As we embark on a new chapter for The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, we wanted to celebrate by looking back at monumental moments, milestones and supporters over the years that have made The Kentucky Center what it is today.
It all started back in 1980 when The Kentucky General Assembly helped to establish a major public/private partnership to create The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Just like it continues to do today, it was originally created to promote state culture and tourism, provide a home for Louisville’s prominent performing arts groups, and enable citizens to see international and nationally renowned artists.
Caudill, Rowlett, & Scott, an architectural firm from Houston, was contracted to design the building with assistance from the Design and Construction Department of Humana Inc. A few years later on November 19, 1983, The Kentucky Center was officially dedicated at a gala event in Whitney Hall. Attendees included Charlton Heston, Diane Sawyer, Lily Tomlin, Jessye Norman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
It didn’t take long for The Kentucky Center to take the national spotlight when it hosted one of the 1984 Presidential Debates between President Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. In 1986, The Lonesome Pine Specials Series began taping its concerts for airing on KET throughout the Commonwealth. Then in 1988 Lonesome Pine went international, with 130 PBS stations across America and Channel 4 in England broadcasting concerts videotaped on the Bomhard stage.
In 1986, The Kentucky Center Governor’s School for the Arts was established. The following year in 1987, the school celebrated its first class with 120 students attending in six disciplines: Creative Writing, Dance, Drama, Instrumental Music, Visual Art and Vocal Music. Also in 1987, The Boyd Martin Experimental Theater was dedicated. The MeX, as it came to be called, was a simple “black box” stage, providing a blank slate for original plays, innovative productions of the classics, music, dance and literary readings. It soon became a favorite venue for local theater and arts groups.
Alexander Calder’s sculpture “The Red Feather” eventually found its home on the front steps of The Kentucky Center in 1989. The piece joined artworks by such 20th century masters as Joàn Miro, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson and John Chamberlain.
The Kentucky Center then initiated the ArtsReach Louisville program in 1990, which brought arts involvement and instruction to community centers throughout the city. ArtsReach joined several successful educational programs at The Center, including the Arts Education Showcase, the Kentucky Institutes for Arts in Education, and the Arts Academies. All of these programs fulfilled The Kentucky Center’s mission to bring the arts to every corner of Kentucky. The Kentucky Center Access Services Department then established the first Audio Description program in the Commonwealth in 1991. Later, Kentucky’s first Captioned Theater program was added as well.
In 1993, The Kentucky Center hosted a state-wide open house to celebrate 10 years of excellence, bringing in various arts organizations, performers, and audiences from across the Commonwealth for a day-long celebration. In that same year, The international Lonesome Pine Specials Series’ broadcasts were made a part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Four years later in 1997, The Center became the manager of the newly-renovated W. L. Lyons Brown Theatre on Broadway. The Brown, which is listed on the National Register for Historic Places, currently seats 1,400 patrons in the style and splendor reminiscent of Louisville’s grand past and indicative of our vibrant future.
In 2018, The Kentucky Center Foundation purchased the Brown Theatre. The millennium was a big year for this historical landmark, resulting in a makeover of building. Thanks to the support of the Kentucky legislature, The Kentucky Center initiated a $4.5 million renovation, a major project that included adding 5,900 square feet to the lobby on both the north and south sides of the building, and a reconfiguration of the main entrance off Main Street.
One year later in 2001, The Kentucky Center’s Creative Connections Program became one of only 21 arts education programs to be included in the Harvard study Arts Survive: A Study of Sustainability in Arts Education Partnerships. Nearly 200 different groups had originally been nominated.
The awards and recognition didn’t stop there, as The Center was the recipient of a VSA Arts/MetLife Foundation Award of Excellence in Arts Access in 2004. In that same year, two of The Kentucky Center’s education programs—Arts Academies and the Kentucky Institute for Arts in Education—were among five programs selected for an international study concerning professional development for teachers in the Arts by Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.
Then, in 2005, The Center was the recipient of the MetLife/Arts Presenters Award for Excellence in Arts Access. On top of that, President George W. Bush also hosted a Town Hall Forum in Whitney Hall on Social Security Reform, making 2005 even more rich in history.
Another year full of awards and recognition was 2007, when The Kentucky Center was the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award. In that same year, former Soviet Union leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev came to speak as a part of The Global Issues Forum at The Kentucky Center.
In 2008, The Brown Theatre under-went extensive renovations to enlarge the orchestra pit to accommodate up to sixty-six musicians. These renovations came as the Kentucky Opera prepared to move into The Brown as their permanent home.
The Kentucky Center celebrated its 25th Anniversary Season in 2008 as well, with a year-long celebration that included an open house of events and performances, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in two hugely successful performances, and the record-breaking run of the musical Wicked.
Thanks to the Kentucky Legislature in 2009, The Center embarked on an extensive $8.9 million renovation project. Among the renovations to be addressed first, a new state-of-the-art floor was installed on the Whitney Hall stage, making it safer and more responsive for dancers while still sturdy and reliable for Broadway productions. New lighting and dimming systems were also installed in Whitney Hall, Bomhard Theater and the MeX. A new stage rigging system would later be installed in Whitney Hall in the summer of 2011.
Billboard Magazine ranked The Kentucky Center in 2010 as the ninth top-grossing venue in the world with 5,000 seats or fewer, rolling into 2013: The Kentucky Center’s 30th Anniversary Season.
The history gets more incredible in 2013, when His Holiness The Dalai Lama shared his message of peace and compassion with a group of middle, high school and college students in Whitney Hall.
A year later, Pollstar ranked two of The Kentucky Center’s venues in the Top 100 Theatre Venues for total ticket sales. Whitney Hall ranked number 26 and the Brown Theatre ranked number 100. Also, in 2014, Kentucky native and member of the first Kentucky Center Governor’s School for the Arts class Kim Baker was named President of The Kentucky Center.
Baker later faced one of the most devastating challenges as CEO when, on June 13, 2018, a fire broke out in the building’s barrel roof. The fire was contained in the roof area but, unfortunately, other parts of the building, including its lobby and two theaters, suffered smoke and water damage as firefighters fought to control the blaze.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, and with help from the Finance and Administration Cabinet, the Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet, along with countless members of our community, The Kentucky Center was shut down for only a short while. On September 1, The Kentucky Center re-opened its doors and is currently hosting a full showcase of performances while putting the finishing touches on the main lobby. All work is expected to be completed sometime this year.
In 2019, The Kentucky Center is ready to make history again with the opening of our new 2,000-person standing-room venue in the historic Paristown neighborhood. For more information and history and to learn how to participate, volunteer or sponsor events at The Kentucky Center, visit KentuckyCenter.org or call 1-502-562-0100.
~ By Michelle Bair
Photos courtesy of The Kentucky Center