Todd Lowe Of The Kentucky Arts Council Talks About Louisville’s Master Plan For The Arts
Interview by Scott Dowd
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In the early 1980s, it looked like Todd Lowe might take his passion for music on the road as a member of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s horn section. Fortunately for us, Todd took the broader view and took up a career that allowed him to strengthen the arts here in Louisville and throughout the Commonwealth. Over the decades since, Todd Lowe continued to perform with groups like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. He serves as chair of the Kentucky Arts Council in addition to working as president of the investment advisory firm Parthenon LLC, which he co-founded in 1998. As then-chairman of the board for the Speed Art Museum, Todd was instrumental in raising funds and guiding their renovation project to a successful reopening in May. He is also working with the steering committee and consultants who are attempting to draft a Master Plan for the Arts similar to those developed in Chicago, New York and Chattanooga. I sat down with Todd Lowe recently to discuss the Master Plan for the Arts, its methodology and goals.
Todd Lowe: We conducted six or eight community forums to discuss the arts Master Plan. There was no agenda for these other than to get people to open up about what they like, what they don’t like, what they are interested in and what they would like to see happen. One of the first things that came up at all of these meetings was transportation. Whether it is reality or not, many people’s perception is that transportation is a barrier to participating in the arts.
Scott Dowd: If you live where I do, in the Highlands, it’s not so hard to catch a bus downtown. If you are trying to come from Prospect, it is a little more complicated. It may be connecting to get down Main Street that is the issue.
TL: That could be it. I’m not sure. Some of it may have also been related to the perception of parking downtown.
SD: All the construction probably fed into it as well. That’s as much a barrier as anything else.
TL: There is no doubt that was on the minds of people who said, “I just don’t want to deal with that.”
SD: Sure. The highways are changing like Hogwarts’ staircases.
TL: I’ve accidentally been to southern Indiana twice this month!
SD: How did the idea for the development of a Master Plan for the Arts begin?
TL: When Christen Boone, the CEO of the Fund for the Arts, was first hired, she spent several weeks on a “listening tour,” visiting with a broad array of people in the community. In doing so, she came to the conclusion that a follow up to the Blueprint from many years ago would be important for the community. The Blueprint never really had a life of its own, so the Master Plan will be a fresh start.
SD: Why do you think it didn’t achieve a greater impact?
TL: Well, once you have identified the needs, there has to be a will to make changes to implement the components and infrastructure to address them. That just wasn’t there. This time feels more positive.
SD: So the Fund for the Arts initiated this new project?
TL: Yes, they provided the seed money and also agreed to serve as the fiscal agent for the Master Plan. After that, a small group of us got together to form a steering committee.
SD: How many members do you have on the committee?
TL: There are twenty-five of us from Louisville and southern Indiana. We represent a broad cross-section of the community’s stakeholders: education, economic development, government, private sector—a really nice mix of folks who will have a lot of input as the initial vetting group. They will help us take the information we have received and decide what conclusions to draw from the forums and other research.
SD: What will that process look like?
TL: They may say, “This makes sense, that doesn’t make sense.” Or they may decide to form focus groups to test their conclusions. They may, for instance, want to dig deeper into transportation to see what is really going on there. This group will lead as many as a dozen task forces that will each take a part of the plan and pull in addition resources from the community.
SD: What about the arts groups themselves? Are they participating?
TL: We have three or four artists and/or managers or CEOs of arts organizations on the steering committee. During our initial survey, we had quite a lot of one-on-one discussion with those folks. We also did a two-hour session with arts leaders to really dig into and identify their issues.
SD: How would you characterize the arts leaders’ initial response to the idea of creating this kind of master plan here?
TL: As you can imagine, they don’t want something developed that will come back and tell them what to do. That’s not the point of this at all. We need them to be partners in the Master Plan for the Arts.
SD: You mentioned that your earlier effort, the Cultural Blueprint, didn’t accomplish what you hoped it might. How do the goals for implementation of this Plan differ?
TL: One of the big differences between this and the Blueprint is that there is nothing in the Master Plan that requires Metro Louisville to find a dedicated source of funding for the arts. That was a big part of the Cultural Blueprint’s goal.
SD: You’re talking about the idea of a hotel tax or something like it.
TL: Yes—that or some other small sales tax. This time, it’s more about making sure The Arts are at the table during discussions about the future of our community. If you look around the community today, there are twenty-five plans that live with Metro Louisville, or Greater Louisville, Inc., Downtown Development Corporation; there are just a whole bunch of them. Ours might have a small part of those plans mentioned in some way, but we want to be sure we are at the table when those discussions are taking place. For example, if decisions are being made about what downtown will look like in the future, we want to be sure the role of the arts is being considered. We want to be sure the role of the arts is being properly recognized in attracting new businesses as well as the role we can play in retaining businesses.
SD: I am sure you are also discussing the arts as a business unto itself as well.
TL: The creative industry in Kentucky is an important part of the state’s economy and in the development of that economy for the future. We plan to come out of this with a series of distinct recommendations, a good many of which address those issues.
SD: We have talked about transportation, but what are some other things you have distilled from the community forums?
TL: We will be talking about better use of facilities. Some of them will be related to education. Some of the conversation will be about pulling in parts of the community that aren’t participating right now. We need to look for ways we can all work together on that. We already have so many cool collaborations happening right now and some great things on the docket for next year that I think the consultants will probably come back and say, “You all are doing pretty well in this area already.”
SD: Fund for the Arts gave physical form to that collaborative spirit a decade ago with the opening of ArtSpace. But I’m wondering about the scope of the plan. How, for instance, are individual artists being brought in to the discussion? There are also areas other than downtown to be considered. Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is at the top of my mind right now because they just completed their tour through all of the area parks. How far can you go?
TL: I think we go as far as we can practically recommend and expect implementation. But then, I think there are follow-ups where we might have a group of organizations that say, “This part of the plan can live with us.” From there, they will look to expand that aspect of the plan and broaden the scope that way. That is what has happened in other cities. I just reread Chattanooga’s plan last night and you can see their organizations grabbing pieces of it for further development. I think we will see the same thing here.
SD: I read the Chicago plan and it seemed to have a heavy focus on business and economic development. How heavily weighted will economic development be in the Louisville plan?
TL: That will be part of it. But, if anything, it will come out as a recognition that artists and arts organizations have a role in economic development and that we want to be actively engaged in playing that role. But we won’t lose sight of the need to make good art. That is at the center of the plan, because if we’re not producing good art, the rest of it doesn’t mean much.
SD: You mentioned education. No matter which group I speak with, the educational aspect of their mission has become an increasingly important component.
TL: The point of our plan is not to ask for more education commitments from arts groups and artists, but to consider how we might be smarter. Are there collaborations that make good economic sense and provide even better outcomes?
SD: If the collaboration between the Louisville Orchestra and Louisville Ballet this season is an indicator, it appears artistic leadership is well positioned to implement recommendations.
TL: And people are talking about it—probably will be for a long time.
SD: Louisville has had successful collaborations in the past—The Classics In Context Festival, for example. But you are talking about something else.
TL: Sustained collaboration. The kind of presence that draws people into events they might not otherwise consider.
SD: Transportation aside, what are some of the obstacles you see in implementing the plan’s recommendations?
TL: Ticket cost is always mentioned. All of the organizations find ways to mitigate the price of admission where they can, but that is something we probably ought to think more about as a community. We want to be sure the arts are accessible to everyone—even in terms of education. The cost of transporting school kids to and from an event is a huge barrier. Kentucky Arts Council has tried to be helpful through grants, but that is something we should consider locally as well. There are also some cultural barriers to consider. Our mayor and I have had that conversation directly. He asked, “Are we doing enough as a city to offer the arts in the West End?” The answer is, “No.” When I think about what participation in the arts can do to improve community relations and thereby decrease crime and other negatives…those things will be in the plan.
SD: The Ohio River is another cultural barrier. It might as well be the Berlin Wall.
TL: It is huge. We found that out during our last cultural blueprint. The consultant once said, “This river might as well be twenty-five miles wide, with no bridge!” It’s a real challenge.
SD: And the tolls are not going to help that!
TL: It’s unfortunate. I understand the need for them, but it adds four dollars to the cost of every ticket. There are so many families in this community who can take the kids and do only one big arts event a year. We need to find a way to make it available to them more often than that. The free day at the Speed is fabulous, but we need more things like that. Louisville Orchestra is doing a great job of getting out and playing non-traditional venues.
SD: They are also expanding programming into non-traditional areas. Teddy Abrams’ view on symphonic music and what it can be seems to be exactly what is needed now.
TL: I agree. It’s democratization of the arts.
SD: So what is next for the Master Plan?
TL: Along with the forums, we did a lot of individual interviews, focus groups and a public survey. We got about 1,500 respondents telling us what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they want to see more of, why they participate, or why they don’t. The consultants are also looking at every germane piece of data they can find. They will come back to us in the early part of the summer with the initial findings. Then we’ll have more public input, get some feedback, and the task force will work with the consultants to narrow down our set of recommendations. Later in the fall, we will have a rough draft of the plan, which we will bring back to the community to see if we are in line with what the community thinks we should be doing.
SD: What if you find you’re way off track?
TL: We’ll fix it. We hope to have that finished by this winter and offer our final set of recommendations. Then it gets interesting because we have to find out who is going to do this. Right now, we don’t know the answer to that question. It doesn’t naturally live anywhere. We don’t have a community arts council or a division of city government that deals with this. So it will be interesting to see where it lives.
SD: What did the consultants say that convinced you to give it another try?
TL: They said not to worry about that because as we go through the process, things will naturally fall into certain areas. They are convinced community champions will appear and take on various pieces of the plan to implement.
SD: You see this operating as a non-centralized, democratic set of goals within the community?
TL: I think it can. Might there be an organization that comes forward to serve as the clearinghouse? I could see that happening.
SD: Could the Fund for the Arts fill that need?
TL: It’s possible, but our work remains independent of any one organization.
SD: The people reading this are by definition the people in the community who support the arts and will want to see your recommendations. How do people get involved?
TL: We will be putting out public notices shortly about how the public can provide additional feedback on our initial findings. I encourage anyone who wants to participate to go to greaterlouisvillearts.com to learn more. To succeed, this Master Plan for the Arts needs to become part of the fabric of our community. This isn’t something we are handing down to be implemented by others. We hope every member of the community who values the arts and arts’ place in our lives will take ownership of these goals and move them forward in some way.
Scott Dowd has a wealth of experience working within and commenting upon the arts scene in Louisville. He has been involved with Kentucky Opera, the Louisville Orchestra, and Louisville Public Media. His talents and experience include: Actor; Director; Singer; Musician; Radio and Television Interviewer; Classical and News Jock; Public Speaking; Public Relations; Marketing; Development; Writer; Substantive Editor. He currently serves on the Board for Arts-Louisville.com.