Articles

This Accelerator Powers the Local Arts Scene

Friday, December 22, 2017

What happens when the pioneering artists in a creative community retire and drift away from their workshops, leaving no younger generation to follow in their footsteps?

This was the problem facing the vibrant arts community of Berea, Kentucky, explains Berea Tourism’s assistant director Kerri Hensley.

Berea’s old town Artisan Village is a huge attraction for the town of 14,000 just off Interstate 75, Hensley says. “People want to see working studio artists.” Some 40 shops featuring artisans and their work make up this arts and crafts capital, and visitors can take in everything from metalwork and quilting to dulcimer crafting.

When they learned that the earlier generation of artists — who’d been creating arts and crafts since the Village’s inception — were ready to retire, the community knew they needed to bring in new artists.

“Initially we were thinking: what would be the carrot to get established artists to Berea?‘” Hensley says. “Then we looked at our back yard and saw Berea College.”

The respected liberal arts college is one of only seven Work Colleges in the United States. Academically promising students with limited economic resources — primarily from Appalachia — attend tuition-free in exchange for working campus and service jobs. Founded in 1855, it was the first interracial and coeducational college in the south.

“They get an excellent education,” Hensley says. And research showed that many young people have an interest in art as a career, “so a fellowship was born.”

The Berea Tourism Commission invited applications from recent Berea graduates, and selected five for the inaugural 2014 class in the Arts Accelerator Program. This initiative from the tourism commission supports local artists with a living stipend so that art can be their sole focus. They also provide shared studio and gallery space and a business education that helps them prepare to make a living as a working artist.

Acknowledging that often creative people “who use that side of their brain,” may not be as skilled or experienced at the business side of an arts career, Hensley says the business training is essential. “We’re trying to do anything just to give them a leg up.”

The 16-month program welcomed its first class last year, with a printmaker, two ceramicists, a sculptor, and a painter. A second class joined them this spring, adding two woodworkers, two jewelers, and another ceramist to the fold.  

All the artists work under one roof, and visitors can see — and buy — their creations at Gallery 1-2-3 in Berea, with 60% of the sales price going directly to the young artists. Berea Tourism reinvests the other 40% in the program. Additional assistance for the program comes from partners including the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, Kentucky Arts Council, and Kentucky Highlands.

Nearly a year since opening the doors to Gallery 1-2-3, “sales have been really strong,” Hensley says. And “visitors love it. We get so many compliments for Berea being so innovative and giving folks the opportunity to do this.”

And how about the first class, wrapping up their fellowship now? “We’ve already had one of our accelerators from the first group branch out, and he has started a gallery across the street,” says Hensley. Painter Jonathan Clark opened Barefoot Royals Studio, where he also hosts art camps for kids — and nurtures the next generation of young local artists.