More than a decade ago, when I was a features reporter and entertainment columnist for The Courier-Journal, I also taught three nights a week at a now-defunct local college. While I loathed the for-profit model of the school, I loved my students, whose backgrounds varied from professionals seeking higher education for myriad reasons to individuals who were determined to make a better life for themselves and their families after facing poverty, homelessness and, sometimes, incarceration.
I was happy to be back in academia – I started out as a full-time college English instructor at Central Michigan University – and worked hard to incorporate the arts into my syllabus, regardless of the class I was teaching.
When 21c Museum Hotel first opened in Louisville, I covered it as a reporter and wrote about parties and events happening at the venue, the first of its kind. But as I learned more about the mission of its founders, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, I fell in love. This was a place where art was for everyone, 365 days a year, not just those who could afford a room or dinner at the in-house restaurant, Proof on Main.
So, I asked permission to bring my class – many of whom used public transportation and ride shares to get where they were going (Uber had yet to emerge and taxis were too expensive for most) – to 21c. Approval was swift, and I arrived early the evening of our tour, anticipating my students’ arrivals.
Once everyone had arrived, I welcomed them, ensured everyone understood the assignment – a simple reflection on the overall experience – and then gave the tour as if I were a docent.
I told my students about the art, the artists and the mission of Steve and Laura Lee, and even accompanied the entire class into the bathrooms to engage with the art (yes, 21c’s bathrooms are legendary). The small sea of students followed me as we explored until we wound up on the main floor, where we’d begun.
What happened next was incredible: “Thanks to Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson,” I began, “21c is a place where art is accessible to everyone. You never know who might be here, either.”
Just as I finished my words, two of my wayward students rushed out of the area reserved for Proof on Main. Breathless, one of them said, “Miss Fenton! Harrison Ford is in the bar!”
I chuckled, incredulous. “Harrison Ford?”
“Yes!” my student gasped. “It’s him!”
And it was.
Quickly, I gave my students a tutorial on how to respectfully handle being in the presence of a celebrity who clearly didn’t want to be bothered. Selfies, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were not a part of our world then, and everyone respected Mr. Ford’s privacy, though I tried to hide a smile as I watched them file past him, pretending to gaze at the artwork, barely able to contain themselves.
A week later I read the reflections from my students, and while they varied, every single essay had a shared gratitude – to Laura Lee and Steve, especially – for making art accessible to everyone.
“(The trip to 21c) made me look at life in a different way I wasn’t used to,” wrote one student.
“I didn’t know I was allowed to come here (to 21c). Thank you for letting me see I am welcome, too,” wrote another, which broke my heart a little bit.
Art must be accessible to everyone. And, as you’ll see throughout this issue, our arts organizations and museums work hard to ensure this is a reality in our community.
As you browse through this issue, I hope you come to appreciate Louisville’s arts community in a new way, just like my students did. And thank you for supporting the arts.