By Sarah Jane Herbener
Want to see how Lexington’s art scene is thriving these days? Just take a walk down the street, where a new outdoor mural may catch your eye. Lexington’s best-known mural is Eduardo Kobra’s vividly hued portrait of Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln, gazing wisely down on Vine Street from the back of the historic Kentucky Theatre. But Honest Abe is far from alone, as dozens of striking murals have sprung up around Lexington in recent years.
Many of these were brought to Lexington by PRHBTN, a local organization founded by John and Jessica Winters to recognize the artistic merit of marginalized forms such as graffiti and street art. Their annual PRHBTN Exhibition, held in partnership with the Lexington Art League, is proud to bring bold and thought-provoking art to the Bluegrass.
On your walk, you may also see public art sponsored by LexArts, the city’s arts council and united arts fund. LexArts’ citywide Horse Mania and Book Benches exhibitions have been wildly popular in recent years, changing the face of Lexington with vibrant pieces celebrating Kentucky artists and authors.
LexArts also organizes Lexington’s annual LexArts HOP, formerly known as Gallery Hop. It’s one of Lexington’s best-loved arts events, a self-guided gallery tour that’s brought thousands of visitors downtown each year since its inception in 1994.
Behind the scenes, LexArts partners with over 50 Central Kentucky organizations, fundraising and advocating for established institutions like the stately Headley-Whitney Museum and newer groups like the Irish dancers of the Bluegrass Ceili Company. And LexArts supports several local art groups by housing their offices at its ArtsPlace facility, a gracious Beaux-Arts building on North Mill Street.
“It’s important to support the entire arts culture,” said Maury Sparrow, LexArts communications director.
ArtsPlace also offers many children’s art classes and experiences, and LexArts’ partnerships with local schools and with the Living Arts and Science Center expand the reach and scope of arts education in the Bluegrass. In addition, LexArts works with youth organizations including the Bluegrass Youth Ballet, the Lexington Children’s Theatre and the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra and Concert Band. These groups create wonderful productions for audiences of all ages while nurturing the talents of young performers.
One standout LexArts project, Christopher Weed’s “Origins” installation on the Oliver Lewis Way bridge, adds a glow to the night with golden lights that mimic the traditional fire-charring of oak barrels for the aging of fine bourbon. That’s because the bridge is a gateway to Lexington’s Distillery District, located in a historic distillery area that fell into disuse over the years but has recently been reclaimed as a bustling entertainment center.
In addition to new restaurants, craft distilleries and residential developments that build on the area’s rich history, the Distillery District boasts excellent live music. One popular venue, Manchester Music Hall, in the reclaimed 19th-century Old Tarr Distillery, features established acts like country-rock fusion star Uncle Kracker, rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, alternative rock band Soul Asylum, and country musicians Jamey Johnson and Kentucky’s own Tyler Childers, among others. With a capacity of 1,100 patrons, Manchester Music Hall’s offerings nicely fill the gap between high-profile concerts at Rupp Arena and small performances at local bars.
The Burl, which occupies a restored Texaco Oil train depot, will welcome artists like Smooth Hound Smith, Lazer Lloyd and Saintseneca this year.
“It’s a really unique property in the heart of the distillery district,” said owner and buyer Will Harvey, adding that The Burl’s new retro arcade – featuring more than 30 arcade cabinets, pinball and Skee-Ball machines, console and board games, and a fully stocked bar – has brought even more entertainment value to the venue.
The Bluegrass region is full of opportunities to hear music of every genre. Rupp Arena hosts big names like James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, pop star Ariana Grande and contemporary Christian band Casting Crowns, just to name a few. Classical music aficionados enjoy the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, which presents stunning takes on the classics as well as shows like the upcoming “New Year’s Eve: Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” with guest conductor and trumpeter Byron Stripling. Choral music also abounds, from the Lexington Chamber Chorale to the Kentucky Bach Choir to the Lexington Singers, a community choir that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Don’t forget the outdoor events! Bring a picnic to one of the area’s many outdoor shows and festivals. The Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park, a Lexington tradition for 45 years, celebrates traditional Bluegrass music, as does the summertime Southland Jamboree, a weekly event. Central Bank Thursday Night Live welcomes visitors downtown to the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion for live music, food and drinks. And the Lakeside Live series, on the patio behind the Lexington Green shopping center, hosts local and touring groups who perform country, rock, reggae, folk and more.
Jazz and blues aficionados will also find exceptional performers in Lexington. One standout venue, although a bit off the radar, is Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club, named for owner Tee Dee Young, a Lexington native who has toured the world as a celebrated vocalist and guitarist. In looking for a place back home where his band could practice, Young years ago bought a dilapidated building on East Second Street and rebuilt it into a working performance space and then a thriving club.
Today, Lexington jazz and blues fans head to Tee Dee’s not only to hear the Tee Dee Young Band but to enjoy selected concerts from the Origins Jazz Series, which raises money for the Central Music Academy on Georgetown Street, where musicians from all over town provide free music lessons to the next generation of legends.
Lexington is also a theater hub. The long-running Broadway Live series at the Lexington Opera House presents first-class national touring companies of popular shows, which have included “Rent,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Jersey Boys” and “The King and I,” just to name a few. And an array of community theaters offer dramatic breadth and depth, from Studio Players’ annual “10 Minute Play Festival” to Athens West’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Fences” to the Bluegrass Theatre Guild’s presentation of the nostalgic “A Christmas Story.”
The Lexington Theatre Co., known locally as The Lex, has made a big impression since its founding just four years ago. Husband-and-wife team Jeromy Smith and Lyndy Franklin Smith, after finding success in the New York theater scene, decided their true calling was in community theater and moved to Lexington, Lyndy’s hometown, to pursue that dream. The Smiths’ experience and know-how have turned The Lex’s popular, annual “Concert With the Stars” and its stellar productions of such shows as “West Side Story,” “42nd Street,” “Legally Blonde” and “The Music Man” into local sensations while providing opportunities for Bluegrass-area performers.
“We are committed to bringing first-rate, professional theater to Lexington and creating productions that are unique, that people will only see for the five performances that we do them,” Jeromy Smith said.
In short, Bluegrass locals and visitors alike can find lively, thrilling, moving, thought-provoking arts experiences all over town … and just down the street.
Arts and cultural organizations African American Forum
Berea Arts Council (Berea)
Blackbird Dance Theatre
Bluegrass Youth Ballet
Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning
Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras
Central Music Academy
Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts (Richmond)
Grand Theater (Frankfort)
Innovation Arts Academy
Kentucky Arts Council (Frankfort)
Kentucky Ballet Theatre
Kentucky Repertory Dance Theatre
Leeds Center for the Arts (Winchester)
Lexington Art League
Lexington Chamber Chorale
Lexington Children’s Theatre
Lexington Community Radio
Lexington Opera Society
Lexington Public Library
Living Arts & Science Center
Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center
Norton Center for the Arts (Danville)
Red Barn Radio
Richmond Area Arts Council
Singletary Center for the Arts
University of Kentucky Art Museum
Woodford Theater (Versailles)
Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour