July 8th was a Thursday. It had been a long year with a global pandemic, and lots of social and political unrest. I was happy to finally have the opportunity to visit my parents in Louisville, Kentucky for an extended July 4th Holiday. I was on Main Street, about 20 minutes early to pick up my son MJ from LEGO Engineering Camp at the Kentucky Science Center. The historic block is lined with grand buildings from the industrial period, with chic venues like 21C Hotel and Proof on Main, so I decided to take a short walk. Halfway up the block as I passed the Fund for the Arts, I saw a familiar face, and immediately called out, “Dre!”
Andre Guess is the CEO of Fund for the Arts, the largest financer of organizations including the Louisville Ballet, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and more. He’s one the country’s leading art executives having previously served as Vice President & Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, as well as President and CEO of the August Wilson Center of African American Culture in Pittsburgh. To me, he’ll always be my play-cousin Dre. Our grandparents lived on the same street in the Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville. He was my brother Winston’s mentor at the Lincoln Foundation in Louisville during Winston’s high school summers when he would visit our grandmother. When Andre first landed his position at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I lived in New York and would often babysit when Dre and his wife Cheryl would go out for date nights. Other times I would just hang out and have a home cooked meal.
When I ran into Andre on Main Street, he immediately called Cheryl, and we made arrangements to meet at his office one day after I picked up MJ from camp, which also happened to affiliated with the Fund for the Arts through their Culture Pass Program.
Tammi: So, tell me about coming back to Louisville, or being in this particular place in Louisville.
Andre: It was as if I left, went and got this experience, and then came back. Cheryl and I were getting ready to leave. In 2019, before the pandemic, we had planned to move to New Orleans. The thing that made me interested in staying was the pandemic, and then Breonna Taylor happening. I mean, I had fallen out of love with my city when I left in 2000. After Breonna Taylor I was really ashamed because I felt that I had turned my back on this city- like I had emotionally disinvested from this city and I saw this happen, and I was like- you know what? People were calling me from all over the country like, “Man, what’s going on in your city?” I said we’ve really got to get engaged. We’ve got to get back involved. Then someone sent me this job in a LinkedIn post. I read it and I was like, “Wow, it was as if the description was written for me- Little Dre from Smoketown.” And so here we are.
Just the vision of how we use the arts to heal and transform- equity, diversity, and inclusion and all that I’ve experienced around the world. I felt like I could bring that here and really do something about it. I think about equity, diversity and inclusion in the traditional sense (race, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and so on), but also inclusion in a way that artists across disciplines can actually work together. So oftentimes, you see the ballet’s over here, the orchestra’s over here, the theatre’s over there- but they don’t really work together. So, I said I want to make sure that we have true integration of the arts.
Louisville is well known for its murals, which celebrate elements of Louisville culture including the Kentucky Derby and hometown hero Muhammad Ali. The first Imagine Mural Festival took place in 2019. PBS heard about the festival, and contacted The Fund for the Arts about partnering to document the next festival for a new Muhammad Ali mini-documentary series by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Fund of the Arts was considering making the festival an annual event. Plans were halted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Andre’s predecessor also thought it would be best to wait for the new CEO to be a part of the decision-making process. Meanwhile, local artists were inspired by the social justice movements of the time. The Breonna Taylor Mural at the intersection of 11th and West Main Street has received international acclaim. Art installations were also set up in Jefferson Square Park to memorialize Breonna Taylor.
Andre: The theme is, “We are the Home of the Greatest…” We’re asking muralists, literary artists, spoken word artists, musicians, composers, filmmakers, dancers, actors, what have you- to put together an interdisciplinary team of artists to animate this theme. We’ll incorporate Muhammad Ali’s six core principles- confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality. Then we’ll take the associated content that goes with the mural to put it all in a QR code so when you scan it, you’ll be able to get the content on the web.
I’m working with Cleo Battle, the head of Louisville Tourism, to grow the festival and expand to neighborhoods all around the city. You get a chance to brag about yourself without denigrating somebody else. So, if you’re in a neighborhood in the Highlands or if you’re in Smoketown or West End you can talk about how great you are as a part of this overall umbrella of “The Greatest.”
I had come to Louisville to clear my head and prepare for how life was changing now that the world seemed to be opening up again. It just so happened that Andre was embarking on a big project that centered on helping the community heal and come to terms with all the pain and challenges of the past year. Sometimes I search for a story, and other times a story finds me.
For more information on Imagine Mural Festival, please visit:
For more information on the Muhammad Ali documentary by Ken Burns, please visit: