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March 15, 2008

Major universities can have a major impact on local arts

Rich Copley

Uk_symphony_carnegie_hall

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performed in New York's Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie in November, under the baton of John Nardolillo. The ensemble also performs in Lexington regularly, including a February concert with cellist Lynn Harrell. Copyrighted photo by Aaron Lee Fineman | for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK ­musical and operetta club.

A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.

Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.

That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman ­Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).

There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.

My first gig was in Augusta, Ga., a town not dramatically different from Lexington in size and dynamics. But there was no major university. Augusta State University -- then Augusta College -- did have arts programs and provide a performance venue for the Augusta Symphony and other groups. But the overall influence was not nearly as pervasive. Local arts groups were much more on their own to find talent and support.

My next stop was Athens, home of the University of Georgia. In terms of arts, the school functioned more as the major presenter; the city really isn't large enough to generate its own major arts institutions. There was a good community theater and orchestra and some dance activity. But the university's art museum and performance hall were the main fine arts venues.

Cities a notch above our size, of course, create their own institutions, often with the involvement of big U's in the community, but they are also self-sustaining.

Lexington is the right size for a great symbiosis between town and gown. UK functions as a presenter in its own right -- through student groups and series such as the Singletary Center's Corner on Classics -- and in providing resources for area groups through faculty, students and graduates. Many actors who perform and direct on local stages studied at UK, and professional musicians are here for groups such as the Philharmonic because they work at UK and other area universities and colleges.

The influence of higher education institutions, particularly UK, in the local arts community is almost easy to miss because it's so pervasive. But we don't want to take it for granted, nor should any town that artistically benefits from a university's arts programs.

This column was cross posted on Copious Notes.

Posted by Rich Copley at March 15, 2008 9:01 PM