By Chris Cathers
For the second consecutive year, Kentucky served as host for the Artists Thrive Summit, a three-day conference in Berea bringing together artists, arts administrators, funders and other arts stakeholders for conversations about the place of art and artists in communities.
Berea will host the summit again in 2019.
Representatives from 26 states, even as far away as Alaska, participated in the event, bringing their own ideas, questions and experiences to the larger conversation about creating communities where art flourishes. On the second day of the conference, participants took a day-long learning journey, starting in the host town of Berea, proceeding into Appalachia to visit Harlan and then rounding out the trip in Corbin.
In Berea, summit attendees learned about the town’s century-old commitment to supporting local art of many disciplines. They heard a panel of Berea government officials, local entrepreneurs and artists talk about the challenges and changes Berea is making to adapt to the needs of 21st-century artists, residents and tourists.
Then it was on to Harlan where past and present cast members of the Higher Ground community arts project welcomed the Artists Thrive group to Appalachia with tales of how it has used theater to help the Harlan County community celebrate its joys and strengths and respond to its challenges. Artists Thrive attendees learned how a theater project addressing the impact of drug addiction on the region has turned into six more plays and a community network that is now involved in public health advocacy, community development, workforce development, downtown renovation, public art and a variety of cultural and educational projects that celebrate diversity as a part of sustainable community development.
The presentation included Higher Ground’s participatory story-gathering exercises and a workshop in participatory public art design presented by GoodSpace Murals and Forecast Public Art. The design workshop was part of the Great Mountain Mural Mega Fest, a professional development and community-building event for artists and arts-engaged community development types taking place at the same time as the visit from Artists Thrive.
Corbin, where Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland “Colonel” Sanders began serving his finger-lickin’ good trademark dish, is known for one of the fastest-growing downtowns in southeastern Kentucky. Summit attendees used Corbin as a case study for better understanding the work of artists and grassroots organizers in the community. That discussion led to a larger conversation about cultural equity and the role of art and artists in movements for cultural equity. Participants explored the definition of cultural equity, the strategic use of art and culture and artists’ practices, and how work can be allied with movements for cultural equity.
Those three Kentucky communities put their best foot forward, and showed summit attendees how art and artists are integral to the success of those towns. It was a proud moment for Kentucky to have so many out-of-town visitors marvel at the collaborations and good things happening in the arts here in the Bluegrass State.
Chris Cathers is interim executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.