Regrouping Lexington Art League seeks feedback from artists, community

Katie Clark(left), of Louisville, and Jeremy Gubin, of Cincinnati, came to the Lexington Art League on a scavenger hunt and stayed for the opening party for the Lexington Art League's new exhibit "Current: An Exhibition of Conceptual Art by Louis Zollar Bickett," in Lexington on Friday, September 6, 2013. Herald-Leader photo by Mark Ashley.

Katie Clark(left), of Louisville, and Jeremy Gubin, of Cincinnati, came to the Lexington Art League on a scavenger hunt and stayed for the opening party for the Lexington Art League’s new exhibit “Current: An Exhibition of Conceptual Art by Louis Zollar Bickett,” in Lexington on Friday, September 6, 2013. The Art League is currently recovering from a financial crisis and working to figure out its direction going forward. Herald-Leader photo by Mark Ashley.

Regrouping from a financial crisis that became public this spring, the Lexington Art League held a forum at ArtsPlace Tuesday seeking input about its direction and relationship to patrons and artists.

Before opening the standing-room-only forum in the ArtsPlace gallery to comments and questions, board members addressed the crisis that brought the organization to this point.

Christine Huskisson, the board president, said the organization tried to expand programming in the last few years and hoped that money would follow.

“That was a risk,” Huskisson acknowledged. “Our intentions were honest and true and stuck to our mission. But that left us in a weakened financial position.”

In 2014, the Art League presented programs mostly outside of its home base at the Loudoun House. That included the moon-like light sculpture at Main Street and Broadway by Canadian artists Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett that was the centerpiece of the winter 2014 exhibit Luminosity. Huskisson cited that project as a costly event that generated little revenue for the Art League.

The Art League, board members said (and director Stephanie Harris had previously said), was trying to establish an international profile for the organization. But a lot of conversation from the board and attendees at the forum focused on the League’s relationship to local artists and its role in the community.

Several people at the forum said presentation of national and international art in Lexington will be covered by the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky and the forthcoming 21c Museum Hotel, scheduled to open later this year.

The form that renewed focus for the Art League might take depended on who was talking, from returning to former popular programs like the annual nude exhibit to less-costly projects in line with the ambitions of the last few years.

“The programming is off base,” said photographer Don Ament, whose studio is in the Loudoun House. “No one is coming through the door. I’m there every day, when I’m in town. It’s empty.

“I’d like to show up where I don’t have to read six pages to understand the art.
We kind of lost ‘art for everyone,'” he added, referring to the League’s slogan, “and turned into art for artists and people who like to talk about art.”

Audience member Kate Savage said, “define who the customer base is, and figure out how to go after them.”

Among suggestions toward that end were:

  • Bring back party-centered events such as Fourth Friday (which has been revived) and Art Fever.
  • Avoid duplicating programs offered by other institutions such as the Living Arts and Science Center.
  • Focus on Lexington, and build on its status as a “small city.”
  • Drop admission for shows, something the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky did, recently.
  • To rebuild membership, tie membership to events, like attending openings and Fourth Friday parties.
  • Have a greater focus on member benefits.
  • Create easier and more ways for volunteers to participate.
  • Present more shows outside of the Loudoun House.

Several people suggested staff positions focused on grant writing, education, volunteer coordination and a local artist liaison. Earlier this year, the League reduced to a staff of three full-time employees from five, and Harris said employment at the Art League is currently “quarter to quarter.”

There were also numerous ideas about the Loudoun House, from refocusing on it as the league’s premiere presentation venue to refashioning it as artists studios and a place for young artists to develop.

Boar members did point to a number of local initiatives focused on local art, including its artist archieve, its Community Supported Art program and outreach to the Castlewood neighborhood, where the league is based. But clearly, the relationship between the League and local artists needs to be repaired, numerous board and audience members said.

And, of course, the nude show came up numerous times. The Art League dropped the show in 2014. Huskisson. who pointed out the current Art League board is fairly new, said of the nude, “there was a feeling it was beginning to define the organization.”

At this point, the Art League is working to define itself with a new strategic plan and mission statement. After numerous references to “saving” the Art League, board member Anne Helmers said, “We’re past the saving part,” noting mechanisms have been put in place to avoid another financial meltdown, and that the League is stable. “We need to get to what’s next.”

And that seems to be where the group is heading.

Surveys were passed out at the forum, and they are still available online.

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