City, UK neglecting key cultural element.

university, Lexington neglecting key cultural Element

April 1, 2013 

With each discussion about zoning, architecture, development or economic growth, each political campaign for public office, each attempt to brand or rebrand Lexington, one concept lies at the core: We aspire to greatness.

We love Lexington and appreciate all that it offers, yet, like successful parents who want their children to have more opportunities than they had and achieve more than they did, we want the Lexington of tomorrow to be a better place than it is today.

Throughout all of the citywide discussions, one critical element has been missing: the centrality of a fine art museum to a region's cultural identity.

The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky serves as Lexington's, indeed Central Kentucky's, art museum, yet without overt support from the city. And its executive director of 11 years, Kathy Walsh-Piper — who is resigning Aug. 1 — conveyed to the Herald-Leader's Rich Copley that the university isn't providing the support it should, either.

Do you know of a thriving city without an art museum of importance? The Speed Museum in Louisville is now closed for a several-year renovation project and will emerge even stronger than before. Cincinnati, a much larger city, supports multiple museums.

Lexington relies on UK to provide a bastion of fine art, yet UK doesn't support it as it should and can't support it alone. Walsh-Piper has worked over the years to draw the university's attention to the need for more and different space for the museum, as well as the need for parking.

While investments are made in athletics and residence halls, and will soon be made in the business school, the museum is asked to make do with precious little.

And it does make do, fulfilling its educational responsibility to the university and the broader community as best it can. The staff and volunteers ensure that the museum is delighting and educating thousands annually. Docents provide tours on a volunteer basis to schoolchildren, university students and adult groups regularly, and the education outreach arm of the museum travels to schools that cannot afford transportation to bring its children to the galleries.

In fact, the Docent Council is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary of serving the community in this way. In that time, we have had a steady core of 20 to 25 docents per year and estimate that more than 200 volunteers have been trained and participated in museum activities over the years. Two of the docents in the original 1983 training class continue their volunteer participation to this day.

A recently adopted metric quantifies docent contributions as the equivalent of a half-time staff position in terms of hours volunteered. Docent-led small group tours open the door both to art and to conversations about the art. We estimate 6,000 annual visitors to the museum (including those touched by outreach programs that the museum initiates), thus we can conservatively estimate 180,000 contacts made in the course of the docents' 30 years.

Why are the museum's presence and reach important?

By developing an understanding of the elements of art, we learn to see. By thinking about how an artist created a work of art, we expand our creativity. Not all art is beautiful by traditional standards, but true art provokes our mind and our senses. It enables us to view people, things and situations differently as a result of the capacity we develop to look carefully and interpret what is before us.

Lexington has several small museums, each with its own administration, supporters and cost. Not one is on truly firm financial footing. If Lexington truly aspires to greatness, and if the university does, too, our city and UK must collaborate to develop an institution that can take a good museum to great.

Such collaboration would give the philanthropists in our region an exceptional opportunity to provide a legacy for generations to come. And it would enable the museum to have an impact on many, many more people.

Walsh-Piper's resignation serves as a call to action for our region. Will leaders respond?

At issue:

March 20 Herald-Leader article "Director decries lack of support for art museum; urges new site, higher profile"

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