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January 21, 2009

Starving arts scene

Despite the recession, the show goes on in Louisville’s visual arts community

Mayor Jerry Abramson recently proclaimed 2009 “the year of the visual arts” in Louisville, an unexpected statement given the city’s dire economic outlook recently prompted him to slash arts funding in rather dramatic fashion.

In fairness, the mayor made this declaration at an event honoring the Louisville Visual Art Association’s 100th anniversary, a centennial celebration dubbed “Artabella 100 — Year of the Visual Arts.”

“This is a typical proclamation that we provide to many organizations and individuals for various accomplishments,” says Chris Poynter, a spokesman for the mayor. “In other words, don’t read much into it.”

In light of Louisville’s projected $20 million revenue shortfall, it seems a plaque and a pat on the back are just about the only things local arts organizations stand to get from the city anytime soon. Just last month, Mayor Abramson reduced grants earmarked for arts groups by 50 percent to help trim the deficit.

Although a major blow to Louisville’s thriving arts community, the cuts did not impact previously approved funding, including $50,000 allocated to the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Public Art in 2008. The committee used that money to hire the firm Creative Time to develop a visual arts master plan for the city, which is slated for completion later this year.

Meanwhile, local arts advocates are forging ahead with efforts to promote artistic expression on a tight budget.

For example, this year will mark the first ever Louisville Visual Arts Festival, says Paul Paletti, of the eponymous gallery, and also a member of the Louisville Visual Art Association and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

“The Louisville Visual Arts Festival will be a sustainable annual event, showcasing Louisville as a vibrant visual arts destination,” says Paletti.

The inaugural Louisville Visual Arts Festival will piggyback onto the 2009 Louisville Photo Biennial, a photography exhibit held every other summer. The plan is to expand the exhibit into a broader arts festival, which will include about 20 shows at museums and galleries, a book of local photography and a traveling exhibition to be shown in museums across the country.

“We hope that Mayor Abramson’s declaration of 2009 as ‘the year of the visual arts’ in Louisville signals a commitment for financial and promotional support to help us achieve all of our plans for the festival,” says Paletti, perhaps overly optimistic about the prospect of receiving city funding for the event.

But even in the absence of the city’s monetary support, the festival will go forward.

Such efforts to continue promoting the arts during the recession are in sync with President Barack Obama’s recent comments about the need to further artistic expression during tough economic times.

On “Meet the Press” last month, Tom Brokaw asked Obama if he plans to invite artists to the White House during his presidency.

“I think it is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times,” Obama said. “Historically, what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that, that sense that better days are ahead. I think that our art and our culture … that’s the essence of what makes America special and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House.”

To the arts community, this was promising.

Calling this level of support from a president “unprecedented,” the national organization Americans for the Arts has recommended to Obama’s Arts and Culture Transition Team proposals dealing with arts education, healthcare for artists and art tax policies. An additional document outlined how artists and arts groups could be included in the forthcoming economic stimulus package.

Perhaps the most remarkable recommendation is the suggestion that Obama appoint a secretary of arts and culture.

The cabinet-level position would, among other things, oversee the federal government’s many cultural holdings, including the Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio. Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities William R. Ferris wrote in The New York Times on Dec. 27 that America needs “to provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs and to assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve. Each of these organizations has helped preserve our nation’s rich folklore — its music, stories and traditional arts — as a uniquely powerful voice for our culture.”

Several well-known artists and cultural icons have voiced support for the proposal, including legendary musician Quincy Jones. After expressing in several interviews that he wants Obama to appoint a secretary of arts, Jones inspired an online petition, which now has more than 145,000 signatures.