One year in, LexArts head reflects on her role in the community and ways to grow

Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer, CEO and president of LexArts, moved here last year from Little Rock, Ark. Her first Fund for the Arts campaign exceeded its goal.
Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer, CEO and president of LexArts, moved here last year from Little Rock, Ark. Her first Fund for the Arts campaign exceeded its goal. Herald-Leader

Between accepting the job as president and CEO of LexArts last fall and making the move from Little Rock, Ark., to Lexington, something caught Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer's attention online.

It was the front page of the Herald-Leader. At the center was a story about the controversial mural by street artist MTO on Manchester Street. There was a large color photo of the massive, dark mural, commissioned by the PRHBTN street art festival, featuring a hooded figure behind bars and a story with comments both defending the artistic expression of the work and denouncing it as an eyesore.

Far from wondering what she had gotten herself into, Plummer was thrilled to see the situation was front-page news because, "It's about art. And even though it's a bit of a controversy in the moment, it matters. People are paying attention. That's a good thing: Even when it's controversial, art has meaning here."

That is a feeling that has only been affirmed in the past 10 months since Plummer arrived in Lexington to lead Lexington's arts umbrella organization.

Lexington is Plummer's first arts council, but she comes from a deep arts background with several degrees in art and business.

She came from the Arkansas Children's Hospital Foundation in Little Rock, where she was the development officer. Before that, she was executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, the state's oldest art museum and its second-largest arts organization.

Since she arrived late last year, Plummer has been seeing as much as she can and meeting as many people as possible. In July, she wrapped up her first Fund for the Arts campaign with $1,066,783, exceeding the $1,050,200 goal.

We sat down to talk about Plummer's impressions thus far and about the future. The following are some questions and answers from that chat.

Question. What persuaded you this was a place you wanted to come and become a part of?

Answer. It wasn't one thing. It was a lot of things. The job itself lets me use all of my experience in non-profit and arts organizations. It lets me bring to bear my interest in non-profit in general. And all of this experience I had in fundraising at Arkansas Children's Hospital. It just brought all of these things together.

I've worked in big places and little places. For some reason, it was fun to be thinking about being back in a small shop again, with a small team. I was really impressed with the team, and my first impressions paid off: a really sharp, hard-working, devoted team.

David Smith and John Long, who headed up the search committee, were folks I really felt I could work with. My theory of non-profit leadership is there is a strategic partnership between the board chair and the CEO. This is a binary system in the sector, and there's gotta be a real investment and involvement and willingness to work together as partners. It's a tricky balance, and a lot of non-profit boards struggle with this, a lot of CEOs, that balance between involvement and oversight — as a friend of mine describes it, "noses in, fingers out," that a board needs to have. We have that balance of involvement and detachment.

Q. What do you see as LexArts' role in the arts community?

A. Every arts council is unique, because it serves the organizations that exist and sort of fills in between them. We're connective tissue that way. LexArts is unusual in that it has these two roles as a local arts council doing public arts events and Gallery Hop and the Lexington arts network that serves artists and arts agencies and our own arts programs people come to and enjoy.

And we also have this united arts fund to raise money for the arts and give it away. That's an unusual combination, but it's working here because that's what the city needs and the combination of those two functions, now 30 years ago, seems to have been the right thing to do given the scale of the community and the scale of the organizations.

Q. What are the strengths of the Lexington cultural community?

A. In no particular order, and looking at this through a LexArts lens: Breeders' Cup, which has been an occasion for us to work with the Corridors Commission to do some temporary installations along Newtown Pike leading up to Keeneland. It's going to be a best-foot-forward moment for the arts community.

Town Branch and that whole project — I haven't seen a lot of focus on that lately, and I think that's because Breeders' Cup is taking a lot of that energy — is going to be very interesting.

As a denizen of Short Street, that temporary project going in with the seating areas into the street and the new parking pattern, we hosted and were able to take part in some of the early focus groups around that idea of Downtown Development Authority. I think that's a building block for the Town Branch process, creating walkable areas in downtown and social spaces where no parks happen to exist. Some experimentation is great.

Another thing I have become more aware of is the emphasis on creative industries and creative placemaking, which are not necessarily the same but are connected.

Q. What needs work?

A. That development effort continually needs work. We'd like to find more donors. We'd like to grow in proportion to the growth of the arts community. LexArts and united arts funds in general since the recession have been doing well to stay where they are. So we need to find ways to grow.

I don't have a grand vision of how things need to be. I still really am on a listening tour studying up on what's here. It's the same question: Who am I? Who are you? What do we need to do together?