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110 Years After Opening as Library, The Carnegie Still Plays Important Role

The Carnegie has had many interesting chapters to its rich history and is still going strong over 100 years after the building's construction in Covington.
 
The building was dedicated in 1904 as part of a massive library project envisioned and endowed by Andrew Carnegie to build free community libraries throughout the country. The auditorium, which was funded later, was used as a town hall space. It is one of only six Carnegie-funded libraries that are left with an attached auditorium and was the first integrated library in the South. 
 
The Covington Public Library vacated the building in the 1970's and a group of citizens saved it when it became The Northern Kentucky Arts Council. Some time later, it changed into the Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center which started doing exhibitions in the gallery space with educational programs in the basement.
 
There were many unsuccessful attempts to redo the theater until 2000 when the Carnegie began to morph into what it is today. There was funding from the state and local donors to physically connect the two facilities. In 2003, the Eva G. Farris Education Center was added. The Center purchased an abandoned nearby synagogue and some houses that were razed for a green space and parking lot. The auditorium was improved and reopened in March of 2006. The marquee and front plaza was completed in 2010. Other improvements were also made such as fixing some seats that did not have good sight lines in the theater and adding some new walls in the gallery space. 
 
"The building has had a lot of love over the years, a lot of money invested into it," said Carnagie Executive Director Katie Brass.  "It's definitely a facility and organization that people embrace and really take care of. There are many examples in terms of what people have given."
 
The Farris and Otto Budig foundations are two that started raising money to build the education center and improve the theater. 
 
Another effort was made to spruce up the plaza in the front of the building thanks to the county government and many local businesses. 
 
"The front plaza was a project that we didn't have to use money for because everyone said if you need this done, we will do it for you," Brass said. "I highlight that because that is kind of how people treat this place. If you need something done, there are so many people we can call and they will come out to help, so I think that is really telling about the organizations."
 
The gallery space is used to showcase local and regional artists that reaches to nearby cities of Lexington, Louisville and Columbus. There are typically five shows a year that feature over 100 artists and a Community Supported Arts program every July. The CAS event is based on the Center selling 50 shares which cost $350. The money raised from those proceeds goes to pay nine local artists to create 50 pieces of work.  
 
"So at the end of the growing season, you come to a harvest party and you pick up your basket and you get nine pieces of original art. It's our way to educate people that buying local is easy, inexpensive and you can have original art in your house. And you're supporting local artists. That program was launched last year and the next one will be July 24." 
 
The Carnegie runs four main stage productions a year in the theater. This season the shows are Company, Sleuth (a whodunit thriller), The Wizard of Oz, and The Last Five Years. To put on the shows, The Carnegie partners with local universities like Northern Kentucky University, Wright State, and the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati in order to use the stage talent the schools have to offer. The Wizard of Oz production features the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.
 
"The unique thing this year, because we have three different departments (theater, education center, and art gallery), is that in The Wizard of Oz, we will have our gallery director work with the exhibitions director and they're bringing in local artist Pam Kravetz to do the set and the costumes. Then our education director will audition kids from our summer drama camp to be the munchkins on stage. So that will very much involve all three departments, which we have never done before and will be very cool."
 
There is also a concert series at the Carnegie. On the remaining nights, the facility is rented to small production companies who do not have a venue of their own, such as Holy Cross High School who does their theater department spring musical there, Cincinnati World Cinema, and Showbiz Players. The facility is booked on about 160 nights a year.
 
"We are busy year-round and if it's not our stuff, it's somebody else's."
 
The education programs at the Carnegie go all year. Right now the education center is undergoing its summer Camp Carnegie, which serves about 220 kids. There are also hundreds of names on the camp's waiting list.
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"We're trying to get some other places where we can do it because we are just booked to capacity here."
 
The cost for parents to the camp is only $40 which makes it attractive in terms of a healthy summer activity for their kids. 
 
"When Andrew Carnegie built this space, the library was not public, it was membership-based and only for the wealthy. Carnegie, though, thought books should be for everybody, and he's right. We think art should be accessible to everybody. That's why our gallery openings are always free. Our average ticket price for the theater is $21.  Everything used to be free in the education center and now we charge a nominal fee, and that's really because we found out that some people think if a service is free that it isn't good, so our summer camp is $40 which is nothing compared to what most summer camps cost."
 
The kids at the camp are given a theme when they enter the program where they then brain storm, write and memorize their own script, make their own costumes and set, learn how to improve in case they forget their lines and then perform their production on stage for family and friends.  The age ranges for the camp is 7-14 and is in its seventh year of existence.
 
"When kids age out of Camp Carnegie, they still want to be involved, so they actually come back and volunteer to help out in the summer.  Some kids want a longer and deeper experience in the theater, so last year we started what's called Camp Carnegie's All Stars where the kids have to have participated in Camp Carnegie at least once, and then they are auditioned, and then if they're cast, they then get to perform in an hour-long production. We actually buy the rights to a script, but other than that, it's the same concept. The kids are still making the set and the costumes, but they are actually memorizing lines from a play that we purchased. That has been very successful," Brass said. 
 
There are also after-school programs, both on site and off site that are eight-week sessions where the Carnegie hires local artists that work with kids around a theme like having the kids make their own life-sized board game where the kids have to make a game, become their characters and then perform how the game is played. 
 
"Everything we do is about creating and responding. It's about teaching kids to build their self confidence and critical-thinking skills. We hire an artist to do things, but it's the kids that are really developing what's going on."
 
There are two variations of the in-school programming that the Center does. One is their Arts Integration Programming, which is two four-day workshops depending on what schools want. Two teachers come into the school and have written curriculum for the various school subjects where the teachers will reinforce the school's curriculum with an arts-based one. An example is a science-based predator/prey activity called the Rare Bug Workshop. The activity reinforces the life cycle by having kids create their own fictional rare bug. 
 
All of the Center's educational programs are certified by the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and are one of only 100 organizations in the United States that are certified by the Kennedy Center. 
 
Four years ago the Commonwealth of Kentucky passed a new law that requires arts in all the schools called Program Review. In order for the schools to meet Program Review, the Center partners with Kenton County and the City of Covington and provides the funding for art teachers in all of the schools for drama, dance, visual arts and music.  
 
"My husband is an art teacher and I truly wish that every school had art teachers, but that just is not the case anymore. So what happens is that Covington can get arts for all of their kids for a lesser fee by going through us."
 
The reason the Center was selected to be a part of the Kennedy Center is because they were able to prove that they could do arts-integration well and they had the capacity to do professional development with the teachers.  
 
"We do  a lot of professional development with teachers not only with Covington, but all of the districts. We will come in and do the programs for you, but we are also going to teach you to do the programs as well when they finally reach their comfort level."
 
The Center has a big annual two-day fundraiser called Suits that Rock which will concludes on Saturday. The event features 48 community members who are CEO's, university presidents, and other important figures of the area who will take the stage to perform a rock concert.  Most of the performers have some kind of musical background that rock out.  The event attracts over 1,000 patrons and raises over $100,000.  
 
The Carnegie has had new life breathed into it over the years and is currently in the midst of one its most successful eras. While the books may have been removed from the former library, the spirit of the arts and education lives on.
 
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
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