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Profile of an Arts-Supporting Community: Richmond, Kentucky

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Profile of an Arts-Supporting Community: Richmond, KentuckyOne cannot escape the barrage of news headlines reporting that nearly everywhere, states, communities and public school systems are feeling the wrath from the harshest economic storm to hit the nation since the Great Depression.

Faced with shrinking revenues and higher operational costs, many public school systems have resorted to reducing or eliminating their band, orchestra, and choir programs while countless state and local arts councils and professional performing arts organizations are walking a financial high wire just to survive.

Although faced with many of the same economic hurdles as the rest of America, a Kentucky community of 30,000 believes its educational and financial commitment and support of the performing arts will have lasting economic, educational, and cultural benefits long after the current national recession is gone.

Nestled between the famed Bluegrass horse country and the rugged Southern Appalachian foothills, the city of Richmond, an emerging micropolitan area just 30 miles south of Lexington, is quickly becoming recognized across and beyond Kentucky as a performing arts-friendly community to arts enthusiasts, performers, business and civic leaders, government officials, educators, and college-bound students.

Home to Madison County’s two largest employers, Eastern Kentucky University and the Madison County Schools System, Richmond is decidedly positioning itself to become one of the region’s up-and-coming performing arts hubs thanks to the now-under-construction Center for the Performing Arts on the EKU campus. In addition, the dramatic rate of growth in the music programs at Madison Central High School (Richmond) and Madison Southern High School (15 minutes south of Richmond in Berea), and their feeder middle school programs have resulted in the system’s administrative and board leadership providing much-needed support for new and expanded facilities and equipment.

The Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Kentucky University
Touted to become one of the largest performing arts centers in a multi-state region, the nearly $30 million, 93,000-square-foot Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Kentucky University is physical proof of what can result when state and local governments and higher education collaborate, according to EKU president Dr. Doug Whitlock.

The Center will house a 2,000-seat “Broadway-capable, Broadway-quality” theater, with a “fly system” and a 60-foot x 24-foot stage proscenium. The facility will also include a configurable “black-box theater” with seating up to 250. A large lobby will enable events in conjunction with shows.

“This will be a key linchpin for what we are trying to do for our students, Kentucky, and the region,” says Whitlock. “There is no greater embodiment of the creative and human spirit than the performing and fine arts. Although there are some excellent performing arts venues across Kentucky and our region, this facility will be second to none.”

Partners for the Center include the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Madison County, the cities of Richmond and Berea, and EKU. Their collective financial support for the facility along with the creation of a 13-member board of directors are the fruits of a collaboration Whitlock and other community leaders point to with pride.

State representative Harry Moberly, who, along with a group of community leaders conceived the project and its economic impact on the region in 2000, states,

“There is no other project like it in Kentucky. The Center for the Performing Arts is a direct result of state, county, city and university leaders dreaming and working together to provide the initial funding this performing arts gem will require for success. This partnership is easily one of, if not the best, collaborative effort I have ever witnessed.”

Berea mayor Steve Connelly notes, “Much has been said about the collaborative spirit of this project, and I agree. Like a choir, it takes many voices to form a stronger, more effective ensemble. It’s very rare when you find two municipalities like Berea and Richmond working side-by-side with their county government and a major public university on a project like this. I believe this says much about the uniqueness of our county’s spirit.”

“Community support is absolutely vital…”
Recently recognized nationally as an arts-supporting school system, the Madison County Schools has long maintained its support of the performing and visual arts despite whatever the national economic landscape might be. Led by superintendent Tommy Floyd, the district has more than 10,000, which in addition to the two high schools includes three middle schools in Richmond and one in Berea, with plans for construction of a second.

At the six schools, more than 500 students are part of the music program and according to Floyd, more growth in the county’s ensembles will keep the music directors, boosters organizations, board of education, and central office staff planning and preparing for what appears to be a bright future.

“In the Madison County Schools it can be said we have a tradition of supporting the performing and visual arts,” says Floyd. “Long before I arrived as superintendent my two immediate predecessors demonstrated the same commitment.

“In the Madison County Schools, we try to make well-informed decisions since we believe every student counts. It is imperative to the wellbeing of each student’s academic achievement that they be exposed to or participate in a performing or visual arts program from the time they enter kindergarten until they cross the stage when they graduate from high school.

“Research clearly shows what happens to a student’s academic success when they have had such exposure and involvement in the performing arts, whether it is in band, choir, or theatre. We must always provide students with opportunities where they can express themselves.”

Floyd and the Madison County Board of Education have been instrumental in providing significant financial support for new or expanded concert facilities, particularly for the Madison Central and Madison Southern high school music programs.

“We provide adequate, high quality academic and performance spaces for students K-12,” said Floyd. “During the past few years, we have invested $11 million for a new performing arts wing at Madison Central plus a commitment to expand practice facilities for both Madison Central and Madison Southern’s performing groups.”

H. Brent Barton, band director at Madison Central since 1994 and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s 2009 Educator of the Year, has witnessed this growth first hand. “When I first went to Madison Central we had exactly 49 musicians including the field commander and 20 members of the color guard. Moreover, I was the only band director at Madison Central and Clark-Moores Middle School, one of the two feeder schools.”

Barton continues, “Today, a direct comparison is difficult because the structure of the program is so much different. Starting with marching band, we presently have 82 wind players, 23 percussion, three field commanders and 24 color guard members. Those numbers aren’t exactly representative, however, because we now have two concert band classes, an instrumental musicianship class, a percussion techniques class and a color guard class that meet within the context of the school day.”

Madison Central also supports a concert band and a wind ensemble, which, for the second time since 2007, has been invited as one of 16 bands in the nation to perform at the Bands of America “2010 National Concert Band Festival” in Indianapolis.

“Community support is absolutely vital in the development of an excellent band program,” said Barton. “If the community is home to an outstanding university like we have with Eastern Kentucky University and its music department, then the opportunities for mutual support and growth are limitless.”

Barton also expresses his appreciation to Floyd and members of the board of education. “Superintendent Floyd has only been in his position for a couple of years, but in that time has already authorized a new rehearsal facility for both Madison Central and Madison Southern’s bands, which are currently under construction,” Barton said. “I’ve talked with him extensively and his energy and concern to see that all of our students get every possible resource is awe-inspiring.”

Rob James, chair of EKU’s Department of Music, a NASM-accredited program, agrees. “A university and its music program can be a foundation upon which the type of community is built. Universities not only tend to elevate the general level of prosperity of a community, but tend to bring both a teaching and student population that’s more supportive of the arts than the population in general.

“Eastern has a valued relationship with the City of Richmond and the Madison County Schools as both have been unswerving in their devotion, commitment and financial support of the performing arts. In fact, many of the band students who graduated from both of Madison County’s high schools continue their music education and involvement at Eastern. So we are the direct beneficiaries of the local school system’s commitment to the arts and are most thankful.”

Community support for the performing arts extends, too, through the efforts of the Richmond Area Arts Council, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

“The Council has presented arts performances and events to thousands of citizens in the region and has benefited hundreds of children through its arts education programming and after-school programs,” said Jan Tunnell, a founding member and first president of RAAC. “We believe we have helped raise the awareness of the importance of the arts in the community and that our work has made Richmond a better place to live and work.”

What’s Next?
With the support and expansion of the performing arts in Richmond and Madison County, continued growth, opportunities, and preparation are essential, says EKU’s Whitlock, who also serves on the Madison County Board of Education as well as on the Richmond Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

“We want to be adequately prepared for the growth, economic and cultural impact the performing arts will continue to have on our community, Eastern Kentucky University and throughout our public school district,” explains Whitlock. “Just imagine the thrill students will have when they are first exposed to Broadway productions or to great symphony orchestras all presented in our community!

“Already, the Center for the Performing Arts is breeding ideas for other performing arts organizations such as a new community band for the city of Richmond that will be comprised of local business people, teachers, and high school and university students. The music programs at our school system’s middle schools and high schools are exploding with growth and interest, so we must be prepared to meet their facility and equipment needs. I may be a bit biased, but it’s pretty clear to me and those of us who live here that we’re very blessed.”

Marc C. Whitt serves as associate vice president for Public Relations Marketing at Eastern Kentucky University, a comprehensive, public university of nearly 16,000 students.

Practical Advice, Tips Methods for Fostering Community Support

By H. Brent Barton
Director of Bands
Madison Central High School
Richmond, Kentucky

There are many things band, orchestra, and choir directors can do to foster support within their communities, as well as mistakes to avoid:

  1. 1. Put your program in the community as much as time and energy will allow. Often, the band, orchestra, or choir director will put on two concerts a year and then complain because no one except parents attends.
  2. 2. Publicize the success and positive achievements of your ensembles, and the student members of those organizations, as often and loudly as possible through every medium possible.
  3. 3. Include individual student success as a vital part of publicizing your program to groups such as the Board of Education or Chamber of Commerce. Most directors are quick to point out the successes of their respective programs, but sometimes overlook student achievement within their programs.
  4. 4. Be specific with requests for financial and other support. Explain in specific and plain terminology what you need and why you need it.
  5. 5. Try as often as possible to see your program from the vantage point of the school and community leadership. Due to the encompassing nature of our work, this perspective is difficult, if not impossible; however, most of our communities see our programs differently than we do.
  6. 6 .When you ask for resources, be prepared to give something in return. If you’re asking for new uniform donations, provide free passes to the annual benefit concert followed up with a public acknowledgment of supporting groups.
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