For several years in the annual Arts Preview, we have talked about what's new in Lexington arts: new artists and leaders, new groups, new venues and new audiences.
This is my 15th arts guide for the Herald-Leader. It seems like a good time to go to some of the people I have covered since I arrived here in 1998 to get their perspective on Lexington arts over the years. What has changed for better and worse, what are their hopes and fears for the future, and what do they think is the state of the arts in Central Kentucky?
It is a diverse group of people who have been here as long as or longer than I have. They have a diverse set of opinions on everything from the art being made to how it is supported by leaders and audiences.
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Many people I contacted cited the growth of organizations and creation of new organizations.
Larry Snipes, managing director of Lexington Children's Theatre, pointed to his group's own growth since his arrival. It has gone from essentially a volunteer group that produced three shows a year to a theater with a permanent downtown location, 14 full-time employees and a million-dollar-plus budget that produces numerous shows annually throughout the region.
Snipes sees his theater's growth as part of a greater trend: "Just look at this arts calendar. I dare you to find a weekend where there is nothing going on in the arts. In the theater world in addition to our work at LCT, we have solid longstanding groups like Studio Players and Actors Guild as well as newer groups like Project SEE, The Rep, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre and the innovative work and concept that is Balagula," the theater based at Natasha's Bistro & Bar.
Longtime Lexington actor Robert Parks Johnson thinks the growth of theater alternatives has been healthy.
"Our community was once dominated by a handful of personality cults," Johnson writes. "You were loyal to this director or that one, this company or another. Actors are much more willing to go where the work is exciting, and right now, that's just about everywhere."
For University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey, Lexington has done nothing less than embrace an art form it previously hadn't.
"When I arrived in Lexington, I was told by someone, 'Everett, this town will never support opera. Go somewhere while you are still young that will support opera,'" he recalls. "I'm happy to say that this person was wrong. Lexington truly is an opera town."
Similarly, UK choirs director and Lexington Singers conductor Jefferson Johnson says he has been impressed with the growth of choral music in the area.
Ann Tower, owner of Ann Tower Gallery in the Downtown Arts Center, thinks Lexington is on the verge of a visual arts renaissance, thanks in large part to new activities on Main Street like planned 21c Museum Hotel, expected to open in 2014.
Tower writes, "21c opening here is the single most exciting thing that's happened, or scheduled to happen, for the visual arts in Lexington. At last, an art hotel on Main Street that celebrates the adventurous art collection built by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. It will be a magnet for art lovers, as well as the curious, and whether they like the art or not, there will be plenty to discuss and think about. I expect those same visitors will also venture out to see what else our city has to offer, and maybe, some will think about starting their own art collections, or at least a buying a painting or a photograph or something."
To artist and onetime gallery owner Bob Morgan, visual arts have been buoyed by artists working outside of major institutions.
"When I meet young folks in the arts who seem blocked into a corner, I tell them to just take control and make it happen without local resources," Morgan writes. "I tell them they are in many ways better off creating off the grid; there are no restrictions. One day I wish the local money bags would create a slush fund just to give to young and creative artists to do what they do best ... light fires all over this town and shame us with what they can do with their spark and vision. Spark and vision are severely lacking in almost all of our art organizations and institutions."
Snipes and others worry about a de-emphasis on arts education in the schools.
"Over the years I have seen things improve a bit and then have the rug pulled out from under them," Snipes says. "When I came to Lexington, the Fayette County Public Schools had the Arts in Basic Education Program that had specialists in all disciplines who worked in elementary schools to help teachers integrate the arts into their classroom. Sadly, that program was phased out."
While there still are active arts programs at most Fayette County schools, Snipes notes arts are no longer evaluated on state assessment tests and says, "Not on the test equals not important.
"I wonder if our young people will be provided opportunities to participate in and see arts performances, or will we continue to chip away at the creative fabric of our society?"
McCorvey says, "When you take arts out of the schools, you take the reason that some students get out of bed in the morning to get to school. I was in the band when I was in elementary school. It was the excitement about being in the band that got me up every day and got me to school. It was music that carried me through my classes and helped me to appreciate the importance of discipline and responsibility so that I could practice my art."
Robert Parks Johnson has a concern more specific to his craft, theater, and a reduction in the number of Shakespearean plays presented in the Lexington area.
"Actors and audiences who love the Bard have one chance a year to play together," he says, referring to the Shakespeare play presented each year by SummerFest. Other theaters present Shakespeare occasionally, but none on a regular schedule.
"There is no way to develop a corps of actors with the skills and experience to play the classics well when there are only a dozen opportunities to practice," Johnson says. "The result is work that is frustrating for artists and audiences alike. I wish there were more chances for our artists to scale this pinnacle of our language's contribution to the world theater."
For fund-raising in general, Snipes worries about the deaths of numerous arts contributors such as Lucille Caudill Little and William T. Young, and he wonders where there are other donors of their means.
Looking to the future
Jefferson Johnson, the UK choirs director, says he thinks he has seen increased donations to the arts grow his and other groups around the area, including the higher profile of the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and growth of chamber music showcases.
"I am very proud (and somewhat surprised) that a city with the population of Lexington has been able to foster and grow so many high-quality arts groups — especially in light of the cuts in state and federal funding," Johnson says.
For Robert Parks Johnson, the most affirming aspect of the arts in Lexington is that he sees a new generation calling the tune.
"Gifted, committed young artists are driving the bus now," Johnson writes. "That as much as anything makes me proud of my legacy and hopeful for the future of our art in this wonderful town."