By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
A century ago, the University of Kentucky extension program worked almost exclusively in agricultural endeavors.
But today, extension agents are bringing arts, music and theater to rural Kentucky.
“The traditional perspective of extension is agriculture, but extension has realized that they can play a significant role in community development and economic development, so we’ve kind of moved into that direction,” said Melissa Bond with the Whitley County Extension.
For the past year, Bond has been the horticulture and family consumer sciences assistant.
That position’s been eliminated in Whitley County so Bond can become a full-time fine arts agent — one of only four in the state’s 120 extension offices.
Bond plans to start a community theater program and rotating arts and crafts exhibits at the CMA Center in Corbin.
“The closest fine arts agent is in Pikeville. That’s three hours away, so it really gives us a broad base to boost fine arts in southeast Kentucky,” Bond said.
University of Kentucky Extension is the first extension service in the nation to create a fine arts position.
“It is a transformation and an evolution of what people think of when they think of cooperative extension,” said Dr. Jimmy Henning, associate director of the Cooperative Extension Service at University of Kentucky. “One-hundred years ago, in 1913, the whole extension was born to take the university to rural Kentucky. The benefits that you might get from coming here, we were supposed to extend to rural Kentucky, and it was built on a system of grassroots conversations — ‘what do you need, what can we do’ — and it has grown to what it is today.”
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government granted land for states to develop or sell in order to establish colleges.
Through this program, the University of Kentucky was born.
But UK and its fellow colleges were to be institutions for the new, industrial age. Instead of teaching classical studies, the land grant universities were tasked with educating students about the applied and mechanical arts.
At its creation, the extension agency’s primary purpose was to bring agricultural knowledge to rural Kentuckians. Yet its overall goal was always “community development,” Henning said.
In today’s economy, that also includes aid to local artisans and promotion of the arts.
“Extension needs to evolve and not just do the same old things. We’ve always been a kind of service that tried to build social capital within people,” Henning said.
The first fine arts agent was placed in Pikeville in about 2003 or 2004, Henning said. Others are located in Greenup and Mullenburg counties.
The Whitley County Extension board of directors requested to be the fourth county to create a fine arts position.
“The Whitley County Extension leaders have really stepped up to say ‘we think this is another way that we can invest in the community,’ and UK is certainly ready to do that and support them in this,” Henning said.
Bond has already been leading after-school theater classes at Whitley County High School. She hopes to keep working with the teens, and expand her theater projects to the general community.
Her first theater project will be based on the Whitley County Homemakers Association, which includes a group of women who meet weekly to work on traditional heritage quilts.
“The goal is to take my drama club at Whitley County High School and work with students in that to go interview some of the quilt makers who have been quilting for years... we’re going to take the stories and turn it into a play or at least a collection of monologues.”
The Whitley County homemakers have 15-20 active quilt makers and about 10 members of a sewing club that meet weekly.
“It’s becoming a lost art and we want to show it to a whole new generation,” Bond said. “We’d really love to do a coordinating event at our farmers’ market that will be open this summer.”
She’s also looking at doing a show based on stories about Colonel Harlan Sanders.
The theater will hold rehearsals at the extension office in Goldbug and performances at the CMA Center in Corbin. Bond is planning a possible performance during one of the Saturdays of the farmers’ market, which starts on the end of May.
But theater isn’t the only plan for the fine arts program. Bond said she plans to hold workshops educating local artisans on marketing opportunities and tax breaks when selling their work.
The extension already hosts bluegrass and old-time music concerts, and Bond hopes to expand these as well.
“I think the direction we want to go is really not just theater,” Bond said. “We also have so many artists and so many musicians that we want to make it an all-reaching arts program, a cultural arts program.”
By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
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