When you think of the arts industry in Kentucky, at first quaint school craft shows, gallery hops and hip designers might come to mind. The reality is that the arts and crafts business in the state is worth billions of dollars and accounts for more jobs than the commonwealth’s acclaimed automotive and aircraft manufacturing sectors combined.
One such career artist is Nick Baute of Louisville’s Hound Dog Press. Baute and his business partner, Robert Ronk, run a full-service letterpress shop in the heart of downtown. Business is going well, Baute said, partly due to the fact that in a digital age “people like to hold something printed in their hand. We touch every sheet of paper that we print on, so I think that world of doing it the old way is coming back around.”
Seven-year-old Hound Dog Press prints with historic units built from 1892 up to the 1960s. Both men attended the University of Kentucky as art majors, Baute said, and feel fortunate to have full-time jobs and a business in the art industry, especially in a time when most people want things printed quickly and cheaply.
“We feel really supported, especially in Louisville,” he said. “It’s a very supportive of small business here.”
Other artists, whether they run sustainable businesses in their chosen craft or not, are feeling the love, too.
The Kentucky Arts Council, led by Executive Director Lori Meadows, is working hard to get the state’s creatives the support they need. She and her colleagues are in tune with artists around the state, what they are producing and how much, and what their needs are. They know many by name.
“Kentucky certainly has a really strong arts heritage and has for generations,” Meadows said. “Particularly in things like craft and music and the literary arts. One of the things that we often hear from panelists that come in from out of the state is the fact that we don’t have the arts just in the major cities and more urban areas, but we really have things going on across the entire state. That doesn’t always happen in other states.”
Breaking down the numbers
In Kentucky, the creative industry collectively employs 108,498 people, according to a study the council commissioned. It found there are 60,504 direct jobs. There are another 11,708 direct creative jobs in non-creative enterprises, and 36,286 indirect jobs in the arts and crafts industry, mostly supply-chain-related.
“The study looked at four different sectors, within what we defined as Kentucky’s creative industry,” said Creative Industry Manager Emily Moses of the Arts Council. “Those are visual artists, which includes craft, performing artists, all of the design fields (including landscape, architecture, graphic design), and communication and media, which includes advertising.”
Creative work is the primary source of income for 31 percent of people who responded to the Arts Council’s survey, and 37 percent are also employed elsewhere. Nearly 20 percent were retired but still doing creative work.
“That number is many times larger than the proportion of self-employed people across all other industries in Kentucky,” Meadows noted.
These jobs account for 2.5 percent of Kentucky’s total employment and annual earnings of $1.9 billion. The average wage of a creative worker is $34,299.
An area not included is education and its art teachers, Meadows noted.
The council tracks sales partially through its annual three-day Kentucky Crafted: The Market event, “which has a wholesale and retail component. That makes us different from most other shows,” Meadows said.
Participating artists must be adjudicated into the Kentucky Crafted program annually. This year’s market took place in March in Lexington, and usually averages around $1 million in sales. Its 2015 economic impact was estimated at $1.3 million.
Programs like Kentucky Crafted and the Kentucky Arts Partnership help artists around the state thrive. The latter program provides money to support operations of 90 to 100 arts organizations across the state, including Lexington’s LexArts.
The Kentucky Arts Council awarded just over $1.4 million in 2015, supporting 607 full-time jobs, 974 part-time jobs and 1,980 contract-for-service positions. Recipient organizations generated federal tax revenue of $5.3 million, $1.45 million for the state, and $550,000 to municipalities and counties. The council’s support also helped recipients leverage nearly $62 million in other funds.
Business training offered
Those are big numbers but offer no guarantee of success to Kentucky artists and organizations.
“What we have found is that artists needed assistance in basic and advanced business training,” Moses said. “Things like financing, legal resources, living and workspace, technology, computer and web-related activities. Always, we find that artists need assistance with marketing.”
Kentucky has a good mix of working professional craftspeople with higher education and training and those who are self taught.
“Regardless of the category, they usually didn’t take business classes,” she said, “yet they are operating a small business. We can help people in the creative industry by connecting them and providing business training for them.”
The council partners with several organizations to offer business training courses and works with entities like the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, and Kentucky Community and Technical College in Hazard, which is offering the state’s first Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Program. Many such these programs are free or very inexpensive.
The Arts Council relies heavily on federal and state funding. Across the state, Meadows said, organizations, artists and communities are becoming more savvy about applying for federal funding, and she’s seen an increase in grants from National Endowment for the Arts programs.
“Also, there is a lot more collaboration among different organizations and community entities, and working across industries. We are seeing more partnerships forming and more networking,” she said.
The Arts Council is diligently reaching out to Kentucky’s business community about the importance of the arts, Meadows said, and created purchase awards and incentives at this year’s Kentucky Crafted for businesses who bought artwork by Kentucky artists for their places of business.
Appreciation of Kentucky art attracts collectors and distributors come from around the world. Meadows noted that Paducah is world renowned as a quilting hot spot. The western Kentucky town has an official United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Creative City designation for its folk art. Meanwhile, the council is thrilled to see a major entity like 21c Museum Hotels open its location in Lexington, making Kentucky the only state with two of the unique art venues.
“Kentucky also has an incredibly active literary community, much more so than some larger states,” Meadows said. “We have some really talented and important writers here. … They are being published out there internationally.”
The state is known for its basket makers, and has craftspeople like willow-furniture makers, video game creators, public art creators and so much more.
And Kentucky is welcoming of arts from other countries. For example, the council has funded two master apprenticeships in Lexington for the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument.
Education will help carry the torch of art, even for non-artists
Teaching Kentuckians to appreciate as well as produce art also aids in improving outcomes for everyone, regardless of the field in which they eventually work.
“Arts education in school is really critical. Having arts education can teach you collaboration, partnerships, solving problems and thinking outside the box,” Meadows said. “As we are looking at some of the skills needed for the 21st century workforce, creativity and innovation are two of the most important things.”
Everyone has an innate desire to create, whether they think they have artistic “talent” or not, according to Judith Pointer Jia, an art professor at Centre College in Danville.
“Creating art of any kind involves problem solving,” Jia said. “People taking a class in the arts learn new ways of thinking critically about a problem and then finding technical and conceptual solutions to it. People gain an appreciation for the processes involved with creation of an end product. That is valuable knowledge that can translate into many areas – manufacturing, for example.”
Centre art majors “have gone on to work in the fields of architectural preservation, art therapy, teaching, dentistry, art auctions, museum and gallery work in addition to becoming professional artists,” Jia said. ■
Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].