The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is considering a proposal to change management of the Downtown Arts Center from LexArts to the city's Division of Parks and Recreation.
"We have been looking at options for the Downtown Arts Center, since it is a city-owned facility, and the LexArts folks recently sent us a letter saying they did not want to go forward with the arrangement we have in place where we contract with LexArts to manage the center," said Geoff Reed, the city's commissioner of general services. "That opened up the possibility for us to do some different things with the center."
Under the proposal before council, the venue would be managed by the parks department for a one-year pilot program. During that time, Parks and Recreation staff would determine the best long-term arrangements for the 12-year-old facility on Main Street.
The center would be overseen by Amber Luallen, cultural arts director at Parks and Recreation. She already oversees events including Ballet Under the Stars and the Woodland Art Fair, both of which the city co-presents, as well as management of the MoonDance at Midnight Pass Amphitheater in Beaumont.
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"We have a pretty long list of things we want to do," Luallen said Wednesday morning, naming items including forming an advisory group of Lexington arts leaders and looking at multidisciplinary uses for the center.
"We recognize that it is really special to have a black box in Lexington," she added, referring to the type of simple, unadorned theater space that the Downtown Arts Center has on its first floor, "and we want to have it really active and happening and user-friendly."
In recent years, the black box theater has been a source of discontent for the center's users and patrons, some of whom see it as being underutilized since its original primary tenant, Actors Guild of Lexington, left in 2009.
The Downtown Arts Center also houses Alfalfa Restaurant and the Ann Tower Gallery; a third-floor space that has not been developed; and fourth-floor offices that have not been used since Actors Guild left.
Luallen and Reed said that Alfalfa will not be impacted by the change and that they want gallery owner Ann Tower to remain part of the center.
In February, LexArts' president and CEO, Jim Clark, and a number of arts groups representatives said they thought management of the facility needed to change.
Oversight of the venue was assigned to LexArts, then called the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council, when it opened in 2002.
But circumstances have since changed, and Clark said it has become a burden for LexArts, which has a primary mission of raising money for area arts groups. LexArts had been receiving an annual management fee for the center; most recently, it was $109,000. But Clark said LexArts had been subsidizing the center for an additional $16,000 to $32,000 a year, putting a strain on its finances.
Clark is scheduled to retire late next month, and a search is being conducted to find his successor. He said those circumstances make this the right time to pursue transferring the center's management.
Luallen said that when the Downtown Arts Center opened, there was not an active municipal entity overseeing cultural events in Lexington — but now there is.
"The city owns it, the city funds it, so yes, give us a shot at being accountable to ourselves," Luallen said. "It feels like the right time and the right fit."
The plan is pending council approval.
Harry Clarke, the 10th district representative and a retired professor in the University of Kentucky School of Music, has been a primary proponent of moving the Downtown Arts Center to city management.
Luallen and Reed said that during an Urban County Council meeting Tuesday, response to the proposal was generally positive.
The main concern was the fate of the center's four full-time employees, all of whom are on LexArts' payroll, Reed said. If the move is approved, their jobs would be eliminated as of July 1.
Luallen said they can reapply for jobs with the city, but plans are to structure staff differently, relying more on part-time, hourly employees working when the theater is active.
Luallen said her department would not have much more money to operate the center than the annual fee LexArts was being paid.
There is a laundry list of programming and structural issues to be looked at with the Downtown Arts Center, Luallen said, but her first focus would be to get the theater active and address users' concerns. She said all currently scheduled programs at the center would go on as planned.