FRANKFORT — When the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce decided to renovate and enlarge its headquarters to create more public space, chamber president David Adkisson said, "I kept saying I wanted something really Kentucky."
He considered asking architects to design the 7,000-squre-foot addition to look like a fancy Bluegrass horse barn, or even a bourbon distillery warehouse.
"They convinced me that wasn't the way to go," Adkisson said, as he gave me a tour of the beautiful, but conventional, new space.
What is happening instead is a better reflection of Kentucky's uniqueness: the Chamber is filling its new building with a diverse collection of original art and furniture by the state's contemporary artists and craftsmen.
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Since the new space opened in April, it has been a big hit, with members of the business advocacy group and with other Kentucky organizations that have used the new meeting rooms, Adkisson said.
He said the project has more than achieved his goal of making the Chamber's headquarters, near the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 60, a prominent "front door" to Frankfort.
"We're in the business of showing off the best of Kentucky, so this was a natural," Adkisson said. "We made a conscious effort to create a gallery-like atmosphere that would showcase the artwork. Now, when groups come here, the art immediately becomes the focus of attention."
The project also has been a significant boost for Kentucky artists — and not just because the Chamber has so far spent about $50,000 buying and commissioning pieces. Louisville distiller Brown Foreman gave $40,000 toward the art project, and most of the rest so far has come from building-project money, Adkisson said.
Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, worked closely with the Chamber to identify artists and pieces for the building.
"It's incredibly important for the Chamber to recognize that to complete a building, you need art," Meadows said. "A lot of time went into the selection of pieces to make sure they were appropriate for each spot."
The additional space was built onto the front of the Chamber's existing 10,000-square-foot building. The two sections are connected by a new, light-filled lobby. The upper parts of the tall lobby walls are covered with panoramic Kentucky scenes by Jeff Rogers, a Lexington photographer best known for his two Kentucky Wide books.
The Chamber's new board room is dominated by a round conference table designed by Brooks Meador of Interspace Limited in Lexington and produced by furniture maker Shawn Strevels of Faulkner Fain in Nicholasville.
The board room's largest wall displays four large seasonal landscape paintings of Kentucky wilderness by John Lackey of Lexington. Light from a corner window illuminates a leaded-glass sculpture by Dan Neil Barnes of Lexington.
The building's largest meeting space — the AT&T Teleconference Room — has a 10-painting suite by Lexington artist Dan McGrath, depicting scenes of commerce across the state.
The new addition also features paintings by Chris Segre-Lewis of Wilmore and Darrell Ishmael of Lexington, and mixed-media pieces by Kathleen O'Brien of Harrodsburg. There are decorative platters made by porcelain artist Wayne Bates of Murray, and a coffee table in the reception area made by Mark Whitley of Smith's Grove.
"Our goal is to buy one new piece each year," Adkisson said. After a few more pieces are purchased, he said, the Chamber plans to publish a brochure for visitors, telling about each artwork and the artist who created it.
"I think it's exciting that they are realizing the value of art and supporting it," said Ishmael, who in addition to being a successful artist is an executive with East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester. "I think it's really refreshing, and I wish other businesses would do it."
Meadows said the Chamber's collection has inspired several executives to contact her for help in acquiring original Kentucky art for their companies' buildings. "That's exactly what we want to see happen," she said.