Kentucky Performing Arts is known for hosting a variety of electrifying performances — from marquee musicians and comedians, to the touring shows of PNC Broadway in Louisville, not mention our own nationally renowned arts groups such as the Louisville Orchestra, Kentucky Opera, Louisville Ballet and StageOne Family Theatre.
When COVID hit last year, the team was forced to deal with a second disaster in just a couple years, the first being a fire that damaged the roof and lobby of its flagship venue, The Kentucky Center.
During a time when the venues are quiet and dark, Audience publisher, G. Douglas Dreisbach, caught up with KPA’s President & CEO, Kim Baker, as she navigates her team through these tough times.
G. Douglas Dreisbach: This has been such a hard year for so many people. You and your team were just getting through the roof and lobby fire at The Kentucky Center, and now this. How is everyone at KPA holding up?
Kim Baker: We’re holding up really well and are pleased to hear a lot of the positive news about the distribution of the vaccine, the effectiveness of the vaccine, and some of the anticipated dates that touring acts likes Broadway will come back. So, we feel like there’s an end in sight, and we’re just really looking forward to when we can bring audiences back together again.
GDD: How are the renovations and restorations from the fire coming along? And what additions and improvements are you most excited about?
KB: The theaters weren’t really damaged in the fire, so we were fortunate in that way. But the lobby spaces received incredible amounts of damage. What I am most excited about is when you walk into the lobby, I think everything is going to feel fresh and open. The whole vault was replaced with these incredible sound panels for better acoustics that will help with sound, making the space another possible performance space for The Kentucky Center. We’ve also secured some wonderful new art that we can’t wait to unveil. All of these things will just give everybody kind of a “welcome back,” so we’re excited.
GDD: When the construction was going on, your team did a fantastic job navigating the crowds pre- and post-show, as well as intermissions, so kudos to you on that.
KB: Thank you. It was interesting being open during such a massive renovation, and I just want to thank all our patrons and all of the individual groups that use The Kentucky Center for their patience, because being safe and working around that scaffolding wasn’t always the best customer experience. But we tried to make it the best experience as we could.
GDD: Back in March, when COVID first rocked our world and stages went dark, what were some of your initial thoughts, and were they accurate? Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
KB: I don’t necessarily think I would have done anything differently. But I can tell you that the steps we initially took have proven to have been the right steps, as difficult as those steps were. We unfortunately had to reduce our staff, but a lot of our staff have remained on furlough, coming up on a year now.
It’s been a long road, and the idea was to do our best to keep programming in place that we could do safely, and I am really proud of what we’ve done. We did the digital Governor’s School for the Arts, and we were still able to serve young artists across the commonwealth. We also stayed connected to the touring industry and have had great artists like Jim Brickman, Dave Koz and the Blind Boys of Alabama making sure we were part of their national streams. We have also hosted like Lights on Main and have worked with all of our incredible professional resident companies just to try to support what they might need with special tapings and capturing performances, so that they can distribute work and remain active.
Early on, with the Kentucky Center Presents series, we highlighted artists from their very own living room, and that was pretty fantastic. We covered all kinds of artists, partnered with great organizations like the Kennedy Center and KPA at Home with the support of some great sponsors, including Tourism, Arts, and Heritage, Brown-Forman and Commonwealth Credit Union. It really helped us stay connected to our local artists.
GDD: The Louisville arts scene has always been so resilient and creative. We saw front porch concerts and Teddy Abrams doing a lot in the community. The Louisville Orchestra’s collaborations at Old Forester’s Paristown Hall with artists like Sam Bush and Jason Clayborn were exciting. These virtual events allow people to experience live performances without actually going to a venue. What kind of creative concepts have you seen that you think might be sustainable, moving forward, to ensure safety, social distancing, and protocols that will allow you to jump on indoor live events when they’re allowed?
KB: We are certainly looking for hybrid events we might be able to do in the spring, where we can bring a small group together inside, have a performance, and then be able to do some distribution, whether that’s on the big screen, on the projection screen at Old Forester’s Paristown Hall in Christy’s Garden, or whether that’s just streamed.
Just recently, we were really excited to read in Miami that the Miami City Ballet performed The Nutcracker outside, and that they had many shows that were sold out. To see all the dancers, although they had their masks on, move to the music of Tchaikovsky, with individuals and live audiences there, was just breathtaking. So, I think that is what we are seeing right now and embracing how to bring the arts outside, because that is where it is the safest to be.
As we see the spring and the summer come, I know our community is going to be looking for opportunities to be outdoors in very different ways, and how we can all come together inside again.
GDD: In addition to the COVID pandemic, the city is still working through civil and social unrest. It’s really taken a toll, with many downtown businesses closing their doors and people working from home. If COVID somehow disappeared tomorrow, do you think people would feel comfortable coming downtown to a Broadway show or to an orchestra event? What do you think it will take to get there?
KB: I think they are ready now. I am downtown all the time and feel very, very safe. It is heartbreaking not to see people and the bustle of our downtown. But I can already see that it is starting to ramp back up. I do think people will be ready to come back, and I know they will. We have personally seen the resiliency — many people are not asking for refunds for the shows we’ve postponed. They want to keep their tickets until we reschedule. And really, it’s a very small part of the audience that has asked for a refund. So, I think people are holding on, and they’re going to be ready to come back downtown and come back down to Kentucky Performing Arts events.
GDD: As we move into the new year, the future is so unknown as to where we’ll be in a month, three months, six months. How are you and your team approaching the new year in respect to booking performances, utilizing your venues in the best way and day-to-day business?
KB: There are a couple of things going on right now. After the holidays, when the new year begins, we are going to be laser-focused on getting our venues scheduled and what we need to do to prepare for a really successful reopening. We already have a calendar that is full in the fall for all of our theaters, full with what the wonderful resident companies want to do, full with holds from touring artists around the country. The industry wants to get back, and we will be here for them.
So, we have stayed in contact with agents and promoters and all of our wonderful companies to make sure that they know we’re ready.
And then, we must get the facilities ready, and that’s going to require quite a bit of capital improvement. We are working to really provide a wonderful touchless situation. So, there will be some difference in procedures when you come back to a venue with Kentucky Performing Arts, but I think it’s really what’s expected, and that people will be really thankful that we have procedures in place. We’re going to have to make sure we do a great job communicating what to expect, so that everyone is ready and doesn’t run into any sort of challenges.
GDD: As with many businesses, you also had to scale back and furlough some staff. What is the process for ramping back up to full staff? And how does that work especially since you are likely busy now booking events, yet the revenues aren’t coming in yet?
KB: We have been able to maintain a lot of our core staff and even other staff that have been on furlough. Some staff have moved on to other positions, but they are ready to come back when we reopen. So, we absolutely are going to go through a period when we ramp back up from a staffing perspective. When we first come back, we will be a smaller organization, but no less impactful. So, at this point, we’re really trying to almost redesign a bit of the organization, so that we can really operate in a smaller way, but still ensure that we have incredible customer service and offer an incredible experience for our artists and audiences.
GDD: What are some ways that people in the community can support Kentucky Performing Arts in 2021 and beyond?
KB: The most direct and impactful way is to just come back and enjoy live theater, live music and live entertainment when you feel safe and ready to do so. I think the arts community right now needs individuals and needs support. The entertainment industry was one of the first industries to close. It will definitely be one of the last to come back up. So, philanthropically, if you can support an arts organization, and maybe that is your Kentucky Performing Arts, please, please do so. We do need support from the community and support from individuals right now.
For more information about Kentucky Performing Arts programming and venues, visit KentuckyPerformingArts.org