Art Works Blog

Postcard from Arkansas and Kansas: Part Two

Here I am with Saralyn Reece Hardy, who directed the NEA's museums and visual arts programs from 1999-2002. Saralyn's now the director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

As I wrote on Friday, this month’s Art Works tour was to Arkansas and Kansas. I started off in Arkansas, and you can read all about those visits here. We kicked off the Kansas part of the trip on Wednesday, March 14 in Topeka, where we were hosted by Mary Kennedy McCabe, director of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, one of our great regional partners. I was thrilled to have Mary with us for all of our Kansas stops. We began with a tour of the North Topeka Arts District. Before the walking part of the tour, I met Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten, who has been mayor there for some time, and Dr. Jerry Farley, who’s the president of Washburn University and has evidently done a great job of developing the impact and reputation of that university.

Dr. Farley has been the recent co-chair of the Heartland Visioning Project, which is the whole concept of revitalizing North Topeka through the arts. There are some great old and traditional buildings there, but the neighborhood has sort of fallen into if not disrepair then a certain kind of inertia. They’re talking about using the arts and artists to bring this neighborhood back to life. One of the planned activities is there’s going to be a regular outdoor public art show. They’re taking some of these old buildings, and creating galleries and artist housing out of them. We actually had our meetings in one of the refurbished galleries; there are already several that have been created. John Hunter and Anita Wolgast, who are co-chairs of what they’re calling the NOTO Arts District, were our hosts for the tour, and they are the driving force behind the incipient arts district. Just to see what John and Anita have done with this neighborhood and what they’re going to do with this neighborhood---hopefully with some engagement with the NEA down the road---was very heartening, it really was.

We met with some of the key stakeholders in NOTO---Doug Kensinger, the CEO of the Topeka Chamber of Commerce and Shelly Bueler, the Shawnee County commissioner. Another person in that meeting was Barry Feaker, the executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission. One of the things that John Hunter talked about was that when you’re trying to revitalize or re-conceive a district, the first thing most people would want to do is get rid of the rescue mission because that immediately signals “bad neighborhood,” but they’ve done just the opposite. They’ve engaged the rescue mission, and the rescue mission has been very generous and welcoming to them in the neighborhood. There’s a real partnership there. It’s unusual to see a rescue mission and community developers working hand in hand in the kind of spirit with which they’re doing it in North Topeka. This was enlightening to see; it’s not the usual template. I also met with local artists and business property owners so it was almost a kind of town hall of North Topeka. Everybody said what was on their mind. They talked about the issues they were facing, and the challenges they had. I’m very optimistic that I’m going to be able to go back there in a year and see a very different North Topeka. It’s really an exceptional effort there and we want to be part of that going forward. (By the way, I had the best pie I’ve ever had at one of the cafes there!)

Later that day we had a panel discussion about creative placemaking in Topeka moderated by John Hunter and featuring some local arts leaders. Marie Pyko, who’s a great friend of the NEA’s from The Big Read and the Public Services director of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, was on the panel, as well as Judith Sabatini, who’s an artist, developer, philanthropist, and activist. Judith has launched an arts funding organization called ArtsConnect, and she’s very engaged with this community. Our panelists also included Joan Morrell, who runs the Topeka Children’s Discovery Theatre, and Shannon Reilly, who runs the Topeka Civic Theatre, which is a community theater. We had a good back and forth discussion with the panel members and the audience. Everybody was pretty expressive about the issues that they face and the things on their minds.

On Thursday we went on to Lawrence, again with our invaluable host Mary Kennedy McCabe. We started at the Lawrence Art Center with Susan Tate, who’s the director. She’s been doing this for only a couple of years, and she’s already transformed the art center. She is a real prize with incredible energy and sense of mission. Susan was really inspiring; she really has taken the arts center to the next level and she has lots of plans for the future. Susan literally walked us out of her back door and down the alley to Percolator, which I would say is a community art association. Basically, people are invited to just come in and do their thing---to express themselves, to say what they want to say, and they get some support. There’s indoor and outdoor space where they can exhibit, where they can work, where they can meet. And it’s an artist community in every sense of that word. At Percolator, we met Dave Loewenstein, a noted mural painter, who has murals not only throughout Kansas but also in Missouri and Oklahoma and all over the country. We had an outdoor discussion right in the Percolator yard, and I met a wide cross-section of Percolator board members and really got to see how artists can engage and change a community.

We then went on to a tour of the Spencer Museum of Art. As luck would have it, the director of the museum is Saralyn Reece Hardy, who used to be here at the NEA in charge of museum grants. I think she knows more about the NEA than I do, and it was great to talk to her about her time at the agency and about her work at the Spencer. She is a total dynamo---incredible energy, incredible commitment---and she is making a big difference at the museum without a doubt. She is very much committed to that museum and to that community, and she’s doing a fantastic job, she really is.

After a brief tour of the museum, we then had a discussion on creative placemaking moderated by Saralyn. This was actually one of our more interesting panels because it wasn’t just the usual suspects of community arts leaders. We had a different kind of group. We had Bob Berkebile, who is a partner in an architectural firm, Jay Johnson, who’s a geography professor at the University of Kansas, Dave Loewenstein, and Daniel Wildcat, who is the director of the American Indian Studies program at Haskell Indian Nations University. We also had Susanne Wise, who’s the executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council. We had not only a very interesting discussion back and forth, but also, in terms of engagement with the audience, it was one of the higher-level and more provocative discussions we’ve had with some tough, difficult questions and some challenging questions.

What made this particular panel unique to me is that I think we had a broader-based discussion about the role of art generally, not just in terms of our typical subject of creative placemaking, but on the role and the value of the arts generally in people’s lives. Anything that concerned art and people’s engagement with it, not just the more utilitarian aspects of art, but art as fundamental to our humanity, these kind of questions, were engaged there, and it was just one of those conversations that I left wishing it could have gone longer. This is the part of my job that I enjoy the most---when there’s intellectual challenge, when there’s a kind of genuine, unedited discussion. The panel could have gone on for another hour, unfortunately I had to leave to catch a plane back East. The abrupt ending notwithstanding, it was a very, very stimulating and productive panel and really a wonderful trip.

Visit our NEA Arts archive to browse our slideshow of work by Dave Loewenstein, part of our issue on creative placemaking in rural areas.

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