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Forty Years Ago, Some Kansas City Painters Put Out A Flier 'Calling All Artists' — And It Worked

Julie Denesha
Artists Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak put out the call for artists when they had a studio in the River Quay.

A meeting of artists in the River Market four decades ago was the spark that ignited the Kansas City Artists Coalition, which brings visual artists together through curated exhibits and mentors them in their art practice.

On a recent Saturday morning, the organization's executive director, Janet Simpson, greeted artists as they dropped off their work for the fortieth anniversary show. Simpson has been working full-time at the Coalition since 1989.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Paintings and artworks lean against the walls as artists drop off their work for the River Market Regional Invitational Exhibition.

“We expect artists to be artists,” says Simpson. “We want them to pursue their career. If we give an exhibition to an artist, member or not, our expectation and hope is that they will continue their work, and that our commitment to them and our gift of our resources to them is of value and is something that will help promote their career.”

Few imagined that this league of artists would last as long as it has, not even its founders, the married artists Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak.

Bennett says when she arrived from Nebraska in 1956, Kansas City had its big art institutions like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Kansas City Art Institute and corporations like Hallmark Cards. But few local galleries featured contemporary work. Bennett says she wanted to meet other artists and build an arts community.

“I thought it was just important to get all these people together and make belligerent conviction of their art, by God,” says Bennett with a laugh.

Credit Julie Denesha
Executive Director Janet Simpson leads a discussion about studio visits at the Kansas City Artists Coalition.

That first meeting took place in a studio in an old brick building in the River Market, known then as the River Quay.

“We decided we’d put out a paper saying, ‘Calling all artists, we’re having a meeting, and we don’t know who you are, but we want to meet you all, blah blah blah, whatever it was,” says Bennett. “And we sent this out and we went down there thinking we’d have two people. It was packed. We couldn’t even get in the door.”

Marak says he was surprised to discover that there was so much interest.

“People were taking it seriously, which was kind of a shock,” Marak says. “Because up until then it was everybody had fun and all of a sudden it was taking off and it was kind of amazing to watch it.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Assistant Director Marissa Starke (from left) shows intern Amy Hixson the ropes as she inventories works in a show they are taking down.

Bennett says the goal was to find a way to engage artists locally.

“We’d all like to be in New York because New York is where you’re supposed to go,” says Bennett.“But we’re not, so why don’t we just do something here? Because if we don’t, they’ll just pass us right over and go right on into Houston or to Dallas or something.”

So, what began as an informal group has become much more over the last four decades.

“I think the reason we’re still here 40 years into it is that we changed as it dictated or demanded or as we see it is necessary,” Simpson says. “We’re very flexible in figuring out what it is artists in the community want and need.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Executive Assistant Erin Hall sands the gallery walls in preparation for the next show.

Bennett says the life of a working artist is difficult and the landscape is constantly shifting. But sharing this kinship with other artists sustains her.

“You know, I can’t believe it,” Bennett says. “Truly. It’s 40 years. I just can’t believe it. I never thought it would last a month. And a lot of neat things have happened for a lot of people, I think, because of it. And it just helps build a richer life for everybody.”

The Kansas City Artist Coalition celebrates its fortieth anniversary with a Block Party on Friday, August 12 from 5-10 p.m. at 201 Wyandotte Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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