Last year, Dylon Jones led a socially distanced conversation at the Louisville Magazine office with Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams, Kentucky Opera general director and CEO Barbara Lynne Jamison, Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran, Actors Theatre artistic director Robert Barry Fleming and outgoing Speed Art Museum director Stephen Reily. How had the pandemic changed their work? How would they engage with calls for racial equity and representation in the arts? And what role would artists play in shaping Louisville’s future? The discussion went on for more than two hours. The following are excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
Robert Barry Fleming: “March 12, we had just had our first preview the night before for our second show in the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and I realized we needed to shut down that evening’s performance because of the mayor’s request for us not to have public gatherings. Broadway had shut down as well, which made it really hard to say, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to go on and do a show.’ By the next day, (we) realized we had to cancel the entire festival.”
Stephen Reily: “We came in on Friday the 13th. Dean Otto, our curator of Speed Cinema, said that demand had flatlined as of Monday. I called downstairs and said, ‘Well, how many guests have we had today?’ It was, like, 12. I don’t even remember how long I thought it was going to be. I didn’t think it was going to be months.”
Barbara Lynne Jamison: “It was the first year of this kids’ program we’d started, a youth opera project. We called the parents on Wednesday night and said we were canceling rehearsal. They all were just so relieved. We thought, ‘OK, we’ll give it four weeks, and we can come back and maybe get something out by May.’ That doesn’t happen. It was just this gradual unraveling of the rest of the season and all the fundraisers that we had planned.”
Robert Curran: “We were looking at all of the risks associated with having our artists in spaces. What was it going to be like to have 50 dancers in the studio getting ready for the final production? And it just got less and less and less comfortable.
“On the morning of the 12th, we welcomed our new, interim at that time, executive director. By the end of that day, this new person who is joining the leadership team was making the announcement that we were shutting down the ballet.”
Teddy Abrams: “Those performances that would’ve been Friday morning and Saturday evening were a huge project for us. We had Norah Jones coming in to sing the world premiere of these songs, which were written by Jacob Duncan, a local composer. Because Norah was coming to sing, it was totally sold out. We were going to see probably 4,500 people between those two days at the Kentucky Center.
“I was conducting in Europe in early February in a whole bunch of different countries, which seems insane. That was one month before? But back then there were no travel restrictions. I mean, this was months into this thing from China. It seems crazy how out of touch we all were, just assuming, ‘Oh, we’ll figure this out. It’ll be fine.’”
Fleming: “I remember our director of marketing at that time, who was one of the only ones with school-age children, saying at some point, ‘It’s going to begin to look like we’re being irresponsible if you don’t call this.’ And I remember kind of thinking, ‘Has it gotten that bad?’ Because the information in the morning didn’t even match the information by that afternoon, it was changing so rapidly.
“Remembering now, it was so traumatic. There were tears. We were having to come in to a tech rehearsal where people were preparing to work and kind of dash dreams of world premieres. And we were doing that with multiple companies in varying stages, some who had already had a week of performance, some who only had one performance, one company that was just in tech and had no performances — and then a company that was in the last week of their rehearsal, getting ready to run to tech with the final show.”
Jamison: “We had creatives in town, and we thought, ‘Well, OK, we’ll just keep them here.’ And then we’re like, ‘Well, if they don’t go home now, they might not get home.’”
Curran: “When we canceled the last show, the dancers of the Louisville Ballet knew that that was it for the season. What very kind of quickly emerged for us was that, also, their regularly scheduled activities for the summer were also going to gradually, one by one, drop off. And all of the things that kind of kept them busy and kept them connected to their art form were going to disappear. We settled into a routine of connecting in various different ways, primarily through physical workouts (via Google Meets). We gave Google Meets a workout over the summer, just being there 9 to 12 every week day.”
Reily: “For a museum, there are people, but it’s also about objects. We were preparing to open this big Andy Warhol show. And I guess it was the weekend of the 20th, the objects rolled in on two big trucks from Pittsburgh, and we had to make the call about: Do we bring them in? At that point, we were thinking short term — weeks, not months. And thinking, ‘Well, sure, it makes sense to get those objects here because we can then start doing our work.’ With our partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, it meant them sending three couriers to oversee onsite with our people. So a lot more people in a contained space. Thousands of square feet, but still — you know, we didn’t have standards at that point. And that was when the states were rapidly shutting down. And we thought, ‘Well, these couriers may come and be stuck in Kentucky.’ I won’t forget what the director of the Warhol museum said: ‘Hey, keep your couriers in place. Keep our people in place, keep the art in crates at the Speed for as long as it takes.’ It was just kind of surreal thinking about, ‘I don’t know when we’ll open this exhibit, but we got the art.’ It wasn’t really until May that we felt we could start planning toward an early July open — with huge caveats.”
Abrams: “In so many cases in Louisville, we lament the fact that all of the arts are very constrained budgetarily. And I think a lot of us would love to move to whatever the next level is to have greater resources to do the things that we’ve all dreamed up. But in this instance, having a size that’s a little bit more manageable has meant that we can be flexible and think differently. And then you look at some of our colleagues that present scalable versions of what we do in cities like New York — they are just looking at absolute disaster. I mean, we’re all looking at challenges, and we’re looking at a very tough year. But we aren’t looking at a scale that can’t be mitigated and surmounted. I think about the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum (of Art). It doesn’t matter how generous people are because there’s no way to make up $250-million shortfalls, whereas we can actually be nimble and think very creatively about what we do.”
Jamison: “As a relative newcomer to this place, I heard so much pride in the fact that we have a great museum scene, a rep theatre, a ballet, an orchestra and an opera. I hear that all the time. What I don’t think we understand as a community is why. It’s more than just drawing talent in. It really does help us be a stronger, more empathetic, compassionate, wise and literate community — just because of the inherent nature of the arts. It doesn’t just make us more attractive. I think I have an obligation in my position to help the community understand how to articulate why. We don’t just look to be a better community — we are a better community.”
Fleming: “The S has hit the fan because we have two public-health crises: COVID-19 and our relationship with policing and what that means in terms of systemic racism. And I think for greater Louisville, the elephant in the room, obviously the Breonna Taylor case has also branded Louisville and will continue to brand us for some time. And how we navigate that conversation about: Is that a place that I want to engage and continue to be enriched with? Because I think that is an enormous opportunity. If you are able to mobilize a level of authentic investigation about: What’s the legacy that has led to this inevitable health crisis of racism? If we reckon with that in a way that is innovative, artful and authentic, and do the hard work — working through that incrementally in the really difficult way that necessitates, with not only social remedies that are executed but real internal work — then there’s all kinds of possibility.”
Jamison: “I am really proud of our organization, actually, and what we’ve done in the two years that I’ve been here. We signed our first commitment to equity within nine, eight months of my arrival. We’re doing training with an outside contractor. We’ve made very deliberate strides on what representation on our stage looks like. We’ve worked on that with our staff as well. Any new hire, we are very careful to be sure that we’re waiting until we have a good pool from which to hire and fill a position.
“We don’t make policy, but we inform people. We ask the big questions; we present alternative views in a way that’s hopefully not offensive. I want to stretch audiences and not break them. I speak as a white person. I don’t have to think of it unless I want to think of it, right? And we’re going to make missteps, we’re going to make mistakes, but I think the worst sin is to stay still and not to try.”
Curran: “There’s a real complexity to the challenge we’re facing, because I can look around the screen on the leadership team meeting at the ballet, and I can see everyone is committed. Everyone is choosing to think about it. But it’s not just inside our organizations; it’s in the community, and it’s globally the perception of our art forms. For ballet, there is a perception that this is a white European art form, that there is a need for a homogenous silhouette on the stage. And all of these preconceived ideas that don’t exist within the organization that I’m working with, but exist in the minds of so many people in the world and in this country and in this community. And so the challenge (is not) just creating an environment inside the organization that’s accessible and welcoming, but it’s making sure that you tell every single person you can that it’s like that.”
Jamison: “I think opera and ballet have — in very different ways, our art forms have our histories, right? But I think opera and ballet are so much about the visual person on the stage in a representative way. I know that I don’t have the challenges that some of my colleagues and other bigger houses in other cities have, as far as what the character is supposed to look like or even sound like, frankly.”
Curran: “That’s what I’m saying: Inside the organization, I could have the most diverse production of Swan Lake that you’ve ever seen. But if nobody comes to see it because they think it’s Swan Lake, and they’ve got that picture in their head of what Swan Lake is, no young person of color is gonna be sitting in the audience saying, ‘Oh, wow, I could do that! That person looks just like I do!’ Because they’re not in the seat, they’re not watching the show.”
Reily: “We started talking about March 12 and 13 when, over about a 24-hour period, we all had to confront decisions to serve public health by closing our organizations. I’m haunted by the fact that that was the same 24-hour period where Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by Louisville police. And I think, like Barbara, we have this opportunity for Louisville to find its unique way of using the arts to address what really were already the two biggest challenges of the arts — which was, one, our business models; and two, equity. I’m an optimist by nature, and I feel there is an opportunity for Louisville to fulfill this legacy we started earning 50, 70 years ago in the arts to say, ‘We can be a model.’ The business models have not been working. They’re exhausting, burning out the leaders. The old models are not going to be the ways of the new world. Because of public health, the new world is not going to look like the old world. And because of our traumatically induced heightened awareness and accelerated focus on racial equity, we have to move faster in having our field reflect the diversity of the communities we serve in every way.”
Abrams: “We have to make a decision as a city: if we’re going to try and sweep these last five or six months under the rug, or if we embrace this identity as a city that is going to champion what the future of American urban places can actually be. And I fear that, given the national damage to this city’s reputation from the press circuit — some of which is warranted, some of which is strictly accurate, but a lot of which has been a narrow band of what the city actually is — it has changed the internal perception of our town. We either can choose to get past this — which I think is not viable for this city, it will just result in decline — or we can embrace this and say, ‘Louisville is going to be the capital of figuring out what equity is in the future.’ We have a real shot, then, of turning an incredibly tragic and terrible course of history for our city into something that would make us a jewel in the world, a genuine destination for this work. And who better to lead that than artists, especially in the face of slow-moving, inappropriate action by government and people that we would normally trust to do this work?
“I’ve seen it among our audiences, the people I communicate with: There’s a disheartened quality. I don’t know if it’s a cure, but at least one of the methods of addressing it is through our art. It’s healing, but it’s also — it’s a transformative process.”
Fleming: “We’re inheriting certain organizations with legacies that are rooted in the founding of this country as a place of conquest, enslavement, misogyny and the invention of capitalism. So you’re looking at people who are trying to navigate 400 years of baggage and history through their programming seasonally and the artists that they’re engaging. I have participated in activities in my own discipline where people say, ‘We’re going to get rid of racism in theater.’ And I find it the most naïve, childlike sentiment. I was like, ‘How are you going to manage to do that when our country, with professionals in multiple sectors, has not been able to solve that multi-dimensional, complex and volatile situation that has resulted in national protest around the whole nation and multiple cities that have led to incredible polarization that has been explosive?’ And I’m curious, how are we contextualizing this conversation in the larger conversation? Because otherwise I think this is an exercise for the group to feel good about itself.”
Curran: “Do you think, Robert, that there’s a difference between a leader that is aware of everything that you just said and is approaching the work through that lens, and a leader who desperately wants it to be different and wants it to be different now and thinks that they can solve it and goes off to try and solve it? Is there a difference in having those two approaches?”
Fleming: “Yes. There’s no data to show that that’s an effective way to really make meaningful change. You have to understand the whole context, or at least take into account how you would strategically make a difference. Who would you partner with? It can’t be a singular artist. It’s not an interpersonal challenge; it’s a structural, systemic one. And a legacy one about the disciplines that are, as you say — someone’s already got a catch-22 when they just come and hear Swan Lake. What some people hear is, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a celebration of Eurocentrism and white supremacy as the key art form in maintaining dominance as a leader in arts, economies, war, health.’ It’s a reification of a supremist system for some people. For others, it’s an opportunity to experience an artistic wonderland and miracle of the body, rhythm, sound, visuals.
“The code in my version is a gentleman saying to me after a sold-out production of Once on this Island filled with Black and brown people in the theater, which hasn’t happened at Actors in a very long time, a very disgruntled man saying, ‘I just want you to know, some of us miss the classics, and I’m not the only one.’ For me not to hear the coded context of that would be to be purposefully obtuse. So I’m not not doing classics, as some folks would do, but I certainly have an offering of a classic through a Black, queer, middle-aged man’s lens. Let’s have a larger conversation of, ‘Is this a valorization of Eurocentrism, or were these radical artists in their own time, and their work has been used for valorization of something that they were never doing?’”
Abrams: “When you start to look at the source material for all this, music has both a strange simplicity to it and an incredible complexity, in that, when you look at classical music specifically, yes, it’s horribly unbalanced, it’s horribly slighted toward a particular demographic. When you look at music in its totality, the amount of communion that we all have with people who don’t resemble white Americans is remarkable. People from the beginning of this country have loved music that’s made by people that don’t look like them. When you look at why those two elements have not congealed or connected in a more natural way, it gets to the heart of what we’re talking about politically right now. People that have access to music education, have private lessons and coaching, go a certain route, and parts of the school system that don’t have that don’t have those opportunities. If you want to address it, you have to look at the core functioning of our democracy. That takes the entire country to address.”
Curran: “We are a community that can adapt and flex and kind of be versatile. We can create these programs here that can change what our organizations look like on the inside and also change the numbers of people that we engage with on the outside. But I don’t know how much Louisville Ballet can do to change what Teddy just explained nationally. That’s where I feel like the complexity lies for us in making the decisions about the programming that we’re doing. How can we create models that might be replicable, programs that might be able to be leaders in the national dance scene?”
Abrams: “I struggled with wanting everybody to have that moment when they hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, and be able to experience something that I think does have a universal element of the extraordinary. But why are we telling people that this stuff is so great? During Beethoven’s lifetime, they weren’t telling people that something built two centuries before on a completely different continent was the best art, and the stuff made at that time in history was secondary. And we do that. We tell people that Beethoven was really great. We might say, ‘Oh, but Nas is an interesting artist, too. Beyoncé is good, she’s very popular. But Beethoven is really great.’
“The idea of the canon really does have to be broken. We can rebuild it, but we can’t continue to inherit a canon that is really…I don’t know if the canon itself is racist, but it doesn’t resemble the society we’re living in now. And that’s not OK, to just keep accepting it and keep telling every five-year-old who begins piano that the Mozart, Bach and Beethoven he’s going to play for the next five years are the best. And especially if they don’t look like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.”
Jamison: “The (performances) that used to get people in the door are the Carmens, the La Boehmes, the Swan Lakes — even those are falling out of favor, right? I think we’re starting to inherently understand as a society that great is relative.”
Curran: “There’s no reason for me to pull out a traditional Swan Lake every two or three years when we could create a new Swan Lake every two or three years that has a completely different perspective on what that story is.”
Jamison: “But we follow a nonprofit model that relies so heavily on the massive donations of a few, who then feel like they want to see those few things. There’s an inherent conflict of interest, I think, in arts — performing-arts nonprofits, particularly. If you’re on a board of a homeless shelter, or if we’re a food bank, you’re not going to be so picky about what kind of food is being served as long as it’s nutritious. You’re not going to care what it tastes like to you. But on a board of a performing-arts nonprofit, you care what it tastes like to you, and there’s somewhat of a conflict of interest. Are we serving the community? Or are we serving the few who are making decisions with their pocketbooks?”
Fleming: “It’s just remarkably unfair to ask these exceptional arts leaders and artists to somehow fix 400 years.
“I mean, Robert with the ballet was creating a cycle called Kentucky with queer themes at the center. And the risk that that engenders for the very reason that you’re talking about is like…this is a really incredibly brave group of arts leaders. But I’m always curious if people are understanding the context in which that programming is really happening. And the onus being individualized on each of them, of like, ‘So, Stephen, how are you going to fix the whole legacy of visual arts, the Eurocentrism? How can you fix the colonial project that has happened across the country?’”
Reily: “We have to own, at the Speed, that there probably is no greater physical concentration of wealth than a community’s art museum. You know, you sit on whatever number of hundreds of millions of dollars. Well, the fact that that exists represents the history of concentrated wealth in America, which reflects the history of genocide, enslavement and the negative effects of capitalism and more. What if we could make this symbol also the greatest symbol of opportunity? Because we can’t disown, we can’t undo. People are hungry to figure this out.
“I gave a tour — we closed the exhibit in February of artist Ebony G. Patterson. And it was about violence against the Black body, and about self-decoration and gender identity. Because artists can do that. And I had these CEOs, and I said, ‘I know you all know things aren’t right. And what I think is, you don’t know how to talk about it because you’re so scared to confront it because you’re going to be blamed and shamed and it’s going to hurt. It doesn’t have to hurt. Artists can show us.’”
Curran: “I think the distance has gotten so great between the decision-makers and the artists. And I think over here with the artists, there’s an inherent level of comfort with discomfort. Giselle is a two-hour show, and it takes however many weeks of rehearsal. That’s just the way it is. We’re not going to get Giselle down to a 15-minute, more efficient, more financially viable — that’s just what it is. We’re used to getting into a studio as a group of dancers in one layer of Lycra and being criticized all day. Artists are inherently a little bit, maybe a lot, better at being in that state of being uncomfortable, not understanding totally what the choreographer is trying to achieve, not understanding totally what the emotion is that is trying to be conveyed, and working your way slowly, incrementally, hour by hour, day by day, toward that enlightened moment for that individual piece.”
Abrams: “Maybe this is a very stupid idea, but, when everybody is all together in a room, we begin every performance, as a new tradition, where we go: Take one moment to look to the left, right and all around you, and don’t forget about the famous year, 2020, when you could not see another person. Don’t forget how important this sense of being together is. Let’s never forget.”
Jamison: “I think our audiences, particularly mine, tend to be a little on the older and less technological-savvy side. I think because this has forced a group who’s not normally engaging on the web to start engaging on the web, it will allow us possibly a way to augment the work that we do on the stage, maybe reach them in different ways for framing the work that we do on the stage.
“We’re still gonna really love and feel the importance of gathering and what that means. I really believe that. I mean, we gathered around campfires and in caves and on beaches before we got into theater. Gathering is powerful for humans. We are drawn together. And when we gathered, we sang, we enacted stories, we drew pictures, we danced to music. We did all these things. I think it just reminds us of the power of gathering and expressing our art together.”
Curran: “I was initially talking about wanting to make sure that every person out there realizes they’re welcome at the ballet. It’s also about talking to the people who already feel welcome at the ballet about why it’s important for us to be doing work that makes them uncomfortable. And how we can enrich their experience with that work.”
Fleming: “If everybody’s happy with you, then you’re probably not doing your work.”
Abrams: “Music being the one art form here that is not either directly visually representative or necessarily about a discrete narrative or story, our role is maybe something of an outlier. But our role is not only to provide perspective and to address issues that we’re all facing, but also to just inject the kind of pure joy that almost feels guilty to talk about in today’s world but is so necessary. There’s a healing element and a joyful element to the music-making process, especially when it’s purely instrumental, when it’s not specifically about something. Yes, it will have overtones of many social things, but, at its core, it’s a pure injection of a certain emotional sense or landscape.
“We cannot be in an exclusive, permanent state of absolutely anxiety. It’s like a drug that we’re all on. We will expire. You can’t operate on that. Like the constant IV drip of anxiety. That healing sense and that joyful sense can’t be lost on us. I feel guilty even saying that, knowing how much suffering is going on around us.”
Fleming: “We’re using old media and new media, really exploring emergent technologies. We have three different animators who have been engaged to tell different stories from adult animation, working with classic stories, to inventing responses to old stories with new work, to telling traditional oral tales through that medium. It’s multi-platformed, everything from radio plays of Dracula and then Christmas Carol to moving into extended reality with VR.
“But I would say at the core of all of it is that we are social animals, and what most people are longing for is not a synchronous experience, but one of gathering. As much as the digital content is delivering on the storytelling piece, that piece of how we gather, how we still have this human experience of connecting us, is at the center.”
Abrams: “I enjoyed the challenge, and also the big kick in the butt, that my industry in particular has needed to actually do any of this stuff with technology. Because they’ve treated it like it would just go away. The whole music industry, but specifically the orchestral world, has just kind of hoped that maybe it wouldn’t be something they ever had to deal with effectively. And now everybody absolutely has to. So it’s been very, very good overall that people are finally learning what this does. Personally, I’ve used this entire summer as a time to learn the proper video editing and the audio editing that I’ve resisted myself. And it’s been a huge change in how I see what the art could be. I also think it changes the nature of what an audience is, because any one of us now has the opportunity to reach the entire globe, and potentially have the world see what Louisville is putting on and can be.”
Fleming: “Our first show of the season became a New York Times critic pick by the first-string critic in the nation. We would have never gotten Ben Brantley to come to Louisville for a season show, but the internet has made that a possibility in a way that is, like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t anything that anybody had on the radar of what we were doing.’”
Abrams: “Yeah, yeah, exactly. Steve Smith from the New York Times was live-tweeting our opening concert. Music critics for the New York Times, they’re not coming to Louisville — not for anything.”
Reily: “Even though for visual arts we can’t really pretend that digital technology is going to really be a way to share the art, what it has done is changed forever the way we engage in community. Our art-making videos for families now are seen by a lot more people than we ever got to attend art-making workshops. Even just in terms of community-building, we’re not going to stop this, because we see donors now who are coming to our virtual events who wouldn’t come to the museum — including, you know, one divorced mother of two or three kids who said, ‘Oh, now I can come, I don’t have to worry about the babysitter or the driving with working.’”
Abrams: “This is not an easy place to do what we do. But I also recognize that by saying ‘easy,’ we’re talking about the most first-world version of easy. I really believe in this city. I mean, I’ve been lucky in my life; I’ve gotten to live in a lot of different places, and I’ve loved every single one of them. But the place you want to actually do your work, where it can matter, is not a place that’s so finished or so sure of itself that your voice is meaningless. There are a lot of great American cities that have already decided what is important and what’s good. They’re not really interested in having a change or growth; they’re interested in basically sustaining the model that’s made them prosperous or made them famous or important. I don’t think Louisville’s like that. And it doesn’t mean Louisville is not a great city; it is a great city. I’ve believed that from the moment I got here. But it’s a city where you can actually matter as an artist or as an individual citizen. And that’s the kind of place where, as a creative person, you want to be, because you can create and imagine and dream. It will take more work to get those dreams done here. But here, the dreams could actually influence the course of history. And that’s an extraordinary prospect for an artist, especially in the country and the place and time that we’re all in. Maybe it’s a little idealistic, but I still feel that way after seven years here. And it’s why I’ve committed to this place. And I intend to make this my home, at least for the perceivable future, and do everything that I can to make it a better place for everybody to live in.”
Fleming: “I lost my mother March 27. I don’t know how I would have navigated the last few months without being able to create art, even if it’s on a different platform. For me, art’s always kind of been that respite from a very, very young age to being 56. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of therapy over the years, so it doesn’t serve the same function it served when I was in my 20s. I also know how to just have a good meal and take care of myself. But art still remains a very central part of just how I move through life.”
Jamison: “It’s funny. I had an injury and had to give up a career in singing. And that’s how I got into administration. But during this time, my husband was like, ‘You’re singing!’ I was singing in the house. ’Cause it’s actually kind of painful. I mean, it’s not physically painful, but it’s difficult for me to sing; I can’t do it at the level I once did. But I lost that need to be at a high — it was no longer for the skill or the craft of it. It was simply for the salve of it. It just give me an opportunity to remind myself why we do this work.”
Curran: “This time next year, it will be 10 years since I retired as a dancer. So, you know, coming to terms with letting go of that part of my life. And also heading into my mid-40s, my body is changing, and it’s never been more out of reach, getting back to that. And also now not being able to follow my usual kind of annual routine of attending performances and all that kind of stuff — that’s gone as well. But what’s come up for me as an opportunity is teaching more in the school, teaching more for our outreach programs. So what art is giving to me now is actually more watching what single-digit younger dancers are feeling or expressing about what dance feels like to them. It’s filling me up in a way that those other things used to.”
Abrams: “The moments since this all began where I’ve been truly immersed in the art have been the happiest and the most connected to who I am as a person, and less connected to all the things that are ephemeral around us. It’s been an important reminder of what this does on a soul level, even beyond the community level. In the end, there’s also that deeply personal side.”
This article was originally published in print in December 2020.