Colmon Eldridge decided to survey the room during his talk to close the Gathering of Creatives: A Call to Action meeting Saturday afternoon.
How many people were on their local city councils, the former adviser to Gov. Steve Beshear asked. County officials? School board members? As he suspected, few if any hands went up in the room of 100 artists, arts administrators and advocates, brought together by concerns over recent political and organizational changes in Kentucky.
“Those who sit in the room where it happens control what happens,” Eldridge said. “Imagine if artists started running for office.
“It’s not just about organizing and advocating but, as my mom used to say, it’s about taking a seat at the table and then daring someone to tell you to leave.”
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Former Kentucky poet laureate and Governor’s School for the Arts director Frank X Walker, who is on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, called the meeting at Danville High School in an effort to organize the Commonwealth’s artists, particularly those from outside Lexington and Louisville, to raise the profile of arts in the state.
“We promote horses and distilleries,” Walker said in opening comments. “We need to promote our artists.”
At times, the meeting did directly address changes in Kentucky state government, namely the election of Gov. Matt Bevin, and subsequent changes at the Kentucky Arts Council, which had its board rearranged by Bevin and saw the departure of longtime director Lori Meadows late last year.
Musician Carla Gover was the first to address the issue directly, saying, “When I saw the governor’s statement that the arts council was being rearranged to focus on commerce, I thought, ‘That’s exactly what the Kentucky Arts Council has been doing extremely well for us for lo these many years.”
On a few occasions, speakers addressed what they saw as an adversarial relationship between Republican leaders and artists on the national and state level. But many speakers focused on positive advocacy and building a case for the arts.
Jane Dewey, director of arts education for Danville schools, spoke about the importance of certified visual and performing arts education in the overall educational achievement of students and fostering creativity, which she said is the No. 1 trait business leaders say they desire in new employees. Meadows laid out a case for the overall economic impact of arts in Kentucky, which she said accounted for 108,000 jobs in the creative sector and $2 billion in earnings.
Meadows did not directly address her departure from the arts council at the meeting, and said afterward she is taking time off. Walker said he did not invite new Arts Council director Lydia Bailey Brown or anyone else currently with the Arts Council to speak because, “I didn’t want this to be about organizations.”
Walker said he regretted the more-than-three-hour meeting did not include in-person networking, one of the group’s big goals, but he said that sort of organizing would take place online and on social media. He said he was happy about the turnout on a rainy, foggy Saturday and the overall tone of the gathering. He was particularly happy with Eldridge’s closing, in which he said, “Don’t tell people about the importance of the arts. Show the power of the arts.”
Walker said, “I think he fired people up for the ride home, and I hope we can keep that flame lit.”