Somerset took its turn in the spotlight this week -- and left a big impression.
The Kentucky Arts Council came to town Thursday and Friday, making their first trip to this community, and saw some of the best and brightest visual and performing artists that Pulaski County had to offer. To a person, they departed with glowing reviews.
"We've never seen a community so dedicated to the arts, and the collaborative support of everybody in the arts industry," said Mary Michael Corbett, chairperson of the Kentucky Arts Council. "The commitment to making the community an arts center (stood out). There doesn't seem to be the competitiveness that you sometimes see. It's just a real sense of, 'Everyone who has an interest, we want to help you grow, we want to help you develop, we want to be part of your success, and we all want to do it together.'"
The state's preeminent organization dedicated to supporting and promoting the arts, the Kentucky Arts Council brings together creators and patrons of the arts from the business community, including a number of influential figures in their circles. Members of the council include University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director and founder of the American Spiritual Ensemble Dr. Everett McCorvey; accomplished composer and president of Melodia Music Angela Rice; William H. Ford Government Education Center director Elizabeth Griffith; and visual artist Sallie Lanham.
The Kentucky Arts Council is publicly funded by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts. Its aim is to be "responsible for developing and promoting support for the arts in Kentucky," according to its website, artscouncil.ky.gov.
Janice Turpen of Somerset is a member of the council, appointed in 2016, and she was eager to bring the council to her hometown. The council visits numerous communities across the commonwealth to see what they offer in terms of the arts, but hadn't gone to Somerset at any point in memory.
That changed in a big way this week. Thursday night featured a reception at the home of Congressman Hal Rogers and a vocal performance by Amanda Balltrip, a local classically trained operatic performer. The group also went to the home of teenage recording artist Will Muse, who has already put out singles and music videos in his young career, and had dinner at the home of Janice and husband Bill, the local Republican Party chairperson.
On Friday, the group visited local arts organizations, including the Carnegie Community Arts Center, Flashback Theater Co., McNeil Music Center, Wandering Elm Photography, and Jarfly Brewing Co., learned about features like the Master Musicians Festival, and visited arts patron Cornelia Dozier Cooper's home to see her collection of her own paintings.
"(The visit) has gone beyond my expectations," said Turpen. "It has been great. They are in love with our community, and they all want to come back. They all want to bring their families and enjoy. They just can't believe what we have to offer here. We have showcased many more artists than other communities have. They said they're just so excited about the thriving arts community."
Turpen echoed Louisville's Corbett, saying that the council hadn't seen a community with such a "team effort" when it comes to promoting the arts.
Exposure to the council could lead to numerous opportunities. Executive Director Chris Cathers talked about the practical side of things, encouraging artists to pursue grants and talked about how the council looked at the ways in which the arts intersected with the economic lifeblood of Pulaski County.
The council held its business meeting in the Somerset City Council chambers Friday, where they invited the public to attend. Numerous individuals from the arts, education and business communities showed up, and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck spoke to the council and highlighted some of the attractions Somerset has to offer, as well as showing footage from the recent trip to Louisville to participate in an arts exchange event between the two cities.
Keck noted that the love of art is "what brings people together." He said that the best leaders know when to step up, and when to get out of the way and let "creative genius" lead the way, and that's what he seeks to do as mayor.
"I have challenged folks, and I'm not going to apologize for it either -- I think that we need to do more as a state (to focus on the idea) 'What Kentucky story are we telling?'" said Keck. "Are we going to focus so much on drugs and poverty and health issues -- while very important -- but if we're going to if we're going to transform and fix those things, then we need to talk about all the things that we're doing well."
Added Keck, "There so much to be proud of, and now, what we want to take the lead on here in Somerset is art and entertainment. That's why we launched the "sister cities" program (with Louisville), and really, it was birthed from our artists. I was focused on sister cities abroad and they said, 'Why not right here in Kentucky?'"
Also, young performers Madison Harmon and Chase Cimala showcased their talents, including performing a scene from the Somerset High School production of "Newsies" that they had been in. The two sang earlier for the council along with Balltrip, and according to Corbett, gave the group "cold chills."
To a person, everyone on the council said at the meeting how they'd never received a welcome before like they did in Somerset -- Corbett noted that the community "rolled out the red carpet" -- and how impressed they were with what they found here.
"I don't know that any of us know a community with more passion and commitment to advancing all the arts, the artistic community, and the overall cultural landscape of your community," said Corbett in the meeting. "... We've learned so much. I was talking with someone earlier and he asked, 'How will this benefit Somerset when you go back to your communities?' It's because we're going to challenge them to be more like Somerset."
She added to the Commonwealth Journal, "When the staff goes back and starts working with other communities and they can say, 'This (Somerset) model works well. Don't work independently. Find the partners throughout the community, and then you get a groundswell of support.'"