Leila Salisbury stepped up to the microphone in the Singletary Center for the Arts Thursday morning and told a story on her mother.
After graduating from college in the 1960s, Holly Buckner Salisbury took a job as an art teacher in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The conditions at the impoverished school were, shall we say, spartan. The classroom was a dirty garage with a tractor still in it. Supplies were a few pads of paper and boxes of crayons.
She found out she had the superintendent’s son in one of her classes, so she went to his desk, presented him with the available materials and said, “This is what you’ll be working with, this year. If you would like more than this, you are going to need to talk to your dad.”
Eventually, Salisbury was teaching the students things like etching techniques and silk screening.
“Mom had the dazzling skill of making amazing things come from the barest of circumstances,” Leila said.
The building Leila was standing in was proof, and the story was completely believable to anyone who knew Holly Salisbury during her more than 25 years as the founding director of the Singletary Center for the Arts.
Thursday, the center’s concert hall became the setting for “A Celebration of Life for Holly Buckner Salisbury,” who “died unexpectedly on July 28 in Lexington after a routine medical procedure,” according to her obituary, at 74.
It is easy to tell the story of Salisbury with the stars she brought to Lexington, including violin great Isaac Stern, pianist Andre Previn, orchestras from Houston, Montreal and Prague and opera stars such as Roberta Peters, whose show poster was one of many adorning the Singletary Center lobby Thursday morning.
Salisbury reveled in the traditional university fine arts series that was a staple of venues across the country in the late 20th century, but has faded in recent decades with changing tastes and ticket-buying habits.
Salisbury got Lexington into that game, putting the center on her back and clawing for everything she could get for it.
“UK surplus property was raided for desks and chairs,” Tanya Harper, the Singletary Center’s production director, who was hired by Salisbury 22 years ago, recalled in her tribute. “Gurnies surplused from the hospital became carts and dollies to unload touring buses and trucks when they came for the shows she booked.”
And managing the use of the space was no small task either, with Salisbury’s own programming coming into regular conflict with university and community groups.
“She’s had to put up with criticisms from people who wanted to have the hall and couldn’t have the hall and thought they deserved the hall, and I was one of those people,” retired Lexington Philharmonic music director George Zack told me for a story announcing Salisbury’s retirement in 2005. “Everybody was after the space, everybody was after the premier dates.”
And he said she pulled the task off beautifully.
A striking thing about Salisbury’s celebration was a slide show that continued at center stage throughout the event, frequently beautifully syncing with performances by soprano Noemi Lugo, cellist Clyde Beavers, a student string ensemble and organist Clif Cason. You might expect Salisbury arm-in-arm, glad-handing with the stars she brought to her stage, and those images exist. But this was Salisbury with her children, Leila and Brent, and other people that many of us did not know, but who clearly meant the world to her.
Even on the job, Harper noted, “she built a family. She did not have staff.”
And it was extended family. Scott Hoffman, who has been a close friend of Salisbury’s son Brent since childhood, noted that he took to calling her “Mom,” because as a regular visitor to their Mentelle Park home, she became a second mother to him. In the days since her death, he found that he was not alone in using the close term of endearment for Salisbury.
Even her stories of stars were incredibly human: accidentally driving onto the Bluegrass Airport tarmac with Andre Previn, nearly choking from Isaac Stern’s cigar smoke when he bought the whole center staff dinner, and the bane of her existence: boy choirs.
“They’re little wretched beasts backstage — they’re running around, and it’s total chaos,” she said in 2005 story reflecting on her tenure at the center. “Then they go onstage and they’re little cherubs, and everybody loves them.”
To Salisbury, art and the arts were a natural part of humanity. In addition to show posters Thursday, the Singletary Center lobby boasted work by Salisbury’s art students, and a testimonial from student Xuan Sequira, who now studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Hoffman, who has since gone on to become a composer and member of the pop-rock band Scissor Sisters, recalled a trip to Europe he took with the Salisburys, taking in the great museums and art offerings of England, France and other countries.
“She said, ‘You don’t have to like what you see. You don’t have to understand it. But you have to see it, and I need you to remember it,’” Hoffman recalled Salisbury saying. “I think her greatest passion was teaching people to see things either for the first time or in new ways.”
In a very real way, she did that for the entire City of Lexington, bringing the Singletary Center to life and making it flourish — which is an entirely different art than putting up a building. The Singletary Center was Salisbury’s one and only job as a arts center director, but as it turned out, creating a masterpiece came naturally to her.