Few arts organizations in Lexington get as much accomplished in a typical year — or an atypical year, such as 2020 — as Arts Connect.
Through its Mobile Gallery program, Arts Connect mounts rotating exhibitions of work for sale by local artists in corporate lobbies and other public spaces in Lexington year-round. Its popular annual Paint the Town event, in which scores of plein-air painters capture scenes in specified parts of the city, ends with an exhibition in which nearly half the work is snapped up by buyers at the opening reception. The group also hosts an annual Open Studios weekend, in which artists open up their workspaces to the public.
And with most of its in-person events canceled or postponed in the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Arts Connect marched on with a series of themed online competitions and exhibitions. They included “Here Today…,” featuring photography about life in Kentucky during the COVID-19 crisis, and “Gimme Shelter,” with artists in various genres interpreting the concept of home, both of which had related online artist talks and other events that drew scores of participants.
The year 2021 is shaping up to be the organization’s busiest yet, with existing programs (including a guided opera-lovers’ trip to Santa Fe) kickstarted post-COVID and new ones — including more themed exhibitions and the inaugural Lexington Arts Awards ceremony in early summer — set for their debuts.
How Arts Connect started
The mastermind and sole generator of this flurry of activity is Executive Director Kate Savage, an energetic Englishwoman who started Arts Connect in 2014 after several decades as a Lexington restauranteur, caterer and gourmet food shop owner. Savage seized her second career both as a way to indulge her personal passion for the arts — she studied English and art history at the University of London’s Bedford College and is a lifelong patron of the visual arts, the theater, classical music concerts and opera — and to help local artists find audiences and markets.
She saw visual artists in particular as neglected by the local arts establishment and in need of advocacy, leadership and opportunities to connect with the public.
“They were a group of people not being served, and that was part of the impetus for starting Arts Connect,” Savage says in her British accent. “They were just out there working at their art, doing their own thing, and they didn’t have anybody who gets them to coalesce, or herds them — and they all need herding. They need someone who gets them on board with good ideas for programs that showcase and celebrate the talent we have amongst us.”
That someone is Savage, a decisive, hyper-organized entrepreneur whose work at Arts Connect — a non-profit that she runs essentially as a one-woman show, without staff or office space outside her art-filled home near the University of Kentucky campus — is both prodigious and neverending. “I’m a unit of one, fast and lean,” she says proudly. “I’m not bogged down with committee meetings or worried about other people’s feelings. I just work round the clock.”
Her efforts during the pandemic, a time of isolation and bouts of despair in Lexington’s arts community, have earned her the gratitude of local artists such as Cheryle Rhodus Walton, a Paint the Town participant for years and a featured artist in the “Gimme Shelter” virtual reception in March.
“A year ago, I and other artists were a day away from being in our first Kentucky Crafted show when that was canceled because of COVID,” Walton recalls. “Our whole world came down around us — we had spent a lot of money getting ready — and I was scared that Paint the Town would be canceled, too. But Kate went ahead and found a way to do it virtually, and that was huge. It took our minds off all the bad news and gave us a reason to get back to our easels.”
After that, Walton says, Savage’s constant flow of new ideas for arts programs was a lifeline for her and many other local artists. “Kate kept us going with Arts Connect throughout COVID,” she says. “This whole past year, she’s not let us down.”
Future, current program wins
Arts Connect’s upcoming schedule is packed with events, including this year’s edition of Paint the Town on June 26, to be followed shortly by an exhibition at the downtown Lexington Public Library. The first annual Lexington Arts Awards luncheon, honoring achievers in the visual, performing and literary arts as well arts education and arts philanthropy, will be held at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Center on July 22. The Open Studios weekend, interrupted by the pandemic last year, will resume in late October.
Arts-themed trips to Indianapolis, Santa Fe and Egypt are planned for July, August and November, respectively, contingent on developments in the pandemic.
Savage also continues to showcase movers and shakers in the arts community on her biweekly interview show, Art Throb, on RadioLex 93.9 FM, under the Arts Connect umbrella. (The show airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on RadioLex; the podcast versions can be accessed on the Arts Connect website, artsconnectlex.org.)
But Arts Connect’s flagship program remains the Mobile Gallery, which displays work by Kentucky artists, mostly painters, on a three-month rotating basis in 16 spaces around town, including corporate lobbies and conference rooms, stores, medical clinic waiting rooms and, for the first time recently, a restaurant, Ranada’s Kitchen, 270 Woodland Ave. (Editor’s note: A group of the reporter’s photographic prints, “The Language of Flowers,” is currently on exhibit as part of Mobile Gallery.)
The venues pay an annual subscription fee to participate, and Arts Connect takes a commission of 20 to 30 percent of sales — far less than established galleries, which generally take 50 percent.
“The artworks don’t fly off the walls,” Savage admits, “but I’ve made sales out of every location, and each has been profitable for at least one artist. All of the artists get great exposure for their work, and the participating venues are pleased, so it’s a win for everybody.”
One participating location is Keystone Financial Group, 527 Wellington Way. “My colleagues love it — we always get excited when the new art comes,” says Jill Gookin, Keystone’s client relations manager and now a member of Arts Connect’s board. “I think Kate’s found a unique window to simply connect more people with art. Instead of us going to the art in a gallery, the art comes to you, which leads to more opportunities for our staff and visitors to see and purchase art and support local artists.”
Another recent and quite large addition to the Mobile Gallery program is the Windows on Main Gallery at downtown Lexington’s Triangle Center (formerly known as Festival Market) on the corner of B
roadway and Main Street. Underwritten by the Downtown Lexington Management District, the new gallery has so far hosted exhibitions of large-scale paintings by Becky Simmermacher, Monica Pipia and, most recently, Clay Wainscott.
“Kate is kind of a saint who’s really out to make connections between artists and the community,” says Wainscott, whose current exhibit, from his hard-edged, richly colored “Man-Altered Landscapes” series featuring Kentucky overpasses, continues at Windows on Main through April 15. (Three other large Wainscott canvases are on display at Ranada’s.) “She’s finding an audience and waking people up to the fact that there’s real art production right here in Lexington.”