It isn't easy to get attention when you're standing behind a civic arena that seats more than 20,000 people and is home to the commonwealth's collective obsession: the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.
But Lexington Mayor Jim Gray took some time last week to emphasize that within the need, use and benefit report on the Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District are other potential performance venues for arts groups, new museum or gallery space, and a new home for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
Everyone involved emphasizes that all ideas are purely at the discussion stages, with no firm plans for the Lexington arena or any other aspect of the project. But if even a few ideas come to fruition, it might fundamentally redraw the Lexington arts and entertainment map.
Conspicuously absent from the proposals is a major new performing arts theater of 2,000 to 2,500 seats. That's the type of downtown Lexington venue that has been discussed for decades. It could host major Broadway touring shows, marquee artists and serve as a gathering place for major conventions.
Never miss a local story.
Making something of a surprise appearance was the suggestion of an 800- to 1,000-seat acoustic concert hall that could serve as home to organizations such as the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras and other presenters of acoustic music.
The arts and entertainment report was written by LexArts president and CEO Jim Clark and based on surveys of area arts groups.
"This being such a sensitive subject, we wanted to dig down into each individual component and use the expertise that was already available and studies that were already available to be able to drive toward a recommendation instead of jumping out and making statements that didn't have any background or any base," said Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky and head of the need, use and benefit subcommittee of the Arena Arts and Entertainment Task Force.
Stanford Harvey, a principal at the urban design and planning firm Urban Collage and project manager of the task force, said, "There was a need to define what could be explored physically and programmatically in the arena district. It could be things that are there today or it could be, more importantly, things that are not there but are a need in the city — something that could complement this idea of a mixed-use entertainment district."
Alison Kaiser, executive director of the Lexington Philharmonic, says it's important for local arts to be part of that mix. She cited a talk Tuesday by architect Gary Bates, an adviser to the task force, in which he spoke of a desire to harness the excitement of people who gather for basketball games. He said, "That could be used for all the performing arts and visual arts because those are a big part of what we do to weave fabric of a vital community."
Kaiser's organization might end up with a new home base if one of the recommendations is taken.
The report says the majority of Lexington's 63 arts and cultural groups have adequate spaces in which to perform, but the Philharmonic and some others could use a facility specifically designed for their acoustics that also would give them more control over scheduling. The Philharmonic's primary venue now is the Singletary Center for the Arts at the University of Kentucky. Because Singletary's primary constituent is the university and its arts groups, the orchestra is often hampered in its planning efforts, Kaiser and others said.
But Clark said, "I need to emphasize the Philharmonic did not come to us asking for a new home. But some of these underlying issues are real, which is why they came to the 'needs' group."
One potential location for such a concert hall is the historic First Baptist Church on Main Street. It is a functioning church, but Clark says church leadership has expressed interest in it being used as a concert venue. The building would require extensive renovation.
Other needs that were identified included gallery space downtown for groups such as the Lexington Art League and possibly even The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. Fayette County Public Schools also has started to explore the idea of a free-standing School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is based in part at Lafayette High School. Superintendent Tom Shelton says school officials were impressed with arts schools they visited in Greenville, S.C., and Cincinnati and are exploring a SCAPA downtown with broader artistic and vocational arts programs for all grades.
The focus on local arts groups is in large part why the report recommends against a larger theater. No local arts group would use that sort of facility regularly. It goes on to cite the regional presence of Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and the new Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond as reasons "there is no objective evidence that concludes the Lexington market could absorb a similar type of facility."
"Contemporary models caution against an arms race in venue size," Gray said, citing successes in cities such as Kansas City, Mo., and Los Angeles with smaller venues. "What this committee has done is worked to identify the needs and the capacity to meet those needs in a realistic way.'"
The most recent discussion of a bigger performing arts center theater has come from Lexington Center president and CEO Bill Owen as a potential use for the Rupp Arena footprint if a new arena were built, which is the central question of the task force.
Owen acknowledges that with rare exceptions, local groups would not be interested in using a facility that size. But he also said he thinks such a venue could stay busy, noting that if promoters were given a choice between bringing shows to similar facilities in Lexington or Richmond, they probably would choose Lexington because of its larger population base.
Discussion of any project at this time is not an either/or question, he says.
"We're still in the possibilities discussion as a community," Owen says. "The whole task force initiative is still evaluating possibilities."