A Nurture Program For Performing Artists Needs Change And Revitalization

The application period for the relatively-unknown Kentucky’s Performing Artists Directory (PAD) opens up on Sept. 30, and it’s time to take a look at the history and future of the current Kentucky Arts Council (KAC) program, ask some questions, and call for some changes. The governor’s discretionary board selections for the KAC have helped shape the council’s activities, and as such, his office could react in any number of ways: stonewalling, defending, equivocating, or hopefully, spearheading positive change.

Who Benefits From the Performing Artists Directory?

What kind of performing artist do you need to be to win support through taxpayer funding distributed by the KAC? Peruse the state-run PAD — “an adjudicated roster of Kentucky performing artists used by in-state and out-of-state presenters and others as a resource for identifying artists for performance bookings and projects” —and it quickly becomes evident that while talents in a multitude of genres are represented, key players are missing. You will not find one rapper in the mix.

DeShawndra Ray, the owner of 7 Ray Media and a leader in Louisville’s music scene, saw the directory for the first time recently. 

“The directory as it stands now is symbolic of old ways and limits capability for connection to communities that need more nurturing and focus. You could say, ‘But look! There are all kinds of people displayed. While that might be somewhat true, the arts that are attracting the most attention to Kentucky are not represented by the registry. It’s not a true representation of the times or of Kentucky’s current performing arts scene. It’s clearly lacking development and inclusion. We should stop passively agreeing with people who have been seated to block positive change,” said Ray. “I don’t think the current information should be removed, because it is valid and important, but I do believe more representation needs to be added with a new professional creative direction.”

The application for the directory, which is part of a holistic artist nurture program that, through the decades, has ebbed and flowed depending on funding, includes a stipulation: “Vocalists who rely on pre-recorded music for accompaniment are not eligible to apply.”

If that restriction had been in place for the many decades the PAD has been around, one might better understand why certain Black arts are not well-represented here, as rap and R&B music usually require a prerecorded track. But in fact, the restriction is new.

Arts Council Arts Program Branch Manager Tamara Coffey, who manages the directory, said that the live-instrument accompaniment restriction was added a few years ago.

“You know, that was an internal agency decision. We were at that point where we were getting more and more applications from people who performed vocals, but they didn’t have any musicians. So they just played with those music tracks in the background, and we wanted to encourage people to hire musicians,” she said.

At no point in history have vocalists been discounted as musicians. The human vocal apparatus is at once a wind instrument and a string instrument. The tongue, nasal cavity, nasopharynx, uvula, tonsil, laryngopharynx, esophagus, trachea, vocal cords, glottis, and epiglottis together form an instrument as old as humanity itself.

The stipulation functions as a gatekeeping method, an artifice that harms artists in several genres.

The Artist’s Funded Journey

This didn’t affect Mitch Barrett of Berea, Kentucky, who has been listed in the directory for about 30 years. His accompaniment is live instrumentation in the form of guitars, banjos, and other man-made instruments.

Raised in a musical family, the singer — whose music is infused with the sounds of Appalachia — grew up hearing his paternal grandfather play songs on the clawhammer banjo every night.

After high school, Barrett pursued a music career, and ten years into it, a teacher named Carol Combs at a public school in Hazard asked him if he would come to her classroom and guide her students through a songwriting exercise. He did.

“Everyone is named Combs in Hazard. The school is probably called Combs, too,” joked Barrett. “She told me about a state-funded program that paid musicians to go into schools and work with kids.”

Barrett loosely remembers filling out a form. That was the beginning of his relationship with the KAC.

He soon met the late John Benjamin, well-known in the state for his leadership as the director of Arts Education programs for the KAC. Before he retired, Benjamin explained his mission: “My major focus is placing professional artists in schools around the state as artists-in-residence and helping teachers write grants. I also write the arts education portion of Arts Council grant proposals and administer all the different grants we receive.” 

Things started happening for Barrett. He and other performing artists were invited to a woodsy Boy Scout campsite for a retreat, an experience he remembers as magical and supportive. While there, he learned certain aspects of the business side of entertainment, a key component of his future activities: “They taught us how to find grants and trained us in grant writing.”

Barrett has been delivering hope and inspiration in schools throughout the state ever since, as well as Louisville’s Bellewood & Brooklawn, a therapeutic facility for abused and neglected children. All of his worthy efforts — and he has shared his love of music with many children — are covered by taxpayer dollars in the form of grants.

As of this writing, he is being paid through a grant to work with children in the flood zone. 

“I go down and I share traditional Appalachia stories. Then I share my songs that I’ve written. And I tell the stories of where the songs came from. And then when they open up to me, we take their stories and write a song. We just wrote a wonderful song called I Love My Mountains. It’s just a way of processing for them,” he explained.

One can derive from this the positive impact of a rap artist delivering these same services in Louisville’s West End. But it isn’t happening, at least not through the KAC.

The state has already established that it believes in this unique form of therapy, or the grants wouldn’t exist. But the music and musicians that are most meaningful to the majority of Black children have been left out.

When asked if he knows the other music artists working in this capacity, Barrett said, “Yeah. I’m familiar with the folks that have been around as long as me.”

When asked if he knew of any R&B artists in the mix, he responded, “Um, no.”

He mentioned one Black musician — a pianist named John Emmons — who worked in the schools as Barrett does. But he could not recall any representation from music’s most popular genre (hip-hop) or its close cousin, R&B.

It’s fascinating to imagine a scenario where school programming is carried out under the guise of a diversity mandate with an eye toward the preservation of cultural resources, yet one of the primary vehicles of Black voices in the United States as a whole and the most visible and financially-successful music genre in Kentucky — hip-hop — is missing from the equation.

The exclusion of these art forms predates the pre-recorded music ban. Did the application review process ever involve individuals with a deep respect for rap and R&B? Has the Black community ever been intentionally informed about the program’s open application periods or even the program itself?

Anemic Funding for Performing Arts and Blindness to Constituency

Programs that support the arts can be brought back and reconstructed, so they are better than ever in the truly diverse spirit of the KAC’s core values published on their website. 

Perhaps every decision-maker in the system ought to challenge themselves on why their comfort zones are what they are, where the structural racism lies, and what they can do to correct the problems.

J. “Divine” Alexander, a Louisville-based hip-hop artist who has lobbied in Frankfort on behalf of essential workers for inclusion in the American Rescue Plan funds distribution, learned of the PAD’s deficiencies and had this to say: “Once I learned that the program excludes hip-hop, that’s when I said, ‘Hey, let’s take a look into creative change to where hip-hop is included. Hip-hop is the number one listened-to and sold genre of music at this moment. If I were funded this way, I would use creative writing to express thoughts and experiences that plague the Black community. With that, I would teach them how to formulate raps that would help them release their feelings through a creative outlet rather than acting it out in a physical, dangerous outlet. I would be a mental health ambassador through music.”

State and local leaders would be wise to zero in on the connection between creative outlets and violence reduction.

Art Council Communications Director Tom Musgrave’s job, which is not to make formative or guiding decisions for programs but rather to communicate on behalf of the council, is under the impression that the directory is already whole in its composition. 

“The directory of performing artists covers all manner of performing arts, disciplines, theater, music, dance, storytelling, and any other kind of performing arts that are going on. The directory has members in it that are representative of the various disciplines,” he said.

If the council’s communications director isn’t aware of the exclusive nature of the program, who else is blind to it?

Regarding the email distribution list that the council uses to inform the public about opportunities for performing artists: how was it built, how is it fed now, and what intentional efforts are made to ensure it is inclusive?

LEO asked Musgrave, “Do your media lists and your email lists cover all communities throughout the state?”

His response was, “Yes.”

LEO also asked Coffey for this information. 

“For years and years and years, every time we have done an event, we’ve collected the names and contact information of anybody who wants to give it to us. We’ve also had an open registration system online so that if they’re on our website, they can sign up. It’s a little different now because we go through this state mailing list. And so signing up as an individual is more difficult and I’m not exactly sure how it works now,” she said.

This explanation describes a passive list-building process that does not ensure diversity. Events attended primarily by the white community will not yield sign-ups from Latinx or Black residents, for example. The existence of an online registration system will not drive sign-ups unless there is a lead generation campaign in place.

The KAC also built lists of presenters and presenting organizations.

“Sadly, they’re not very plump,” said Coffey. “Over the years, we’ve lost funding for presenters from both the Arts Council and other sources. So a number of our presenting organizations have gone under as a result, or they’ve been refocused, like some of the ones that are based at Kentucky community and technical colleges. The one in Hazard, which used to have a great presenting program, they just moved the woman who ran it into a different aspect of administration.”

The Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet is currently spending money on post-pandemic tourism recovery. Kentucky has already decided that the arts — including music — belong to tourism.

And that’s why the Kentucky Arts Council should get more than the $2,858,500 it was allotted in 2022, which is a meager portion of the $274,838,800 Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet budget that also covers the State Fair Board, Parks, Fish and Wildlife Resources and other agencies.

What’s more, other governing bodies have capitalized on the power of music to spur economic recovery. Maryland’s Strong Economic Recovery Initiative states the case. This UK Music report illuminates the power of music tourism. If a government is going to trigger economic growth through wise expenditures on music tourism, it makes the most sense to focus that spending on the genre that excites the most people, and hip-hop is exactly that.

Where Are We Now?

Until Kentucky wakes up to these facts, there is still the PAD, which validates a performing artist’s creative contributions and helps set them up for success through training, exposure and community. 

Here in 2022, the PAD exists in a whittled-down state, which is to say it is a shadow of its former self. The directory — which is an online collection of performing artist profiles complete with fee schedules, publicity contact information, bios, technical specifications for performances, riders, MP3 samples, and image galleries — still has chops. 

Artists who have made it through a fairly undefined vetting process proudly labeled “adjudication” by the council are not exactly sitting in the catbird seat, but they are better off than those who are excluded. The restriction on pre-recorded music should be removed, the full funding the KAC enjoyed in the past should be restored, and the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet should recognize how Black music can help revitalize the state economy. 

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