Miller to bid arts council adieuExecutive director to leave HCAC Dec. 21
When there is a storm of creative energy in Haywood County — a swirl of painters, musicians, weavers, woodworkers and more — Kay Miller is at the center of it. Since 2004, she's been the executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council, meaning she's spent the better part of a decade encouraging people to make, enjoy and support art.
In her words, "I like to see people create beauty."
And that's not going to change, even though her job title soon will. After eight and a half years heading the council, Miller is stepping down this Friday. As the eighth executive director in the organization's 35 years, she's stayed longer than many in a position that can often be demanding and stressful, sometimes with long hours and many moving parts. It's been a huge responsibility, and Miller talks like she wouldn't have had it any other way.
Last week, as she spoke from her office above Gallery 86, she was smiling constantly but had some nostalgia to her voice. Citing personal reasons for her leave, she seemed both ready to go and thankful for the incredible ride she's had.
"I've met so many great artists and volunteers, and it's been a lot of fun," she said. "Really, it's been a lot of fun."
It also sounds a bit fated. HCAC first popped up on Miller's radar several months before she applied for job, back when she was just making contacts around Haywood County. A native of Greenville, South Carolina, she had visited the area as a child and had a sentimental notion of moving up to the mountains. So, she called up then-director Paula McElroy and though there were no openings at the arts council then, to her surprise, Miller got a call back not too long after. McElroy was retiring — and encouraging Miller to apply for her job.
Miller jumped at it, and not just because she was infatuated with the mountains. She'd had a long affair with music, majoring in it in college and working at a high level in a community school created by the St. Louis Symphony. She'd also been happily surrounded by visual art as a youngster in school — and decided to share that fact during her interview for the position. She even brought out several pieces of art she'd made decades ago, from a little clay dish from the first grade to a painting she'd created as a third-grader.
As she put it, "The arts made a big impact on me as a child," — and she wanted her potential employers to know it.
"One of the board members later told me that was the one thing that really said 'Yes, that's the right person,'" she said, looking back.
While Miller's time at HCAC isn't marked by massive, sweeping changes, she has taken many of the nonprofit's programs and punched them up noticeably. She believes the biggest difference came several years ago — so long, in fact, that many people might not even know it took place.
When Miller took the job, HCAC was housed in a suite in the large, historic building on Church Street that is now The Gateway Club. Though it had a gallery space, it was just enough off the beaten path that it often got overlooked by strolling tourists and other passersby. After about a year into the job, Miller saw an opportunity to move HCAC headquarters to Main Street — and snapped it up. In the years since, Gallery 86 (appropriately located at 86 N. Main St.) has become a fixture in the community, hosting about 10 shows a year and always having a large presence during all downtown, art-based events.
"I think it really elevated the arts council — and to a big degree — the arts," Miller said of the move. "We became a place where an artist could present a body of work to the public."
Taking on this responsibility with zest, she's made sure to fill the gallery with a wide variety of work, from photographs to fiber art, sculpture to fine craft. Outside of the gallery, all-age offerings like the Sunday Concert Series, co-sponsored by the Friends of the Library, have also flourished. The Haywood Quilt Trails project, which pairs larger-than-life artistic renderings of old-time quilts with buildings around the county, was Miller's doing, too.
All of this is impressive, but her real love is clearly programs for children. She's the one who brought "Passport to the Arts," which teaches youngsters about global art, to the arts council's annual International Festival Day in downtown Waynesville. She's also the reason that both the North Carolina Symphony and a brass quintet from the National Symphony have now performed in Haywood County, with special shows for school-aged audiences.
"Anything that we've done for kids or with kids, that makes me really happy," Miller said, laughingly contentedly.
That definitely includes the Junior Appalachian Musicians program. The countywide effort, the second oldest of its kind in the state, has been pairing young, aspiring mountain musicians with old-time masters for 12 years now — most of them under Miller's watch. She sounds so pleased at being able give that gift of music to children.
"That's something they take with them their whole lives," she said.
That ability to affect people for the better is at the heart what Miller feels the arts council — and art in general — is all about. She's not one to forget how much art matters, and is happy to say that she's been reminded constantly in this job.
She recounted the first show Gallery 86 ever presented, an exhibit of photos from the Vietnam War called "A Thousand Words." She's still never seen the gallery filled with so many men, many of whom were veterans. Miller remembers reading their comments in the guest book every day and crying. There was no question how much they were affected.
"It just goes to show that no matter who you are, where you are, that the arts can be an important part of your life," she said.
Though she'll soon be gone from the arts council, she knows it will always be an important part of hers, too.
What's next for HCAC?
Miller's departure is coming up quickly, but don't expect HCAC or its programs to be changing. Steve McNeil, president of the HCAC board, explained that the council will run as normal — though he's unsure when a new executive director will be appointed. For now, volunteers will coordinate art shows and events.
He explained that this course of action is actually not so unusual at the arts council, which has had a few periods without a director in its 35 years of existence.
"Things have evolved over time, and at various times over the history I think we've had to operate without an executive director," McNeil said, simply. "And this is one of those times."
When asked about Miller's tenure, McNeil talked about some of the best changes that have taken place, including the move to Main Street and the strengthening of several arts council-sponsored programs.
"And a lot of those things are certainly to her credit," he said, giving props to Miller.