Carnegie Wins

Covington’s reorganized, refocused and rebranded interdisciplinary arts center is better than ever

click to enlarge Executive Director Katie Brass helped connect The Carnegie’s fine art, education and theater programs.
Executive Director Katie Brass helped connect The Carnegie’s fine art, education and theater programs.

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he Carnegie in Covington, Ky., is both the protagonist and setting of a story rich with history, riddled with hardship and once close to ending. In 2007, its trajectory as an educational arts center seemed aimless, its supporters discontent and its doors soon to shut on 35 years of gallery shows and youth education programs.

A wonder then but victor today, The Carnegie was desperate for an executive director like Katie Brass to help reorganize and advocate; she and everyone else who loved The Carnegie had to learn to better tell its story.

“We used to have this old dome logo,” Brass says, “and I think people really associated that with the gallery because you can go in there and see the dome and it’s beautiful and it’s iconic and it’s part of the building, but I don’t think it told our story well.”

“That was important information to get back, that we weren’t communicating to everybody that there are three different programs to help us grow,” she adds.

Brass arrived on the scene in 2007 when The Carnegie’s fine art gallery was sustaining the organization. At that time, the theater had recently opened but without strong programming, and the education center was active but not effectively so. It would be the integration of all three avenues that would make The Carnegie the largest and only multidisciplinary arts venue in Northern Kentucky.

“We really took a look at all of our programs and what they were doing and developed a strategic plan for the next three years,” Brass says. “The theme of that plan was to stabilize. We changed our education programs around. We started co-producing in the theater, and so that worked. In those three years, we started to grow.”

In the arts arena, Brass and her team focused their attention on an education program that moved beyond the historic building’s walls and into the community they served, working directly with local schools and their students through what has become one of The Carnegie’s most successful education outreach programs.

When the state’s curriculum standards changed to fit under those of a new assessment and accountability model five years ago, arts and humanities classes became a requirement in Kentucky schools and The Carnegie hired part-time visual arts, drama, dance and music teachers to facilitate them. 

“Covington [Elementary] doesn’t hire [arts] teachers. They use our teachers and we work directly with them,” Brass says. “It saves them money and we become experts on program review, which are the new state standards. If they didn’t have us, they were just going to make that teacher figure out how to get arts in the class anyway. We do it for them.”

Which explains the 52,000 hours of arts outreach the center concluded in the past year, all completed with custom lesson plans and an eye on the creative process itself, not the specific techniques involved in art making.

“We focus on the process, so kids being lifelong learners, what the creative process does. It builds your self-confidence. You find your artist’s voice, you make those critical decisions,” Brass says. “Because of our commitment to program review, arts integration and the creative process, this past spring, The Carnegie was one of only 11 organizations nationwide to be accepted into the Kennedy Center’s Arts Integration Network. I don’t think anybody would guess that The Carnegie is nationally recognized for its education programs.”

But it is, and the center’s theater component is reaping the benefits of The Carnegie’s revamp, too. Now in its eighth season and with double the amount of season ticket holders this year than the year before, The Carnegie’s production collaboration with Northern Kentucky University’s Commonwealth Theatre Company (plus new auditorium seating) made for a successful run of Sweeney Todd, its first show of the current season.

The art gallery also underwent aesthetic and structural renovations under the careful watch of Matt Distel, exhibitions director, in preparation for another full season that opened Sept. 5.

What’s more: people now know about all of it.

“We reached out to Interbrand and we applied for and got in-kind services from them, and they worked with us for 18 months to do stakeholder interviews to do sessions with the staff and with the board members,” Brass says. “We came away with branding guidelines and a new logo that made us much more cohesive, and I think that’s made a huge difference.”

The center went from The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center to simply The Carnegie, and turned its dome logo into a bright color wheel representative of all the center’s pillars — fine art, education and theater — that operate under the same traditions the building’s founder promoted a century ago.

Andrew Carnegie, who believed educational resources should be free and accessible to everyone, funded the space that was constructed as the South’s first public integrated library in 1904.

“We take kind of what he said and that’s engrained in our building and our programs, which is why our education programs are $40 for a camp in the summer, average ticket price in the theater is $22 and the gallery is free,” Brass says. “We are very much accessible to everybody.”

Now, The Carnegie’s operations team is in the midst of a new three-year strategy centered on catering to Northern Kentucky residents and maintaining the center’s long-time love in the heart of the Covington community.

“People have been coming here since they were kids, since it was a library, and now they come because it’s a repurposed space and it’s an arts center, and we use it well as an arts center,” Brass says. “I know that that support of The Carnegie is why it’s still here and why it’s still great and why it will continue to be great in the future, because people just feel that connection with this place.” ©

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