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Retiring Fund for the Arts CEO Barbara Sexton Smith Reflects on the Importance of Arts Education

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For years, Barbara Sexton Smith has been a prominent voice in Louisville's arts community—especially the last three as president and chief executive of the Fund for the Arts.Sexton Smith took over the organization at a particularly tumultuous time. She retires in August, handing over the reigns of the Louisville arts fundraising organization to Christen Boone.Sexton Smith speaks particularly highly the importance of arts education in the Louisville. Leading up to her retirement, her organization is raising money in her honor to create a new fund for those efforts.On Friday, Sexton Smith stopped by the WFPL studios to reflect on her time with the Fund on the  with arts reporter Erin Keane about the importance of arts education.Erin: You took the reigns in 2011. The fund was going through some rocky times during that transition. What was it like to step into that role and say, "we're going to charge forward?"Sexton Smith: It was a very exciting and challenging time. Our board immediately coalesced and came together and provided the leadership that a major nonprofit has to have any time you're going through a change like that. I felt so blessed and fortunate to be the last soldier standing and able to guide the troops through the storm. As The Courier-Journal said one day in one of their editorials, Barbara Sexton Smith has guided the ship through the shoals, lets see what her leadership does long-term. As we look back on all this together, I think one of the things our board and I can be most proud of is this whole sense of collaboration. I don't know. I'll ask you guys. I know I'm not supposed to be asking the questions.We've got to evolve our community. We've got to make sure our art scene is relevant and innovative and evolutionary. So, do you sense that it's more collaborative and the groups are working more together?Erin: I do. One area that I really see that happening in is, you've put a real emphasis on arts education. On stepping in and helping fill in those gaps. Most elementary schools in Jefferson County are not Lincoln Performing Arts Elementary school, they need some help getting kids the arts enriched experiences that studies show lead to all the things we want—better test scores, lower drop-out rates, higher college entrance rates, and grades, ect. One of the ways I've really seen is by hooking up arts groups with these things like schools out, arts in, programs in the community center. Making sure that schools get the funding to be able to pay a lot of arts groups in town to be able to go to performances or come in and have work shops. How's that working? Sexton Smith: That is so critical because its working extremely well. I can remember, we have to go back about 13 years or so, one of the darkest days for me and my 16 year run at the Fund for the Arts is when we came to the end of the campaign that year, we realized there was not enough funding to meet the general operating support of our partners and to fund our education program. There was going to be no funding, so my coworkers and I begged and pleaded and scraped together 10,000 dollars, Erin, that's all we had that year. I looked at my coworker and said, that is never going to happen again. I'm proud to say, we've made progress. The fund for the arts contributed more that 390,000 last year to education programs in 162 different schools and 7 school districts.Erin: It looks like you guys are making a real permanent commitment to this, too. The Barbara Sexton Smith education enhancement fund has launched and is currently raising money. The fund has a goal of 250,000 to raise by August 31, in honor of your retirement. How does it feel to have a education enhancement fund named after you?Sexton Smith: Well, it's the most incredible, life-long fulfillment, I think they could have ever created for me. This is what my life has been about. My vehicle is the fund for the arts, obviously. But the whole dream I had was education. I want every kid to have a great education and love school and grow up to be what he or she ever chooses or wants to be. I think you have to have arts in the classroom to make that happen. I am so honored and humbled by this. What's really funny about this, you and I, Erin, we've talked about where my career started, you may remember the whole connection to Wendy's. I was running Wendy's in Southern Indiana and Kentucky market, back in the day when Dave Thomas had the "Where's the beef?" as the commercial. So many people tie that to me, several folks on my board looked at each other and looked at me, once we realized what we had done here with the naming of this fund "Barbara's Education Enhancement Fund."Erin: Oh wow, BEEF. Nice.Sexton Smith: I don't know.Erin: That's how it's memorable. Barbara, it's memorable. So those kids who have these arts enriching experiences and they grow up, they graduate, they go to college. They're living in Louisville and what they most want to do is start their own arts company. We have an incredible, thriving arts scene with these Indie companies. For those companies and those artists who are not employed by or part of the major cultural partners and who are seeing crowd-funding as being good for individual projects but not really giving them the operational support they need, how do those companies grow to the next level.Sexton Smith: That's a great question. We're already seeing some of this, because it's all about collaboration. Matt Wallace is showing us how to do that in the park.