Paris of The Plains: A Resurgent Golden Age

[uds-billboard name=”KCparis”]Just three hours shy of the geographical center of the United States, Kansas City’s location contributes to a unique cultural identity. Easily accessible from points north, south, east, and west, it’s a hub for travel, business, and distribution. Food, music, and fashion seem to slowly filter in here, trends don’t always fly, and it seems that people have a greater sense of periphery – a constant looking outwards while also looking in. This peripheral vision perhaps contributes to the notion of Midwestern hospitality, while also allowing for a deepening of cultural practices. On a recent visit, renowned theater director Peter Sellars remarked, “It’s a high culture, low pressure kind of place.”

The physical landscape of Kansas City has changed tremendously over the past couple of years, accompanied by a major boom in cultural production. In 2011, the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts made its downtown début, attracting 50,000 people on opening day. The once decrepit coal storage building just west of Union Station underwent a complete renovation and now serves as the new home for the Kansas City Ballet as the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity. That same year, attendance at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art jumped 15% from 2010, largely due to an increase in experimental programming and community partnerships under the new direction of Julián Zugazagoitia.

But Kansas City’s cultural expansion isn’t merely limited to the arts. The first European-style soccer stadium was built in the summer of 2011 to house the Sporting KC team. In 2012, Google chose Kansas City as its test site for the new Google Fiber internet program. Once operated by the local mob and associated with gritty corruption leftover from the Pendergast era, the West Bottoms neighborhood changed its name to the Stockyards District as a way to appeal to investors that will, ideally, give the area a facelift that is long overdue. Meanwhile, a plethora of new restaurants, bars, and galleries have made the Crossroads Arts District and the “Stockyards” come alive.

Considering these recent developments, one may argue that Kansas City is on the brink of a resurgent Golden Age. But if this does mark a Renaissance for the city, how then can the local art scene take advantage of that? What would our Golden Age look like? Could a market for alternative, artist-run spaces co-exist with traditional, consumer-driven galleries? Is it possible for these alternative spaces to flourish and find patrons that are willing and ready to open their checkbooks to ensure their longevity, regardless of market trends?

Oddly enough, such alternative spaces need only look as far as the Sprint Center to find a successful model of sustainability. The Sprint Center allures many existing audiences by diversifying their events, and utilizing their geographical location to its advantage, not only as a stop along the way, but as a destination as well. Conceived as a sports arena, the Sprint Center was designed and built with no specific tenant in mind. According to Populous (the Sprint Center’s designers)it was meant to house a basketball or NHL franchise, but when the doors opened in 2007, there were still no big franchises interested. The arena has enough seats to accommodate 19,000 people, but without a permanent tenant, it has been able to host such events as the rodeo, Cirque de Soleil, the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a variety of concerts including Lady Gaga, Guns N’ Roses, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne. To date, the Sprint Center has received an impressive 4 million visitors, positioning it as the 5th busiest venue in the United States and the 13th busiest in the world. One cannot argue the architectural significance or the quality of events that it hosts. Interestingly, however, the way in which it is organized and utilized by the city reflects the current developments in the arts culture in Kansas City.

Although many business and spaces are born from the mentality that, “if you build it, they will come”, those that last find a way to appeal to an audience that already exists. In the past two years, we’ve seen a couple of well-intentioned, artist-run spaces graciously open their doors within the Kansas City area. These cultural spaces are creating opportunities within the cultural landscape of Kansas City regardless of their attempts to infiltrate the arts market, the poor access to public transit and the harsh geographical sprawl within the city. Plug Projects, Subterranean Gallery (SUB), Front/Space, and Spray Booth Gallery (SBG) are exploring many avenues of what an artist-run space can be. From events like yoga during the course of an exhibition, overnight sleepover and morning critique, guided bike ride tours, and zine exchanges, these spaces consistently challenge audiences through their creative programming. As innovative as these younger artist-run spaces may seem, however, this phenomenon is deeply rooted in Kansas City’s cultural landscape. Left Bank, Random Ranch, Dirt Gallery, Old Post Office, and Locus Solus are all similar spaces that have come and gone over the years, while Telephone Booth is one of the few that still remain (more can be found here). It seems to me that many of the more recent spaces have the intention of appealing to the “art market”, but due to conservative Midwestern middle class tastes and a bastion of wealthy collectors, they fall short. Rather than sway to market trends, these spaces instead focus on the integrity of work, quality of programming, and building of a diverse community.

The low pressure of the art market can be seen as a beneficial opportunity within the city. Though culture cannot be supported without patronage, it is interesting how many artists are creating and exploring different avenues of artistic entrepreneurship. Kansas City’s 18th street is a prime example: David Ford’s Yj’s Snack Bar is located in the same building as his studio, designer Peggy Noland architecturally incorporates her work into the storefront, and Peregrine Honig’s, Birdies Bridal. These spaces mentioned are just a few examples of artist-run businesses that successfully combine elements of their artistic and entrepreneurial practice. Geographically and metaphorically, artists are considered pioneers within the great sprawling frontier that is Kansas City.

In the same vein as the Sprint Center, these alternative spaces utilize their geographic location to create a multifunctional space. In doing so, they constantly evolve and hopefully change the communities that they helped build. Artists and their spaces have gone beyond the one trick pony label and tend to explore multiple directions and avenues of the ”art world” and beyond. According to philosopher Jacques Ranciere, artists as we know, can take the phantom role, “The carpenter, baker, shoemaker, blacksmith, all must remain tied to their stations in life. The ‘office’ of the artist, however, is ambiguous. It is like a phantom profession, one that permits the artist to simultaneously work and not work, to have a ‘real’ job, and to have a fictional job.” While many of these spaces and endeavors are supported by their ‘real jobs’, general donations, Kickstarter campaigns, or through the local Sunday soup event, they exist and run regardless of ‘sales’ and media coverage. For how long is another question.

Due to the “show me state” mentality that is embraced throughout Kansas City and the state of Missouri, many artists tend to have the ‘straight gig’ street cred by working alongside individuals at their day job. They build a following, make connections and can’t help but to talk about their work, which reinforces the idea that individuals are expected to contribute to the Kansas City landscape culturally and fiscally. The audience wants you to “Show-them” what you’re about. With that said, when they attend a show, or partake in a discussion, they play critic at the same time that they support and encourage. This strong audience pool is key to the Kansas City landscape and when that happens, more audiences will come, like in field of dreams, they appear from the cornfields, drive in from the suburbs, and stumble upon and support these spaces with open minds and attendance rather than checkbooks.

One project that has appealed to an existing audience of foodies and art supporters alike has been BREAD! KC. Bread! KC is Kansas City’s own Sunday Soup event and is an alternative source of funding in regards to the market driven art world, and the non-profit grant chasing cycle. In neighboring Kansas, Governor Brownback abolished the NEA in 2011, and replaced it with the Creative Industries Commission. The opportunities within the city seem limited from the Municipal Arts Council, perhaps due to the high volume of artists in Kansas City, or that many grants require a status of being a 501(c)(3) non-profit status. The Inspiration grant is an individual artist grant and is barely advertised due to the overwhelming amount of submissions. BREAD! KC isn’t in competition with any of the grant options in the city, it is simply another option to add to the complexity and opportunity for individuals, collectives, spaces and project to take part in. BREAD! KC applications are open to anyone doing a creative endeavor: it has hosted over 20 meals, fed 800 people, and funded 20 different projects, from a Letter Press and Print Shop to various programs around the city to operational costs for the artist-run residency Pequignot Palace in Bethany, MO. By not operating a storefront space, BREAD! KC has the opportunity to travel around town, which attracts new audiences and allows for various participation among many communities within Kansas City. Simply, $10 dollars gets a person a meal and a ballot. After hearing artist proposals that are presented during the meal, attendees cast their votes for the project they would like to see happen in Kansas City. The artist with the most votes receives all the money collected through the entrance fee.

BREAD! KC has started to carve an interesting niche for the cross-pollination of the food and art communities. Food has had a historic stake here in the identity of Kansas City, with its own barbeque style of Burnt Ends, and famous sauce. It is said, if you ask where to get the best barbeque, in true KC style, you will get a list of six different places. This is the nature of Kansas City’s food scene; diversity and individuality among a collective mindset. Right around the time that BREAD! KC was gathering momentum, a shift within the food culture happened, a surge of new restaurants, chefs and food providers allowed for BREAD! KC to successfully navigate within the diverse food culture and ultimately find success within its collaborations. With BREAD! KC, it seems to be the case that its collaborations or ideas don’t need the current institutional mindset or academic language to label it ‘radical hospitality’ or ‘social practice.’ The projects aren’t being talked about in the safety of panel discussions or symposium but rather throughout Kansas City in its variety of neighborhoods, restaurants, and spaces. The projects seem to target specific audiences and followers while at the same time creating the idea of a regular; whether they be neighbors, friends, or a couple driving in from the sprawling Kansas suburbs. This project is creating a wonderful crosspollination of both equally invested communities within Kansas City.

BREAD! KC and other artist-run initatives are reaching a point of creating their own institutional structures within the city. Some may become non-profits, some may stay as they are, and some may simply close their doors in the coming years. But like any place where artist-run spaces exist, Kansas City shouldn’t be disappointed or deem these spaces as failure if they close their doors. These spaces tend to fill a much needed voids in the city at the time that they take place and simultaneously, create the room to ask questions. Questions that address issues about our work, the structures of the inherited art world, a general response to fill what is missing within our place and time, and how to re-imagine our city. More importantly, there is no turning back, and there are no clear solutions. Currently, non-profit models and structures are being questioned, MFA programs look as if they are losing their appeal, more and more residencies seem to be initiated and offered, nationally and regionally. I think now, more than ever, is the time to look at more models and approaches and reevaluate what works and what doesn’t and it seems that these spaces discussed are starting to do this well. We as whole need to create sustainable support systems for these much needed alternative spaces, beyond Kickstarter campaigns, fiscal sponsorship and day job paychecks. Perhaps, no one has the answers yet, but by asking these questions, Kansas City will ultimately facilitate the culture it deserves.


The author would like to thank Erin Olm Shipman and Jordan Stempleman, Patrick Alexander and The Living Archive for their contributions.

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  1. Adrianne Russell

    This really got me thinking, so thanks for that! I’m consistently impressed with the amount of creativity and innovation that generates from the Kansas City area. While we are concerned that people should be able to “show and prove”, there’s generally a collective willingness to get behind those efforts which encourages even more creative output.

  2. spudart

    Great article. This really opened my eyes to what Kansas City has in culture.

    Do you have any website recommendations that are visual art focused for Kansas City?

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