No Place Like Home: 20 Years of the Arts in Kansas City

[uds-billboard name=”KChome”]A group of silver-haired gallery patrons approached me, wine glasses in hand, and feverishly they all asked the same question, “when do you graduate?” While working at an art gallery in Kansas City I became accustomed to answering questions about the exhibition on display, or my role as writer within the gallery, but I was unprepared for this consistent, unison inquiry regarding my college graduation. Perhaps what astonished me most was the lack of questions regarding the institution I attended, or whether or not I had in fact already graduated, the question was, simply, when.  This continued to surprise me until I became more acquainted with the Kansas City art scene and realized these people weren’t asking a question, they were fulfilling a strongly rooted stereotype. In this town it was once easy to assume a young gallery assistant was a student of art and therefore studying at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), but the tables had turned. I was neither a student nor a student at KCAI, but I had discovered a passion for arts writing while completing my fine arts credit at the Jesuit university in town. To the old-school crowd this was such impossibility that it never occurred to them to rephrase their question, but things have certainly changed. Those who have been in the city since the eighties will tell you that for a time art education resided solely on the campus of KCAI and skipped town immediately after graduation. Not anymore. A student-driven movement in the nineties created the new Kansas City; a veritable playground for student and up-and-coming artists has flourished wherein emerging and established, classically trained and self-taught, young and old, local and transplant can create and inspire side-by-side. It began as a community of KCAI, but has now expanded to include Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and with the beloved work of the Charlotte Street Foundation growing each year, there are more services and opportunities for students and emerging artists than ever making Kansas City a rich, and down-to-earth, community of artists and art lovers.

Having worked in the galleries for years I knew exactly who could flesh out the roots of this artistic rebirth. Davin Watne, artist and art educator, graduated from KCAI in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree of fine art and began teaching art at UMKC in 2001, but he didn’t begin his professional life with teaching on his plate. Having graduated from art school, Watne naturally wanted to focus on creating new work, but the climate of the Kansas City arts community at that time didn’t lend itself to this pursuit. During college he admits that, “pretty much the accepted norm was to leave KC, so for a long time it wasn’t a great place to be a student,” but Watne pioneered a collective that changed that sentiment forever. The Kansas City of the nineties provided a handful of galleries to show in – the Dolphin Gallery, Leedy-Voulkos Arts Center, Morgan Gallery and Jan Weiner Gallery – but they were not interested in showing student work, or hosting art students as patrons. Eventually, Leedy-Voulkos and The Dolphin acknowledged the need for art students to, at a minimum, attend art openings so they could actively participate in the world they were studying. Indeed, art students were still restricted from showing their work, but they were given the opportunity to attend art openings and engage in the networking intrinsic to their post-grad careers. In Watne’s eyes this was the initial turn towards the Kansas City of today. Students could finally, “network, celebrate, meet people” and with these changes, “a scene [was] born.” A scene was born indeed, and if the Leedy Voulkos and The Dolphin were the women great with child, then Watne and his friends were the doctors delivering the next generation.

In 1995 Watne established the Dirt Gallery in the West Bottoms, an industrial area at the crux of the Missouri and Kansas rivers flood plain and neighbor to the historic Crossroads Art District. Those who had graduated from KCAI in the nineties had all left Kansas City for the coasts, and consequently the art community suffered for lack of nourishment. The Dirt Gallery sought to change this by creating a place where the mission was clear: show good emerging art and nourish the community of post-grad artists. They began with an event Watne refers to as “the Spring Package”: seniors at KCAI could show their work as a group and in return they would all pitch in a little money to maintain the gallery’s rent. From March to May the Dirt Gallery had bi-weekly shows like clockwork, and eventually their persistence caught the attention of a crowd outside of the immediate KCAI community. Suddenly, “older people, people with money and people with power,” began to explore Watne’s world and the momentum began to pick up. In a short amount of time, “We were having as big a draw as the Crossroads,” Watne asserted with a tone of old-school astonishment. The Crossroads has become a mainstay of the Kansas City art tradition by clustering spaces together and creating a uniform event: the first Friday of each month is a full evening and night dedicated to the arts entitled First Friday. But Watne made a stealth choice to keep interest in the Dirt Gallery on par with the Crossroads: he intentionally scheduled shows on opposing nights. First Friday’s in The Crossroads were now rivaled by an additional Friday night of art the following week in the West Bottoms. Eventually, Kate Hackman and David Hughes, pivotal players in the art scene, were at every Dirt opening, and art students and emerging artists had a voice in the community. But, like all great things, this time of art utopia came to an end not because of lacking interested, but because of oversaturation. Watne had paved a distinct path towards the ultimate goal of facilitating the transition from art student to working artist, but that mold became too easy to follow. The majority of KCAI graduates were creating loft studios and gallery spaces with the same mindset Watne and his friends brought to the art scene, but this was no longer sufficient. Simply affording a studio in which to create art, let alone show it, became a large factor for new artists, and the fiscal component of existing in a city as an artist became the canvas upon which artists needed to create. Big changes were just around the corner.

Around 2003 Kansas City art pillars David Hughes and Kate Hackman co-founded the Charlotte Street Foundation (CSF) with a new mission of hope for the arts community. Operating under the mission that the organization, “supports and recognizes outstanding artists in Greater Kansas City; presents, promotes, enhances and encourages the visual, performing and interdisciplinary arts; and fosters economic development in the urban core of Kansas City, MO in all endeavors…” Hughes and Hackman were able to tap into the rigid structure Watne had tried to soften. While the Dirt Gallery shared a similar vision as CSF, it was Hughes and Hackman’s ingenuity, organization and stick-to-itiveness that brought this mutual vision to fruition: art students will stay if there is opportunity, and if students stay they will create and foster an economy. But in order to accomplish this shared energy between the arts community and the city itself there had to be a system in place that added a fiscal cushion, and CSF knew just what to do.

One of the main programs CSF is known for is The Urban Culture Project (UCP), a program geared towards providing low and no-cost space for the creation and exhibition of art. As of today, UCP has three street-level spaces and three studio facilities that provide 32 artists with free studios under one-year contracts. With applications and proposals from artists and curators of all mediums reviewed quarterly, all an artist has to do to take advantage of these services is to apply: this provides incentive for artists to stick around, or to transplant and give Kansas City a shot. Watne has it right when he says, “[Hughes and Hackman] were so smart about the way they did it,” because the Charlotte Street Foundation, in its entirety, is an organized and effective means for bridging the gap between artists and the community, artists and professional practice, and artists’ own kinship. They have actively engaged in a dialogue with their arts community and tailored their organization accordingly, which means artists have strong advocacy in the business and professional realm, along with the fiscal help to maintain their artistic community. But there was an additional element vital to the successful utilization of the new and empowering offerings of CSF: education. Now that art has become a solidified piece of the Kansas City landscape the necessity for additional avenues for arts education became clear.

Following suit with the deep roots of KCAI are Kansas City’s own University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) and Rockhurst University (RU). Watne has been teaching everything from drawing and painting to art appreciation and foundations at UMKC for ten years, sometimes five classes a semester (double that of a tenured professor). So why did a working artist begin teaching?  “It’s the best allied career an artist can have,” Watne espouses, and by 2010 he was able to begin teaching full time while also advising students and directing the UMKC Gallery of Art. Admittedly, life experience is the best teacher, and what better professorial influence for an art student than that of a working artist? What’s more, that professorial influence also provides a much needed platform for the discussion and education of professional practice. “Art education has become a lot more focused on professional practice,” and this is a breath of fresh air to Watne who recalls his own art education. “There were some very remedial, sophomoric attempts at teaching professional practice, but having a museum director talk to your art class about professional practice is like having an NFL player come talk to your little league team,” the pieces just didn’t fit together. This certainly contributed to the migration of KCAI grads to the coasts where professional practice could flourish if for no other reason than sheer volume of gallery space, but with people like Watne educating our up-and-coming artists in an environment outside of KCAI this is changing.

“I love art schools, but I can see advantages to going to a big state school, one is the cost,” but Watne recognizes that those schools are not synonymous with art education and a faculty chock full of successful artists. But cost matters, and Watne is not alone in changing this perception of non-art schools providing excellent art education. At UMKC he works along with artists Barry Anderson and Dylan Mortimer, both of whom receive consistent national and international attention. Similarly, across the street from UMKC is Rockhurst University (RU), another institution not intrinsically linked to arts education. But it should be. Artist Anne Austin Pearce currently runs the show at RU teaching painting and drawing, mentoring students who have created their own independent study classes, and directing the Greenlease Gallery on campus. Much like Watne, Pearce studied at KCAI from 1986 to 1988, but she transferred to the University of Kansas to jump on the opportunity to study abroad for an entire year and to ease the cost of her education. While RU is a private Jesuit school, and comes with a price tag that reflects that, having Pearce on that campus affords students who normally wouldn’t seek out art the opportunity to do so in a sophisticated environment, and under the tutelage of a successful artist. Pearce also feels a strong commitment to the education of professional practice in art admitting that, “It’s extremely important for young artists to own their craft and skills, and to know its value.” With a more student-centered arts community in place Pearce worries students sell themselves short, literally, or that galleries and collectors will leave a gold-mine unaware  of its worth. With this in mind, Pearce educates on professional practice as a way to keep her students, “mindful of their value,” while also showing them how to improve their craft, discover a new one, or to incorporate their creative voice into their non-art related major.

Educators like Watne and Pearce have been a vital component to the growth the Kansas City art community has seen since the nineties as they create a bridge to the profession of art, but there is an extra layer in the mix: personal rapport. Art requires a creative exchange, a free moving flow of ideas and inspiration, and this puts art educators in the category of mentor as well. By engaging in personally with their students, art educators renew and maintain the flow of creativity in Kansas City and they refresh the arts community as a whole by linking students to the services they need to excel. This mentorship is furthered by the social component of the art community: critiques, lectures, openings, and receptions are all social opportunities in which art educators can connect their students with other art players. From art directors and collectors to curators and writers, art educators extend their mentorship by helping their students create a framework for their post-grad success; this stabilizes the Kansas City art community by consistently stimulating growth.

And how could art educators even attempt to bypass the mentoring component of their jobs? Watne had a sincere look of excitement when he explained that, “turning people on to things [he] loves and sharing it with them,” is a great feeling and that is the relationship he has with his students. Pearce shared his enthusiasm when she noted that she “likes seeing the moments of authentic growth,” in her students and that she enjoys when art begins to inform everything her students do. For her, helping her students “communicate visually,” is a reward in and of itself and for that reason she goes out of her way to “authentically hear what [her students] have to say.” This may not be true of other disciplines, and at a school like RU where an art class can house business and science majors along with the fine art disciplines, having a creative voice that is truly heard by your professor is truly a breath of fresh air. Ultimately, the passion that Watne and Pearce, and other professors like them, bring to the table is immeasurable, and they shape the future of the arts community as a whole.

The Kansas City arts community has evolved greatly in the last two decades, and there is a sparkle as more artists and spaces plant roots in the city each year. What makes this growth particularly special is that down-home sense of camaraderie people would associate with a Midwestern city. Pearce hit the nail on the head when she noted that the arts district has “grown by leaps and bounds, but the community is still open and generous,” and that is the shiny cherry resting on top of the Kansas City arts sundae. Even though we are proud of the arts in our city, even though we have come a long way, there is one thing we will never forget: where we came from. If it weren’t for the tireless efforts of people like Davin Watne and David Hughes, if it weren’t for the sincere passion all of the art players continue to the table, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And that is a gift worth paying forward to every generation of artists in the community regardless of where they’re from, where they went to school, or what they enjoy creating. Art is special, art sparks dialogue and growth, art creates community, and Kansas City welcomes you to ours.


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