Art Works Blog

Postcard from Kansas City

Kansas City, Missouri

Members of the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company perform at the 2010 LIVE! in the Crossroads Concert Series, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance, in the historic Kansas City Crossroads Arts District. Photo © April Befort, 2010

Last week I spent two days in Kansas City, Missouri. My hostess, of course, was Joan Israelite who?s on our National Council on the Arts, and who?s a friend, and really a passport to everything arts in Kansas City. We never left each other?s side, and she?s just a joy. It was a very intense couple of days, and I think we only scratched the surface. We started off with a panel on Creative Placemaking co-presented by Mid-America Arts Alliance, one of the regional arts organizations, and the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. The panel was hosted by Bill Dietrich---president and CEO of the Downtown Council of Kansas City---who was also one of my hosts for this visit. He?s not an arts person per se, but boy, he really understands the value of the arts in a community, and he was a great host. David Ford was also on that panel, and I would describe him as an arts activist. He really is engaged with public art, and is doing some great things there. Suzie Aron, the president of the Crossroads Community Association, was also on that panel.

Crossroads is a section really in the center of Kansas City that previously had been very run down, and is now thriving as a result of the arts. I did get a tour of Crossroads and all that?s going on there in the arts. It?s very exciting. David Hughes of the Charlotte Street Foundation, one of the arts pioneers there, was our guide for that, and he knows every nook and cranny of Kansas City as it relates to the arts.

We also took a tour of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and I was lucky enough to have as my host for that Julia Kauffman, who is an amazing woman. She is warm, she?s smart, and she cares about the arts. The center is still under construction and expected to open in the fall. I?m going to try to get there if I can for that opening. That?s going to be a big deal. I have to tell you---the structure is bold. It?s architecturally exciting. It?s original and different, and does not look like anything you?ve seen. I think it?s going to be a great symbol of downtown Kansas City going forward, no doubt about it.

The next day at the Downtown Kansas City Council Annual Luncheon was amazing. It was the most people I?d ever spoken to, about a thousand people. You could hardly see to the end of the room with all the tables, it was so vast. So once I digested that, I was able to give my keynote speech. During the luncheon, I sat next to Shirley Helzberg, who has been a major patron and supporter of the arts. In fact, one of the performing spaces at the Kauffman Center is named for her. She was a neat person to meet. She?s incredible, and someone I?m looking forward to getting to know more.

I also visited the Kansas City Rep. They have a beautiful new theater and what?s interesting about that is that it?s housed in an office building that is the headquarters of H&R Block. And, essentially, when they built this building, they built a theater into the building. It?s a beautiful, state-of-the-art theater; they do work that is of national prominence, and my only regret is that I didn?t see one of their productions. Eric Rosen who runs the theater is a top director and a visionary in the field, and I?m looking forward to seeing something that they do.

You know, I feel a great affinity with people in Kansas City. I grew up across the state in St. Louis. These are Midwesterners. We?re direct; what you see is what you get. The people there could not have been more welcoming, they could not have been warmer. I can?t wait to go back and meet more of them and see more things.

I have to say I was surprised by how spread out Kansas City is. It poses a challenge because there?s not as concentrated a downtown as there is in some cities. It?s more of a car city, and they don?t have subways or light rail or anything like that. So, it?s a little more of a challenge to get to the different places, and I think that?s something they need to address. But I was surprised at how thriving the arts scene is there. They?re very strong, of course, in music, with the long tradition there. But there are also the visual arts and theater. It was very encouraging to see all that?s going on there.

I think there?s more collaboration there among the arts organizations than you get in many places. And the business community is on board---they really recognize the role of arts in rebuilding these neighborhoods and in transforming Kansas City, especially downtown. The chairman of the board of the Kansas City Rep, William C. Nelson, is someone who really understands. And of course as I already mentioned, Bill Dietrich, first and foremost.

Increasingly our grant making is going to be centered on the relation of arts to neighborhoods, to communities, to community development, and I think that?s something that?s already underway in Kansas City. The arts institutions really get that already. So, we need to just encourage them to do what they?re already doing and be supportive of them.

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