CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Art and culture will continue to help spur the revitalization of Eastern Kentucky with the help of a new endowment gift that will fund a full-time position to lead the long-running Higher Ground community theater project, housed at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
The $450,000 endowment, made possible by entrepreneur and philanthropist Brook Smith, will fund an executive director position for the theater. Smith has been a leader in supporting the arts and creative economy in Eastern Kentucky through the Appalachian Impact Fund (AIF), founded in 2017.
“Investing in arts and culture in the Appalachian region provides returns on multiple bottom lines, with tourism and job creation benefits, as well as boosting the creative culture of the region,” said Smith, founder of Appalachian Impact Fund. “The arts are an important aspect to continue the economic, social and cultural revitalization of this region, and Higher Ground is a key part of this ongoing renaissance.”
To date, AIF has invested more than $1 million in grants to nonprofit partners in the region, and more than $700,000 in downtown revitalization and affordable housing projects.
“This endowment will help secure the future of the Higher Ground theater company that has been a real asset for the region during a time of change,” said Lora Smith, fund manager of the Appalachian Impact Fund. “As the first regionally based fund focused on Eastern Kentucky’s economic transition, we see arts and culture as an important part of what’s happening right now in the coalfields.”
The future of the position to manage Higher Ground came into question with the departure of the artistically acclaimed Robert Gipe, who led the theater from 1997 to 2018, in addition to a number of other arts endeavors that have helped transform Appalachia.
Higher Ground is a community arts organization based in Harlan County, Ky. Now in its 15th year, the organization has worked with community members and visiting artists to create photography exhibits, tile mosaics and plays. Each of these projects rely heavily on oral histories collected by Harlan Countians and about Harlan Countians.
Higher Ground 8: Perfect Buckets, a play commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance and produced by the Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College Appalachian Program, will open this fall. Perfect Buckets is a one-act play that explores the relation between food, work and community in the contemporary Appalachian coalfields. Performances are scheduled for Oct. 26 in Oxford, Miss. and Nov. 9 in Corbin, Ky.
The theater director position is slated to be filled by January 2020.