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In Focus

Kentucky’s Virginia Carter

By Sarah C. Vos | HUMANITIES, March/April 2011 | Volume 32, Number 2

In 1966, Virginia Carter worked as a carhop at the Star-Lite Drive-In Restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, bringing fried chicken out to the curb. She saved the money she earned to pay for a summer at Harvard.

“I had big ideas,” Carter says. “I thought, ‘If I could only go to Harvard.’ I thought that university would be oozing with exciting knowledge and information, and I wanted it all.”

When Carter returned to Kentucky, she realized that she didn’t need to go to Harvard: The knowledge and culture she wanted was all here. She just had to find it.

Carter went on to study fine arts at Louisiana State University and then pursued MA’s in art history and anthropology and a PhD in anthropology at the University of Kentucky before becoming executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council in 1989.

In her role as director, Carter helps Kentuckians appreciate their heritage and culture and understand it. “Our responsibility is to respond to the educational needs of Kentuckians, wherever they are and whatever they are,” she says.

During Carter’s tenure, the council, which does not receive state funding, has evolved from being primarily a grant-making organization to being a provider of humanities programs throughout Kentucky. One of those efforts went national during the commemorations for Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial.

In February 2009, the council brought Our Lincoln: Kentucky’s Gift to the Nation to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The council originally had created the one-of-a-kind program for a kickoff of a two-year national celebration of Lincoln. The sold-out 2008 program in Lexington, which required a cast of almost four hundred, was a musical, theatrical, and historical extravaganza. When Carter realized that there was no major event planned for Washington in February 2009, she reports, “we said, ‘Okay, we’ll go to the Kennedy Center.’”

The stakes were higher than they were for the first performance: “Now you have to be perfect, not just really good,” Carter says. At the end of the evening, the audience applauded so long (both acts received standing ovations) Carter had to hurry everyone off stage, lest she incur costs for going past 10 p.m.

“We had no idea people would go so crazy mad,” Carter says. “They just wouldn’t stop applauding.”

The Lincoln celebrations included Kentucky Chautauqua, one of the council’s most successful and longest-running endeavors. Some 490,000 Kentuckians have been reached by the program since it began in 1992.

The goal of Kentucky Chautauqua is to make the state’s history accessible to schools and community groups. The dramatic performances do not require a stage or scenery, just the performer and his or her props. The performers, who are not necessarily professional actors, research the characters with the support of the council. After their shows, they engage the audience in a conversation about the characters and the issues of the time. The people portrayed include the famous, like nineteenth-century statesman Henry Clay, and the unknown, like Johnny Green, a member of the Kentucky Orphan Brigade in the Civil War. Last year, Kentucky Chautauqua gave 390 individual character performances.

To spread the word about the state’s lively history, Carter launched the four-color magazine Kentucky Humanities in 1994, and writers, poets, and scholars participate in a speaker’s bureau supported by the council.

For at-risk families, the council offers Prime Time Family Reading Time, a humanities-based discussion program that encourages parents to read to their children. Carter also expanded New Books for New Readers to hook in adult literacy students. The books, written at a fourth-grade level, cover topics of interest to adults such as the explorations of Lewis and Clark, folklore, and courageous Kentucky women.

Carter continues to look for new programs to call attention to the humanities and leverage the federal dollars her organization receives through partnerships. Right now, the council is seeking ways to mark the anniversaries of the War of 1812 and the Civil War. These events will most likely involve collaborations and partnerships with arts groups. “The arts are a marvelous way for us to tell the story, to deliver the humanities content,” Carter says.

About the Author

Sarah C. Vos is a writer living in Lexington, Kentucky.