rules of producing at the Downtown Arts Center. I don’t know the numbers, but it seems to me that an awful lot of pennies go to overhead for each dollar that LexARTS raises.

I am delighted to have witnessed the resurrection and renaissance of the two companies that are dearest to my heart. A nearly terminal case of mission creep brought Actors’Guild to the brink, but thanks to the vision and seemingly inexhaustible energy of Eric Seale, the company is back at work making good theatre and developing a new generation of artists. The Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s demise was short lived, thanks to a group of veterans who stepped into the void when that fine company closed for the last time. SummerFest at the Arboretum is more successful than ever, and continues to be the most unique and festive theatre experience in the Bluegrass.

My greatest sadness about our theatre community is that we seem to have given up on Shakespeare. Actors and audiences who love the Bard have one chance a year to play together. There is no way to develop a corps of actors with the skills and experience to play the classics well when there are only a dozen opportunities to practice. The result is work that is frustrating for artists and audiences alike. I wish there were more chances for our artists to scale this pinnacle of our language’s contribution to the world theatre.

The best development in Lexington theatre has been the influx of new young talent. The “Old Guard” and the “Usual Suspects” are still around to share stories and what wisdom we may have collected over the years, but gifted, committed young artists are driving the bus now. That as much as anything makes me proud of my legacy and hopeful for the future of our art in this wonderful town.

Bob Morgan with his exhibit The Golden Horde at ArtsPlace. Photo by Rich Copley | LexGo.com

Robert Morgan, artist and former gallery owner

I would like to celebrate all the little guys who take on the task of doing world class art and putting on truly creative projects in Lexington. We are the ones setting the bar for the community. We work without any money are support from arts organizations and produce far more excitement in the community. I am talking about the likes of Gallerie Soliel (Morgan’s former gallery) and Institute 193. We are and were working with a budget far less than most organizations postage budget for a yearly programming. When I meet young folks in the arts who seem blocked into a corner I tell them to just take control and make it happen without local resources. I tell them they are in many ways better off creating off the grid, there are no restrictions! One day I wish the local money bags would create a slush fund just to give to young and creative artists to do what they do best — light fires all over this town and shame us with what they can do with their spark and vision. Spark and vision are severely lacking in almost all of our art organizations and institutions.

Ann Tower (right) with her husband Robert Tharsing and daughter Lina Tharsing at the Ann Tower Gallery.

Ann Tower, artist and owner of the Ann Tower Gallery

Over all, I think things have changed for the best in Lexington over the past 10 years. When I opened in April 2002, Main St was pretty bleak and empty. We had the new library and the new courthouses, but there was still a lot of construction obstructing sidewalks and roads, and there weren’t many restaurants, and it was difficult to get people to come downtown. Today, we have lots of restaurants, but I’d love to see more art galleries and more retail businesses in general on Main St.

21C opening here is the single most exciting thing that’s happened, or scheduled to happen, for the visual arts in Lexington. At last, an art hotel on Main St that celebrates the adventurous art collection built by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. It will be a magnet for art lovers, as well as the curious, and whether they like the art or not, there will be plenty to discuss and think about. I expect those same visitors will also venture out to see what else our city has to offer, and maybe, some will think about starting their own art collections, or at least a buying a painting or a photograph or something. Obviously, all the arts need patrons and benefactors to thrive, and I think having 21C here will set an example.

Lexington Children’s Theatre artistic director Vivian R. Snipes and producing director Larry Snipes.

Larry Snipes, producing director of the Lexington Children’s Theatre

Since I arrived in Lexington about three years after the Opera House re-opened, much has changed some for the good, and some which causes me concern.

Obviously, I have to start with LCT, we have grown from a small community arts organization that produced only three shows and a few education programs to a professional theatre for youth that serves over hundreds of thousands of young people. Our budget was around $40,000 when I arrived as the only full time employee. Now our budget is over a million dollars and we employ 14 full time staff and 30 or 40 part-time artists and interns to produce over 300 performances of 11 shows each season.

As for impact on the community, I would have to say that a prime catalyst for the growth of LCT and many other organizations was the creation of the Fund for the Arts in the 1980s. The Fund provided a stable base of support for many organizations and allowed us to concentrate on what we do best, creating the art. In addition to funding, the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council as, LexArts was called then, also supported community arts organization with professional development and assistance with best practices in arts management. I know I learned a great deal about the business side of the arts with each of those early trips before the allocations committee. They made us better at the business side of the arts, which in turn freed us to take risks and be creative with our artistic endeavors. It wasn’t perfect and still isn’t today, but it works.

As for the current state of the arts, I would have to say we have a boatload of dedicated artists and organizations that are working day and night to bring the best work to Central Kentucky audiences. I am thrilled with the variety of theatre, dance, music and visual art offerings in Lexington. Just look at this arts calendar, I dare you to find a weekend where there is nothing going on in the arts. In the theatre world in addition to our work at LCT, we have solid long standing groups like Studio Players and Actors’ Guild as well as newer groups like Project See, The Rep, KCT and the innovative work and concept that is Balagula.

As for my concerns, I worry that we may have seen the last of arts philanthropists like Lucille Little and W. T. Young. Those two alone have had a tremendous effect on the art we see in Lexington today. Where are their successors?

I really worry about the state of arts education in Kentucky. Over the years I have seen things improve a bit and then have the rug pulled out from under them. When I came to Lexington the Fayette County Public Schools had the Arts in Basic Education Program that had specialists in all disciplines who worked in elementary schools to help teachers integrate the arts into their classroom. Sadly that program was phased out. Arts have gone from being four questions on a yearly test to merely an assessment of schools arts activities to “insure schools provide a vigorous arts and humanities program” and improve on it every year. Actually improving on it every year sounds good, but the thing is, in practice, if you start at zero, improvement each year is pretty easy. After the change to assessment only, art teachers were cut across the commonwealth. Arts were no longer on the test. Not on the test equals not important. I wonder if our young people will be provided opportunities to participate in and see arts performances or will we continue to chip away at the creative fabric of our society?

Rich’s P.S. Thanks to all the folks who repsonded to this request and those who chose to reply. If you would like to add to the conversation, please comment on this post.

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