My selection to receive this year’s Milner Award for advocacy of the arts was like an announcement of a play revival from the 1970s and ‘80s, the decades in which I served on the Kentucky Arts Council. I think of the scheduled presentation on Oct. 22 as the First Night opening of a curtain on scenes of long ago when it was called the Kentucky Arts Commission.
Why the name was changed is another story, unnecessary to tell in the 50th anniversary year of Kentucky state government’s support of the arts. However, I am a survivor of a few political skirmishes over process. In one of them, when the Milner Award was to be presented at an event in the Cave region to Wendell Cherry, a co-founder of Humana, he balked at having to travel so far from Louisville. As he was venting his displeasure, a secretary tried to assure him it was an important occasion. “The Owensboro Symphony will play,” she said. “Mr. Barry Bingham Sr. (the owner of the Courier-Journal) will present the award to you and Al Smith will be the speaker.”
“AL SMITH?” the honoree snorted. “Why that fellow will speak anywhere!”
But he came to the dinner, and could not have been nicer to me or to Mr. Bingham, my colleague on the commission.
Cherry was honored after a deal Bingham and I made two years before when the chairmanship of the Appalachian Regional Commission was added to my civic responsibilities by President Jimmy Carter. Bingham wanted to give the Milner honor to Cherry for enormous contributions to building the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I wanted to give it to James Still of Hindman, a beloved poet and story teller in the Appalachian region.
The compromise was Still first and Cherry second. When it was James Still’s turn, he enchanted Bingham’s wife Mary by reporting he had “told the bees” at his cabin home that he was going to Louisville for the arts award and would return next day. (Mary, an original promoter of Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” was familiar with the culture of the mountains but “telling the bees” about travel plans was a folk custom new to her.)
The Milner Award is named for a business advocate in the first decade of the arts agency. Hudson Milner was the head of Louisville Gas and Electric when he became chairman of the Commission and, with another Bingham — Barry Bingham Jr., successor to his father as the Courier-Journal publisher — visited Gov. Julian Carroll to pitch for aid to the arts. They came away with a significant gift by Carroll, a promise of an annual “match” from the state for funds raised each year by local arts organizations — from Appalshop in Whitesburg to the prestigious programs in Louisville.
After Milner’s untimely death, the commission established the namesake award to honor his service and Gov. Carroll appointed me as his successor.
I had just become a member of the commission. About the arts, other than a literary bent, my experience was leading a band in the first grade and acting in dramas in college, but I was certain the arts were vital to the emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being of citizens and communities. I was a fan for sure, and always an advocate in my journalism, especially for individual artists.
About music, in my 20s, while working on New Orleans newspapers, I wrote a freelance story for Newsweek magazine about a revival of dixieland and jazz on Bourbon Street. In Kentucky, editing a weekly paper at Russellville in rural Logan County, I took advantage of new funding for state arts programs to promote a schedule of concerts in Russellville by the Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Opera and individual artists such as folk singer Jean Ritchie and actor Ken Jenkins of Actors Theater, later a star on the TV show “Scrubs.”
When the Louisville Orchestra accepted an invitation to play for the dedication of a new high school auditorium in Russsellville, I was proud but concerned whether the readers of my paper, many of them farmers, shared my enthusiasm for classical music. So I appealed to managers of new factories we had recruited to Logan County, selling them full page ads that extolled the talents of the musicians, likening them to skills of local work forces producing die castings and hermetic motors. The underlying theme of these ads urged the community not to embarrass ourselves by staying away. The turnout on a foggy night — I shall never forget it — filled every seat in the auditorium.
That record, plus maybe my friendly editorials about the Democratic party, apparently influenced Carroll’s appointment of me and reappointments by two successive governors. During that service, a highlight was a homecoming of Kentucky authors that we sponsored at the University of Louisville in 1979, financed with a contingency grant from Gov. Carroll to pay travel expenses.
As my journalism expanded into TV and radio broadcasting, I continued to feature special artists — film makers, the poets laureate and the authors of books about Kentucky. A series of 17 documentaries about notable Kentuckians I produced for KET featured seven artists.
This advocacy was cited for creation of the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship program after I left the council in 1984. I lobbied for funding grants to individual artists, but never to name them for me. Nevertheless, the Fellowships mean so much to me because they have always meant so much to artists, beginning in the early days with one to Joe Gray, a farm boy, Yale graduate and stretcher bearer in Vietnam before he became a film maker.
“Well, Joe, what did you do with that cash?” I asked him.
“I fixed my jeep,” he replied.
Veteran journalist Al Smith of Lexington chaired the Kentucky Arts Council from 1977-79 and 1981-84. He was founding producer of KET’s Comment on Kentucky, which he hosted for 33 years.