Retiring LexArts CEO pleased with the growth of community support

rcopley@herald-leader.comJune 28, 2014 

Several times during last week's forum regarding the search for a new president and CEO of LexArts, participants stopped to observe that with all that people wanted from this person, he or she would have to be an arts-administration superhero.

Jim Clark has done the job for 12 years, a tenure that comes to an end Monday. He says he recognizes the job as challenging, but he does not necessarily say it's a position that requires superhuman feats of fund-raising and arts advocacy.

"It's always been a balancing act," Clark said in his office at ArtsPlace, exactly one week from the first day of his retirement. "When push comes to shove, this organization is about raising and distributing funds.

"And I think that's where we've made the greatest difference: changing the grants process and making it more public and transparent. Especially with some of the new groups coming online in the last few years, we've looked at what we've been able to offer that transcends financial resources, helping them to develop."

Clark, 56, says he is happy with a number of achievements during his tenure, which began in 2002. They include a growing diversity of arts groups in Lexington; the recent boom in public art; a stronger sense of community pride and innovations in fund-raising for LexArts, including its EcoArt program; and an art-acquisition program for St. Joseph Healthcare that resulted in more $250,000 in sales for local artists.

The signature event for LexArts is its annual Fund for the Arts campaign, which raises money that is distributed to some member groups for general operating support and other groups and individuals in the form of grants.

During Clark's tenure, the fund exceeded $1 million raised and has stayed around that level. Clark says that has been an achievement — and a frustration.

"Once we got past the million-dollar mark, it has been a challenge to move it up," Clark says. "Lexington is a tough town to fund-raise in. We are not like Louisville or Cincinnati, which are industrial-based towns with powerful CEOs who decide that's how we're going to support the community, through the United Way, a united arts fund and one or two other things."

Clark says it has been frustrating to constantly hear comparisons to the regional metropolises without a real understanding that they are very different from Lexington in population and philanthropic culture.

Still, he says, "If you pull everything apart, I guarantee you our arts organizations are stronger than Louisville's. We don't have the ups and downs that they've experienced with the orchestra and ballet. ... There's been a less healthy environment when it comes to the arts organizations.

"So the scale is very different, and that has everything to do with the industry type and the size of the population."

In recent years, Clark and LexArts' board have set out a plan to increase the campaign goal to $2 million by 2016. But Clark says that might have to wait a few years, perhaps until 2020.

Still, he says, he sees signs of hope in developments that have taken place since 2002 and the plans on the horizon.

"When the Fifth Third Pavilion was built, that's when I started to see a real change in people's perceptions of what the possibilities were for Lexington," Clark says, referring to the covered space in Cheapside Park downtown. "That was when I started hearing people, particularly young people talk differently. The success of Thursday Night Live and the vitality that brings creates a positive energy and a vibe, gives downtown a real distinct kind of vibe.

"So as CentrePointe comes out of the ground, and as 21c occupies the old First National Building, there will be another sense of optimism. And I think it will be a sense of optimism that will fuel generosity, and a generosity that wants to see things grow and mature."

Clarks says one of the highlights of his watch was the recent emergence of several new arts and arts-oriented organizations, including Institute 193, the North Limestone Neighborhood Association and Balagula Theatre.

"All of these things reflect (that) we have a fairly solid foundation on which the ideas can take hold," Clark says. "I've sensed that there was a shift in the perceptions of mostly young adults that Lexington is growing, and maybe you didn't have to move away to accomplish something or be a part of something."

When he took the job at LexArts, which was then named the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council, Clark was a newcomer to Kentucky, having spent most of his life in his native Los Angeles and New York.

"I'm constantly impressed by the depth of the artistry and cultural expression," Clark says of Central Kentucky.

He has been struck by meeting musicians and visual artists who "don't necessarily view themselves as artists. It's part of their expression as a creative being, whose family has been involved in music forever, so picking up a guitar or mandolin or banjo is second nature, and they play at very high levels, and the folk art and craft is at such a high level. I know we celebrate that, but I'm not sure that's fully integrated into our psyche as being a positive thing."

Part of that disconnect, he says, is attributable to a rural-urban divide that prompts some city residents not to appreciate Kentucky's indigenous art.

Asked about frustrations, Clark laughs and says, "You have to ask?"

The same day Clark retires, the Downtown Arts Center is scheduled to go to city management, a move he has wanted for a while. The city-owned center was originally put under LexArts' management by a different mayor and Clark's predecessor, Dee Fizdale.

Clark says management of the center has been a drag on LexArts' financial and human resources, and on its reputation, especially since Actors Guild of Lexington moved out in 2009, leaving the center's black box theater dark many nights.

"I wish I could have figured out a better way, but that was obviously beyond my toolbox," Clark says.

He says it's a good thing that his successor, which the search committee hopes to name by Oct. 1, will not have to deal with the arts center and can focus on fund-raising.

Meanwhile, Clark plans to focus on his garden.

"People think I'm being funny, but I'm not," Clark says. "That will help me clear my head after 25 years of working in the non-profit realm.

"The arts have been a big part of my life, and even though I will be taking time off, I will probably come up with projects to get me back involved."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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