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After Kentucky Arts Council Shakeup, Artists Worry About Commercial Agenda

Kenneth Hayden

Some state cultural leaders are concerned that a Kentucky arts agency restructured by Gov. Matt Bevin on Friday will prioritize commercial over creative value in the arts, diminishing their overall impact in the commonwealth.

The Kentucky Arts Council is designed to generate value for, participation in and benefit from the arts. Funding for the agency — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — is provided by the General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

As the state partner of the NEA, the council receives matching funds from the organization to distribute within Kentucky. This year, arts groups such as Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Louisville Orchestra and Stage One received funding from the council. It also distributes funds to individual artists.

On Friday, Bevin dismissed all but four of its members and reduced the size of the council from 16 to 15 people. He also accepted the resignation of executive director Lori Meadows, although sources say she was pushed out.

In a news release, Secretary of the Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Don Parkinson wrote: “The new arts council will focus on ensuring that Kentucky artisans have the skills and knowledge to develop and successfully sell their products.”

Parkinson sent a statement to WFPL News late Monday reiterating that.

“The reorganized council strikes the appropriate balance of expertise in the arts and entrepreneurship,” he said. “The new arts council will focus on ensuring that Kentucky artisans have the skills and knowledge to develop and successfully sell their products.”

A more explicit entrepreneurial focus may seem innocuous — and keep with the council’s current marketing and training programs, such as Kentucky Crafted and the Kentucky Peer Advisory Network. But some worry the shift misconstrues an artist’s role in his or her community.

Adam Day is a Louisville-based author and director of the Baltic Writing Residency. He says he’s concerned about the future of the Kentucky Arts Council, which he believes was already geared too much toward artists who create products that can be sold.

“Crafts, sculpture and paintings, for example — and Bevin simply plans to amplify that relatively narrow and crude approach to the arts,” Day says. “This assumes, with such deep misguidedness, that the primary value of the arts is the price they demand.”

Bevin’s restructuring of the council comes after fears earlier this year that he would eliminate funding for the agency altogether. In his budget this year, he ultimately lowered funding for the council from just below $2.8 million to a little more than $2.6 million.

Stacey Reason, director of the Yeiser Arts Center in Paducah, says the rumors of massive cuts “woke up a bunch of arts administrators..”

“We’ve been connected and monitoring the actions at the state level, how arts funding is treated and allotted,” Reason says. “I think that it is dangerous territory when you try to commercialize or objectify a field that is very much fluid.”

Intrinsic vs. Economic Value

How funding will be allocated is a concern for artists like Ezra Kellerman, a Louisville-based contemporary sculptor. One of his most widely-covered works was “Nineveh,” a site-specific installation at the Cressman Center for Visual Art. It featured vast, hanging plateaus of grass and drew attention to the irrigation system suspended above.

Credit 21c

“Nineveh” was beautiful and thought-provoking, focusing on ideas of conception, growth and environmental sustenance. But it wasn’t the type of thing someone would likely buy to string up in their living room.

“I’m curious to see how the new members will change anything as far as the types of programming and arts that are able to receive money,” Kellerman says. “If it is going to go towards things that are more ‘craft’ or ‘artisanal-oriented’ that are maybe associated with a specific business plan, or if there will be opportunities for individual artists to contact the council for funding for really inspiring projects like public art, or other types of experiential artwork.

“While these may not have a resale value, they may have impacts on culture, communities and represent Kentucky in a positive light,” he says.

Aldy Milliken, director of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, says the council could look to the work of Creative Capital, a national investment organization that has awarded $40 million to 642 groundbreaking artists nationwide.

“I don’t think people outside the art world understand that when those artists are being assessed, they are being assessed on their creative work — not their economic impact,” Milliken says.

He says he believes both Bevin and Parkinson are familiar with the value of the arts.

“Gov. Bevin has a bachelor of arts degree in East Asian Studies and Secretary Parkinson has been interim director of the Kentucky Center at least twice,” Milliken says. “They know how arts organizations work, and I think they know the impact of the arts.”

For that reason, despite his reservations about how the council was reorganized, Milliken says he — along with Louisville’s Arts and Culture Alliance and the group Kentuckians for the Arts — are eager to speak with Parkinson about the state’s vision for how the arts will develop through this administration.

“Ultimately, both of them know if Kentucky is going to stand out nationally, an arts economy — a creative economy — is going to be good for Kentucky,” Milliken says.

This story has been updated.

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