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Kansas City Pulled Off A Huge Citywide Arts Festival — Organizers Say That Alone Is A Success

C.J. Janovy
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra performs at the Swope Park Pavilion in late August as part of Open Spaces.

For 62 days this fall, Kansas City was blanketed in the arts. The citywide Open Spaces festival included 200 artists, local and national, who shared paintings, sculptures, photography, music, theatrical performances, choreographed pieces and installations of all sizes.

The first event of its kind in Kansas City, Open Spaces was intended to be a biennial event, putting the city on a larger map, for visitors from all over to see, experience and buy art.

Now that it’s over, the festival’s artistic director and curator, Dan Cameron, told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann that it was a success by his measure.

Cameron said he had experienced “sublime and transcendental” moments through art that made him stop and focus “in a different way on what it means to be a thinking, living, breathing human being in this moment in this place in the world.”

He wanted to give other people the same opportunity for those encounters, he said. And every day for two months, he said, someone found him to say that they’d had such a moment.

Belger Arts gallery assistant Mo Dickens said he made a point of seeing as many exhibitions as possible. He told Kaufmann he attended about 90 percent of what was offered, including seven visits to Nick Cave’s installation “Hy-Dyve.” With 6,000 guests, it was the most-visited exhibition.

Dickens said Cave’s work was a success not only by the numbers, but also in that it sent visitors to a little-known, abandoned Catholic church at Linwood and Benton, one of many such underused but deserving sites Cameron scouted around the city.

On his first visit to the church, Dickens said, he parked in the wrong place and had trouble finding the entrance. Once he finally entered the building, total silence greeted him.

“Then I opened the vestibule door and all heck was breaking loose. It was quite a moment when you walk in there, and there’s water rushing across the floor, there’s like giant chicken heads and giant eyeballs winking at you and flashing on the walls of the church,” he said. “Then there’s the giant lifeguard’s chair at the far end, and you walk up there and you still see mosaics from the church days. There was just so much going on. It was such an intense experience.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Visitors took a moment for quiet contemplation at Ebony Patterson's installation '...called up' at Swope Park, one of many works sprinkled throughout the city as a part of Open Spaces.

The event was not without problems. The most noteworthy trouble spot was “The Weekend,” a three-day music event at Starlight Theater with headliners The Roots on Friday and pop star and Kansas City native Janelle Monae on Saturday.

The idea was that Open Spaces enthusiasts would buy tickets for Friday through Sunday and attend all 11 performances at Starlight. However, attendance was much lower than hoped for at the 8,000-seat outdoor venue; only a couple hundred fans showed up for the opening-night performance by The Roots.

“It’s tough for an audience member to see, and it’s got to be disheartening for the artist onstage to look out and see so many empty seats,” said journalist April Fleming, who covered The Weekend for The Pitch.

Outside factors didn’t help. The weather was stormy that weekend, and Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran were performing at venues that were not part of Open Spaces. But Fleming said The Weekend was poorly promoted, and ticket prices kept away fans who otherwise might have enjoyed attending all three evenings — a weekend pass was $350.

But judging the success or failure of the ambitious endeavor depends on how it’s viewed and by whom. Open Spaces was part of a political effort; it was part of a philanthropic effort; it was an effort in the name of art; it could even be seen as a social experiment.

In 2015, Kansas City Mayor Sly James created the Office of Culture and Creative Services, a direct outcome of the 2011 Mayor’s Task Force for the Arts of Kansas City.

The city website states that the new office was created to “serve Kansas City residents by bolstering and catalyzing arts, culture and creativity and by leveraging the arts as a strategy for economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and cultural vitality for its citizens.”

The first concrete result of this challenging goal was the almost equally formidable Open Spaces. The event’s organization was the result of a partnership between businesses, the community, politicians and philanthropists.

“I think we sometimes get caught up in attendance numbers and the newest information, but I think with this particular project it’s important to go back to the beginning and realize our number-one measure of success is that fact that we staged the event itself,” Kansas City’s director of city communications, Chris Hernandez told KCUR.

“I think that what happens when you try to do something the first time like this, is you really go as far as you can to give something for everyone. You try to please everyone,” Cameron told Kaufmann.

Cameron said he now wonders if they overreached on the total number of performances, not just during The Weekend but throughout the festival.

“I may have said, just for example: ‘Yes, we have ten weekends for Open Spaces, but do we need to have every single weekend with performances at Swope (Park)?’ We did this to make sure the mayor’s original idea was adhered to, was honored. Maybe six weekends instead of 10 would have worked just as well.”

Ultimately, Cameron said he viewed the majority of players as happy with the total effect.

Kansas Citians he spoke to who had really “plugged in” to Open Spaces, he said, “came away feeling that their city is so fantastic that this idea of contemporary art was so great.”

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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