In an intense political year like the one we are preparing to depart, the arts can provide perspective, commentary and even refuge. Sometimes, they even become involved in the political conversation.
And if ever there was a year for the arts in Kentucky to become part of the political conversation, it was 2016. The year started with what turned out to be an unfounded rumor that newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin was going to slash the budget of the Kentucky Arts Council. That didn’t happen, but in November, Bevin did a major restructuring of the Arts Council board and Lydia Bailey Brown was named as the council’s new director, replacing outgoing director Lori Meadows, who had been in the post more than a decade.
Changes in state agencies are common when new administrations come in, although the Arts Council had previously gone through administration changes without major shakeups.
Between those events, the Affrilachian Poets made headlines by becoming the first entity to ever decline a Governor’s Award in the Arts. The Lexington-based writers collective cited disagreements with Bevin on concerns about education and the humanities.
One of the stories to watch in the new year will be where Bailey Brown leads the arts council and the arts as a whole in Kentucky.
▪ One of the biggest stories in Lexington was the opening of the 21c Museum Hotel in March, bringing a major contemporary art venue to Lexington. The 21c brand has become well known in the region, with its home base and flagship hotel in Louisville and another outlet in Cincinnati. But coming to Lexington gave the city a unique museum in a prime location and a business that boasts a strong artistic sense throughout its operation. Exhibits are drawn from the extensive contemporary art collection of owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, and it will be fun to watch how exhibits evolve in its first full year of operation. It opened in part with an exhibition of work by internationally acclaimed artist and University of Kentucky faculty member Ebony G. Patterson.
▪ The hotel became the launch pad for the latest community arts project by Transylvania University’s Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, using the Frank X Walker phrase “Unlearn Fear + Hate” in a sculpture and photography campaign, paint stencils, T-shirts, cross stitches and — how seasonal — Christmas ornaments. In the spirit of arts responding to culture and politics, the campaign was designed to provoke conversation and understanding between un-like-minded people.
▪ And 21c was part of an unprecedented effort to recognize a local artist. 21C and other venues, including the University of Kentucky Art Museum, Institute 193, the Lexington Art League and UK Chandler Hospital, all exhibited work by or selected by Louis Zoellar Bickett. Bickett has long been one of Lexington’s most active and intriguing artists, and the multi-venue project honored him at the same time he is struggling with the degenerative impact of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
▪ In November, the community was stunned by the unexpected death of gallery owner, artist and art critic Ann Tower, who was most recently best known for operating Main Street’s Ann Tower Gallery. Tower had been active in the arts in Lexington in a variety of capacities since the mid-1970s, when she was an art student at the University of Kentucky. Her death after suffering a brain aneurysm came less than a year after the death of her husband, Robert Tharsing, a retired UK art professor and an internationally exhibited artist.
▪ In a back-to-the-future move, SummerFest returned outdoor theater to Woodland Park last summer. The event carries on the legacy of Shakespeare in the Park and the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, which launched in the park and nearby Bell Court before moving to the Arboretum and then the MoonDance amphitheater. SummerFest was encouraged to move to Woodland by Lexington Parks and Recreation, which manages the park, and MoonDance, allowing for more concerts at the Beaumont Amphitheatre and effectively creating a summer arts season at Woodland with Ballet Under the Stars and the Woodland Art Fair after the play series. For its return, SummerFest presented an all-female version of “As You Like It” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
▪ The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra also shook up its summer programming, splitting the Friday and Saturday performances of Picnic with the Pops into two distinct shows. Its Friday night edition, in mid-August, had the orchestra providing a live score to a screening of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Then, Saturday, the orchestra welcomed “Glee” and stage star Matthew Morrison for a concert performance. Picnic representatives said the move was made to reinvigorate the series and make it more attractive to younger audiences.
▪ The Phil also enjoyed a first when it was featured on the public radio program “Performance Today.” Host Fred Child himself introduced the orchestra and conductor Scott Terrell on the Nov. 1 broadcast in a recording of the 2014 world premiere performance of Adam Schoenberg’s “Canto.”
▪ This is a very newsy wrap-up, but a lot of performance happened this year, including the philharmonic, who our classical music critics say continues to flourish under Terrell’s baton. Both of Lexington’s new professional theater troupes were on stage, the Lexington Theatre Company presenting a big Broadway take on “Mary Poppins” and AthensWest Theatre Company wrapping its first season by returning area actor Mark Mozingo to local stages in “Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge,” reprising a role he created in New York. The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre delivered a rendition of “Ragtime” (another show touted for its relevance to today’s headlines) that got some of the best word-of-mouth I have heard for a show since I’ve been here, and we end the year with Berea College musicians on national TV Christmas Eve.
Things might change in Lexington and Kentucky arts, but they continue to evolve and remain vibrant.