Copious notes

Rich Copley: Shaping the arts in Lexington depends on you — yes, you

rcopley@herald-leader.comJanuary 5, 2014 

There's nothing like idle time during the holidays to fuel an extended Facebook conversation. One of those occurred this week on Lexington-area theater artist Tim X Davis' Facebook page about a familiar subject: whether Lexington can support a professional theater with members of Actors Equity, the stage actors union.

That conversation began well before I arrived in Lexington 16 years ago. But one idea that emerged a few times in Davis' thread was this: It's ultimately up to the audience to decide.

Artists certainly can have their hopes and dreams, and even their business plans, to make their passions full-time occupations in the cities where they choose to live. But it's ultimately up to each city's arts audience to decide whether those ideas will become sustainable enterprises.

That seems like a good place to start a new year, posing the question to the Lexington arts audience: What do you want in your local arts offerings?

And we're not just asking, what sounds like a good idea?

Sure, we can roll out the wish list: a professional Equity theater, a full-time orchestra, a 2,000-seat performing-arts center, a destination museum in the middle of downtown, a professional and healthy ballet company. Those would be great.

But if, say, that Equity theater launches and plays to mostly empty seats, it will quickly close and become the reason no one is willing to take a shot at launching a similar company for another decade.

The idea of a major performing-arts center — which would put Lexington on par with smaller Kentucky cities including Richmond (with its EKU Center for the Arts) and Paducah (with its Carson Center) — has been repeatedly turned back by several mayors and other public officials because they question whether it could be sustained.

Most of the performing arts groups in town operate as non-profits, but market forces determine their success or failure.

There continues a strong debate between the musicians and the management of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra about the group's direction in terms of its makeup and programming. Those issues brought the Philharmonic to the brink of a strike last year, and they will be discussed in contract negotiations this year. But there is a strong role for the audience to play: voting with their wallets as to where they want to see the organization go.

That might sound as if I'm putting all the responsibility on the audience. Certainly not.

To gain support, it is up to artists and administrators to present ideas to the best of their abilities and articulate why their work is important, and to manage their groups dynamically and professionally.

There have been projects and entities that received plenty of support in Lexington.

The Living Arts and Science Center is on the verge of completing a $5 million capital campaign because people believe in what it is doing. Lexington's collegiate opera troupe, the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, presented more than a dozen performances of Les Misérables last fall because many people were willing to pay to see it.

The Lexington Tattoo Project, one of the squirrelliest arts ideas this or any area has seen, attracted more than 200 people willing to participate with their skin and numerous businesses and individuals willing to support it with donations. Many more were just interested in being part of the events surrounding it.

One of the distinctions of Lexington arts in the past few years has that offbeat ideas have attracted followings while more traditional forms have struggled.

Things do start with the idea. But once those ideas are presented, it is up to a public that wants to see those things to support them.

Do you want a professional theater in Lexington? Do you think that's important for this town? If so, show your support. Let cultural leaders know your opinion. The next time a group tries to start one, find out how you can financially support it. Go to the shows.

Do you like what the Philharmonic is doing now? Buy tickets. Make donations. Make phone calls. If you're dissatisfied, don't. That makes a statement, too.

Should Lexington have a major performing-arts center? Contact your elected representatives and make your voice heard.

One of the recurring themes in stories I covered in the past year is the ability of a few people to get something big going.

As we enter a new year, don't forget that even if your role in Lexington arts is simply as a member of the audience, you are really important, and you have a say in what kind of arts community we have.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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