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Mayor Proposes Three-Day Kansas City Arts Festival In Swope Park, Targets Next Fall

Courtesy Kansas City Missouri City Hall

Mayor Sly James asked a Kansas City Council committee on Wednesday to recommend spending $250,000 to begin planning for a three-day arts festival to take place in Swope Park next September.

Those funds would go toward hiring of a project manager who would spend the next year developing the festival, which would include visual, performing, and digital arts, as well as an educational component, all taking advantage of the assets in Swope Park: Starlight Theatre, the park's pavilion, and the Southeast Community Center.

Selecting artists and determining the logistics would be up to a committee of curators and others who would advise the city's Office of Culture and Creative Services.

In developing the proposal, staffers at City Hall studied attendance numbers, economic impact and other aspects of famous festivals in other cities, including Austin's South by Southwest, Boston's First Night, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Art Festival and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California — all of which draw tens or hundreds of thousands of people (Boston's First Night draws a million).

But James promised that this "signature" festival would be uniquely Kansas City.

"We're not going to try to duplicate Chicago's jazz festival, we're not going to be New Orleans, we're not going to be Baltimore, we're not going to be all these other places. We're going to be Kansas City and do it the Kansas City way, and out of that we will grow our own brand and identity," James told the council's Finance and Governance Committee.

"Nobody is going to come to Kansas City to see the same thing they saw in Chicago," James added. "They're going to come to Kansas City and we're going to showcase our stuff."

Swope Park is the perfect place for the festivities, James said. Not only is it one of the largest urban parks in the nation, but it is owned by the city, centrally located near bus routes and has ample parking.

Other factors also made it ideal.

"If we're going to start to move this city beyond some of the divisions we have, that is a very good way to do it," James said, noting that the arts bring people together.

Credit Courtesy Kansas City Missouri City Hall
In presenting his vision for a city arts festival, Kansas City Mayor Sly James included photos of strangers gathering such over a community meal at a half-mile-long table at an event in St. Paul.

"People from all over the city, whether black or white, will find something that interests them there," he said. "And having people in close connectivity and contact with each other in this way, in that kind of a setting, can only make this city better help to alleviate some of the strains and tensions that are floating in the air not only in Kansas City but around the country."

The idea for such an event is not new. It was part of the city's 2013 KCMO Arts Convergence Plan, compiled by the Mayor's Task Force on the Arts, which James convened in 2011. Kansas City also participated in 18 months of meetings, surveys and other fact-finding activities that contributed to a five-county OneArtsKC Regional Cultural Plan released last year.

James' request to use Neighborhood and Tourism Development Funds was an unusual one for the Finance Committee to consider, said its chair, 1st District Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner.

"Typically if one goes to NDTF, they have a fully realized vision of the event, they have their sponsors lined up. They have their budget already made and then they make their request," Wagner said, who wondered how this still unformed event would be vetted through Kansas City's financial and compliance processes.

James said the request-for-proposals process would allow the city to identify people who know how to put on such events.

"We tell them what we're looking for, and that we want them to match their expertise on logistics, details and policies and procedures with our vision of what we want it to look like," James said. The council would then have an opportunity to vet those ideas as the process develops, he said.

And, James suggested, the initial request for funding would likely not be the last one.

"Whenever we go to a sponsor and say, 'We want you to sponsor some part of an event, the first thing they want to know is, 'What's your skin in the game?' We are responsible for putting together the infrastructure, so that when we go to sponsors and say, 'This is what we want you to sponsor,' we can show them what we're talking about."

Despite whatever sponsorships the city is able to obtain, the event will not be free.

The committee approved the proposal. The full City Council will consider it on Thursday, October 6. If it approves, a request for proposals from prospective project managers would go out immediately, said Jim Giles, the mayor's director of council and community relations.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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