On an intensely sunny afternoon in early September, a small but excited crowd gathered at Great Meadows, the home that contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands and his late wife, Mary Norton, built in 1986 to house their burgeoning collection. Among the guests were four African American women artists — Lucy Azubuike, Sandra Charles, Ramona Dallum Lindsey and Toya Northington — who recently received grants from Shands’ Great Meadows Foundation. The following week, they would be traveling to Italy to spend six days attending the Venice Biennale, one of the oldest and most prestigious art events in the world, thanks to funding provided by the foundation.
As Shands explained to the group assembled in his home, a few years ago he found himself wondering why his collection didn’t include more regional art. The answer, it seemed to him, lay somewhere in the idea that Kentucky had become too insular by not engaging with the art world on a national and international level, generating work that tended to feel limited and uninspired. Shands’ response was to create Great Meadows Foundation.
Launched in 2016, the foundation aims to critically strengthen the visual arts in Kentucky through grant programs that directly support the region’s artists and visual arts professionals.
Distinctively, Great Meadows Foundation does not fund the production of artwork — giving artists money for studio space or materials, for instance — nor does it support activities that might fall under the trendy guise of personal brand-building.
“I’m trying to get artists to realize that they didn’t go into art just to sell things,” Shands said. “Art is very demanding. And many of the great artists spend most of their time thinking. Thinking about what they’re going to create and reading and keeping up with what’s going on in the world. We have to encourage artists that that’s what you do. You’re not just churning out art in the studio.
Thus, at the heart of Shands’ foundation is its Artist Professional Development Grants Program, an initiative focused on getting artists out of the studio — and out of the state — to engage with the broader art world. A sculptor might receive funding to attend the Skulptur Projekte Münster (an international sculpture exhibition held every 10 years), for example, while another artist may be awarded a grant to visit specific exhibits and meet with professional colleagues in New York. Ultimately, the aim is to give Kentucky artists access to the national and international art scenes, enriching their own practices while strengthening the level of discourse within the state.
Since the program’s inception in 2016, Great Meadows Foundation has given 186 grants, totaling more than $520,000, to 136 artists.
As the grant application process continues to grow more competitive, the foundation is keen to reach out to underrepresented artists who may not have applied for professional funding before, helping ensure a strengthened arts community is also an inclusive and diverse one. This year, that includes sponsoring Kentucky artists Azubuike, Charles, Lindsey and Northington to attend the Venice Biennale and related exhibitions on the island, allowing them to engage with the international works not only as individual artists, but as a collective with unique perspectives as African American women.
“I think it’s going to help grow all of our perspectives and our practices,” says Lindsey, a textile artist and staff lead for the Community Foundation of Louisville’s Hadley Creatives program. “I have a very limited experience with contemporary art outside Louisville. So going to the Biennale will open my eyes to what’s larger than here — not only for my own personal practice but also to help me encourage others through my work supporting Kentucky artists.”
True to Shands’ vision when he started the foundation, Lindsey also views the trip as an opportunity to strengthen and invigorate her work as an artist outside of the studio. “As my own personal practice is evolving, I’m realizing it’s not about what people will purchase,” she says. “It’s about me creating work that’s going to be inspiring, that’s going to move people. I’m hoping to see that type of work when I go to Venice and for it to further inspire me to create work that’s provocative and challenging.”
Lindsey and her three fellow grant recipients will share their Venice experience on November 24th as part of a community conversation titled Revitalize! Black Women Artists of Louisville, led by Idris Goodwin in conjunction with the Speed Art Museum’s Ebony G. Patterson exhibit.
“There is certainly a buzz of excitement about what we are doing,” said Great Meadows Foundation director Julien Robson. “These artists are bringing new energy to the art discussion and new aspirations to their own practice. Change is beginning to happen.”