The recent controversy over the Kentucky Arts Council sounds like a different version of the discussion of the arts that occurred during the administration of another entrepreneur-turned-governor, John Y. Brown, Jr.
At that time, Brown and his wife, Phyllis George (my uncle and aunt, by the way), became advocates for Kentucky crafts. At the time, of course, some people felt like “folk art” (quilts and wall hangings, whittled and painted animals, fiddles and mandolins and so on) were not “real” art — until Phyllis was able to get New York department stores to carry such art. At that point, the makers became “artists” as legitimate as Andy Warhol or Paul Sawyier.
The argument this time around is not “What is art?” Instead, the argument is over “What should the focus of the Kentucky Arts Council be?”
Gov. Matt Bevin wants it to focus more attention on helping artists sell what they make.
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It’s about time.
Taken too far, an emphasis on helping artists and artisans sell their art can result in valuing only that art which can be sold, or that art which sells for better prices than other art.
It must not be thought that a quilt which sells for hundreds or thousands of dollars is “better” than a hand-carved whistle that sells for $10. Both require talent and ability. Both have artistic merit.
Likewise, a large photograph that sells for $750 is not necessarily “more artistic” than a pastel or watercolor picture that sells for “only” $250. Art in and of itself has value, regardless of the price (or lack of one) attached.
Still, there is a great deal more that Kentucky’s most important arts agency can do to help artists be more financially successful and be better business people.
Don Parkinson, Secretary of the Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage, was quoted by Tom Eblen in this paper as saying, “The new arts council will focus on ensuring that Kentucky artisans have the skills and knowledge to develop and successfully sell their products.”
I take him at his word. Moreover, as both an artist and an entrepreneur, I want that kind of assistance.
Beyond providing assistance to artists, the KAC could provide opportunities to sell their art more frequently than once a year by:
▪ Establishing an online Kentucky Arts Marketplace where artists can gain access to a world-wide market for their art, year-round.
▪ Opening Kentucky Crafted salesrooms in rest areas along interstates and highways to sell books, art works, photographs, music, ceramics and other art to tourists and their fellow Kentuckians.
▪ Providing subsidies to counties wanting to establish extension service fine-arts agents. Such agents would work with local communities to establish arts programs suited to their county’s needs and interests. Results of such efforts may be the creation of after-school arts programs, or a local literary journal, perhaps a community theater or community chorus.
The possibilities of such an effort would be to develop interest in the arts across the commonwealth and in ways that, long term, will benefit us all — whether we are artists or merely appreciate the arts.
Quite frankly, it baffles me why Bevin has reconstituted the KAC board and dismissed its longtime and well-respected executive director, Lori Meadows, in the way that he did. A public discussion of his thoughts and ideas on the topic prior to such actions would have been helpful and beneficial to all concerned.
Unfortunately, that was not what happened.
Regardless, Kentuckians and Kentucky artists — whether they whittle wood or write on paper made from pulp wood — will be affected by the changes. Indeed, such changes represent an opportunity to develop new artists and new ways for established artists to make their works pay off financially.
William H. McCann Jr. of Corinth is a playwright, poet, teacher and president of the Kentucky Playwrights Workshop, Inc.
At issue: Tom Eblen column, What’s behind Bevin’s reorganization of the Kentucky Arts Council?