Photo by Envision Multimedia.
Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents copyright Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
On average, approximately one thousand people a day attend performances at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Twenty-five percent of those are school children, according to a report by Sr. Research Analyst Barry Kornstein of the University of Louisville’s Urban Studies Institute. Kornstein’s research, published this June, also shows that of those 365,000 visitors, almost fourteen percent come from more than one hundred miles away and included visitors from every state. The total economic impact of those attendees on our community is more than $15,000,000 when you include The Kentucky Center’s payroll. This is gratifying information for the staff, volunteers and board of directors, who strive to make the institution productive and relevant. The Chair of The Kentucky Center Board of Directors, Madeline Abramson, is a familiar face to Louisvillians. Madeline travels the state working to improve the lives of current and future Kentuckians. It was somehow appropriate that I caught this hardworking woman on Labor Day!
SD: This is actually your second time to serve as a member of The Kentucky Center Board of Directors.
MA: Yes, I also served a term during the Patton administration around The Kentucky Center’s twentieth anniversary.
SD: You are a native Louisvillian, so I suspect you have a history with The Kentucky Center that precedes your appointment to its board of directors.
MA: Very much so. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite stories to tell is that my husband – who was not yet my husband – and I had a date on the opening night of The Kentucky Center. That was thirty-one years ago last month, and it is still a very special memory for the two of us. We think about that when we attend performances there, and we talk about what a beautiful evening it was.
SD: What are some of the other boards on which you have served?
MA: I’ve been on the board of directors of StageOne, Louisville Ballet and Discover Louisville Orchestra. I’ve been attending performances at The Kentucky Center ever since the place opened. Although I do not have any artistic ability myself, both my husband and I truly appreciate the performing arts and love to go to The Center.
SD: Your husband is quite a musician.
MA: Yes, he plays the French horn, trumpet, guitar and piano. When he served on the Louisville Orchestra Board, he used to sit with former Dean of the UofL School of Music Jerry Ball and the late Barry Bingham, Jr., who also played. They always called themselves the “French horn section” of the Board.
SD: You are and always have been busy with a variety of not-for-profits. What made you choose The Kentucky Center?
MA: I’ve had an arts commitment of sorts all my adult life, so an arts component has always been part of my volunteer experience. When I was appointed to The Kentucky Center Board of Directors, it opened a whole new world for me. I got the opportunity to learn about the business side of the arts and also to learn about the tremendous breadth of offerings The Kentucky Center has. Part of our mission is to bring quality performing arts from all over the world to our stage for the benefit of the Commonwealth and the region. In addition to that, our education and outreach missions cover the entire state. This has been an invaluable experience for me that has broadened my horizons on the performing arts world and will, undoubtedly, have a positive impact on what I am able to bring to other performing arts groups as I continue to volunteer. My experience here has also given me a deep appreciation for what a strong economic engine The Kentucky Center is for our community, the Commonwealth and other arts organizations.
SD: Let’s talk more about the broader impact of The Kentucky Center on the Commonwealth.
MA: We are the state’s leading performing arts institution and, as such, have a tremendous outreach. In addition to our education programming, we also offer technical support to other performing arts centers and institutions. We bring people from all over the state and region to our community to enjoy performances. If you look at the legislation that created The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts more than thirty years ago, there was a clear mandate that, among other things, we are to promote tourism and economic development for the community and the Commonwealth. I would submit that we have been very successful in doing that.
SD: The Kentucky Center is fraught with potential. How close would you say the organization is to reaching its bounds?
MA: I think every year I have been associated with The Kentucky Center we’ve capitalized on our current potential. But I don’t want us to ever reach a point at which we feel we’ve achieved all there is to achieve. There will always be new opportunities and challenges and, as we incorporate those, we will set new marks. When our doors first opened, our offerings were more traditional; now we offer a much broader range of performances. We want to offer the region a comprehensive view of the performing arts.
SD: In years past, there have been outstanding programs like the Lonesome Pine Special and the Walnut Street Revue. But it does seem now that the programming at The Center is more seamless in its effort to represent the tastes of the entire region.
MA: One thing that we have learned over the years is that people are not just looking for an arts performance…they are looking for an arts experience. So we have begun to offer things such as music in the lobby before and/or after shows. Now that we have our newly remodeled bar, we see many people lingering after the show to discuss it with their friends over a cocktail. We are working very hard to make every visit a true experience.
SD: One component of the experience has to be the amazing collection of visual arts throughout the lobbies. Do you think there will ever be an addition to the permanent collection?
MA: I think many of us who have been going in and out of the building since it opened more than thirty years ago don’t really take the time to stop and appreciate this significant art collection. We do have volunteers who provide art tours, and we want the public to understand that we really are a home for visual arts as well the performing arts. We don’t have any plans currently to add to the permanent collection, but we do have some works on loan from the Speed Museum. We have also been working with groups such as ArtWithoutWalls to bring temporary exhibits, like E.V. Day’s installation Diva’s Ascending. That was made possible by the generosity of Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, and we would like to do more of this type of thing.
SD: That was a great addition to The Kentucky Center lobby and it speaks to The Center’s willingness to collaborate.
MA: We want to be seen as a leader in collaborating and working with other arts organizations and other organizations in general. The fact that we are the home for the IdeaFestival is a great example of that ability to reach beyond the stage. We think, from a cultural standpoint, this is the perfect kind of partnership and is another place where our volunteers really come to the fore. We simply wouldn’t be able to capitalize on these kinds of opportunities without their dedication. They donate thousands of hours every year, not only serving as ushers and assisting people in the use of our accessibility services, but also leading tours and working in the administration offices. I’m very proud that we have this cadre of volunteers, some of whom have been with us since The Center opened.
SD: Some of them have become iconic figures. Mr. Blue, of course, is no longer with us but, for decades, he and his pipe were fixtures at nearly every performance. He helped to create that experience you referred to earlier.
MA: Yes, Jay and Joanne Abraham just retired, but they had volunteered as a couple for many years. Sometimes I think our patrons don’t always realize the extent of that commitment and just how important it is to our operation.
SD: You mentioned accessibility, and I think it also important to remind patrons and potential patrons about the services available.
MA: We have actually received national awards for our access services. Our staff regularly consults with other arts centers around the Commonwealth and around the country. We want to ensure that all people, regardless of their individual needs, have the opportunity to enjoy a live performance. We have a number of enhancements available for patrons who have mobility, hearing or visual challenges.
SD: You have had the opportunity to travel around the country. What does having an institution such as The Kentucky Center do to enhance the state’s cache?
MA: As I’ve said, The Kentucky Center is not only a cultural treasure – it is an economic development engine. Over the years, my husband has and still does work on recruiting businesses to Louisville and the Commonwealth. These businesses come here and they look at the fact that we have a professional, full-time orchestra, ballet, opera and children’s theatre. There are not many communities our size around the country that can boast the scope and quality of those cultural offerings. Those are, of course, the resident companies of The Kentucky Center. But just down the street we also have Actors Theatre of Louisville. One of our board members, Chris Todoroff, is senior vice-president and general counsel at Humana, which is just across Main Street. He came here from the northeast about six years ago. He talks about the fact that, almost as a rule, he brings potential recruits over to The Kentucky Center as a selling point for the community. I think it is very important for people looking at our community and our state to know that we have this beautiful center and that we place a high value on arts and culture.
SD: Last year you named Kim Baker to the presidency of The Kentucky Center. What kind of leadership are you and the board anticipating from her?
MA: We could not be more thrilled that Kim is the leader of The Kentucky Center. We conducted a nationwide search and unanimously selected Kim for a variety of reasons: her passion for the arts; her knowledge of the community, The Center and its programs; and she was a graduate of the first Governor’s School for the Arts! I’ve already seen such tremendous evidence of her ability to collaborate with other arts organizations. She’s a leader and a convener and is wonderful at bringing diverse groups of people to the table to find new ways to work together. She is also very innovative in the ways she finds to keep The Kentucky Center relevant now and for the next generations of arts-goers.
SD: She is part of a group of new leadership in the arts community.
MA: Yes, there are also new leaders at Louisville Ballet, Louisville Orchestra and the Fund for the Arts. There is new energy and a new way of looking for opportunities to work together that is creating a very exciting buzz throughout the community.
SD: The Kentucky Center is not a member agency of the Fund for the Arts, though your resident companies are. Where does funding for The Center come from?
MA: We are a state agency and receive an allocation from the state budget. The Center receives a portion of the tax on hotel and motel rooms because of our ability to promote tourism and economic development. Then we have earned income from the shows we produce and the leases with our resident companies. We also have a separate foundation that is able to raise funds to support our state-mandated mission to lead and enrich the artistic, educational and economic vitality of the region. This includes membership support and donations from people who believe in what we are doing in this community and throughout the Commonwealth We are constantly looking for ways to maximize our revenue while remaining true to our mission.
SD: Are there additional benefits to becoming a Kentucky Center member?
MA: We try to make them feel appreciated with special ticket-buying opportunities and other perks like an exclusive ticketing hot line, pre-sales, priority seating, discounts on select seats, waived handling fees and VIP hospitality. Anyone who is interested in learning more about individual memberships can find out more on the website.
SD: And that helps fund the parts of your mission that don’t generate revenue.
MA: Right. Contributions help support our statewide non-profit mission. Programs such as the Governor’s School for the Arts, school programs, ArtsReach (that we offer through the community centers) and our Arts in Healing program aren’t money makers, but they are essential to fulfilling our mission.
SD: The Arts in Healing program is still relatively new.
MA: That program was created to provide the healing power of the arts to the community and the Commonwealth. Numerous studies have shown that people who are undergoing stressful times in their lives – whether it is acute, such as treatment in a hospital, or chronic, such as living in a long-term care facility – respond very positively to the visual and performing arts in terms of meeting their wellness milestones. Our goal is to bring those arts into facilities such as the VA, Jewish Hospital, Frazier Rehab, Nazareth Home and similar institutions for the benefit of those patients and residents. It has been tremendously well received.
SD: The Kentucky Center begins a new decade of service this year after celebrating its thirtieth season in 2013. What are your goals?
MA: My goal, and my hope, is to encourage even more people to patronize The Kentucky Center and arts organizations in general. I think it is very important that this generation carry on the strong support of the arts so that the arts will remain strong, healthy and viable for the next generations of our community.
For more information on The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts – its mission, performance schedules, facility, art collection, resident companies, education and community programs, volunteer training, as well as ways in which you can support your arts center – go to kentuckycenter.org or call (502) 562-0100.