Lydia Bailey Brown hasn’t finished moving into her office in the Capitol Center complex off Versailles Road in Frankfort, but clearly, the work of the Kentucky Arts Council is not going to wait for the last picture to be hung.
A temporary table is under a blanket of paper and brochure stacks, designated with yellow Post-It notes, as the new executive director of the Arts Council prepares for upcoming events, including Friday’s Arts Day at the state capitol, where the Arts Council and Commonwealth artists and arts administrators work to get the arts on legislators’ radars.
“A few weeks ago, door to door, we went over to every senator’s office and every representative’s office, meeting administrators, meeting staff people, meeting senators and representatives, inviting them to come,” Bailey Brown says.
“The goal was to put a face on the arts council. They get emails from us, they get paper invites; we physically designed the paper invitation to be a 3-D invitation that would sit up on the desk to make sure arts council is not just in a pile of other things to do.
“We’ve taken very seriously the relationships that are important to maintaining the arts through the legislature.”
For Bailey Brown, the Kentucky Arts Council post is the latest chapter of a life in the arts that she jokingly says started at birth. Her mother was a painter and had a love for arts and design that Bailey Brown latched onto early.
Artist since birth
“My first memories are going to church or community groups with her, where she was painting or designing something, and I was alongside her, doing the same thing,” Bailey Brown says. “Even before I could talk, I was painting something alongside mom.”
That initial love blossomed into ballet classes, trips to the symphony and other formative experiences that pointed her toward the arts, whether she knew it or not. She eventually took all the arts courses she could before her senior year of high school. Still, when she enrolled at the College of William & Mary, Bailey Brown wasn’t encouraged to go into the arts because her academic prowess seemed to promise greener pastures in more traditional pursuits.
“I’m afraid that arts students now, still, are discouraged from going into arts and humanities because of this concern about their ability to support themselves when, in actuality, we know those are some of the most relevant skills in our lives and careers,” she says.
After a year as a computer major, she switched to a fine arts major and began producing shows and doing other behind-the-scenes work that foretold a career as an arts administrator.
“It came naturally because I am a very left-brain, right-brain person, and I would have this sense of how do we share this with someone, how do we help this particular organization?” Bailey Brown says. “It became natural to me that I could help sustain the arts.”
She went on to get an MBA in arts administration from the State University of New York at Binghamton, one of two such programs in the country at that time.
The ensuing years included stops at institutions from the Williamsburg Symphonia and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as she and her husband, Michael Brown, coordinated their career moves so each could grow.
New Kentucky home
They decided to settle in Kentucky in search of less travel and a higher quality of life. Bailey Brown’s first Kentucky job was working in programs for women and immigrants with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Bailey Brown says getting outside the arts bubble, which she had done before in her career, helped give her some perspective on work she does in the arts.
“Any kind of operation or business is ultimately about serving people and relationships you have with them,” she says. “It probably impressed upon me the importance of understanding your different constituents and their needs. I think that’s relevant everywhere.”
Bailey Brown did not come to the arts council in the best of moments. In November, Gov. Matt Bevin restructured the council’s board and longtime director Lori Meadows departed. The board was reduced from 16 to 15 members and only four members were retained. The move caused an uproar in the state arts community as Meadows had been a popular director. Bailey Brown believes her job is to take the organization and lead it forward, she says.
“When people are getting the opportunity to see what I’m about and see my heart and work with me on problem-solving, discussion of opportunities for growth, I’m having positive experiences and am honored by the kindness that people are showing,” Bailey Brown says.
Nan Plummer, president and CEO of LexArts, has met with Bailey Brown and had a chance to show her a little bit of what is happening in Lexington.
“It is important to understand that what has happened was not pleasant for anyone,” Plummer says. “It is not easy to be the successor, because the situation has colored people’s feelings. But we need to give Lydia a chance to lead as best she can.”
Plummer has not had time for extended visits and talks with Bailey Brown, she says, but thus far, “Lively is a word I would use to describe her. She was really on a listening tour, and she seems to want to know what the needs are in the state.”
Since being appointed in December, Bailey Brown says she has been trying to get out and visit different areas of the state, such as Lexington, trying to get a sense of the Commonwealth’s arts community, its needs and interests.
“It’s a reminder that this is what I have been on a path to do since I was a 4 1/2 -year-old little girl walking home trying to figure out, ‘how am I going to help the dancers?’ and ‘people need to hear music,’” Bailey Brown says. “It’s the same little girl, a little bit older.”