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Arts & Life

No Longer Able To Afford The Crossroads, Kansas City Artists Once Again Pioneer New Neighborhoods

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Laura Spencer
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KCUR 89.3
(left to right) Property co-owner Paul Migliazzo and artist Davin Watne stand inside the entry at 1328 Agnes in Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City's relatively new problem of affordable housing is also squeezing artists out of studios.

That's especially noticeable in the Crossroads Arts District, which was a mostly abandoned area south of downtown when artists began to establish galleries and studios there in the mid-1980s. Their arrival signaled the beginning of the neighborhood's revival, but now the Crossroads' days as the center of the city’s arts community may be coming to an end.

"It's like the Crossroads is 'careful what you wish for,' you know? It’s super successful," says artist Davin Watne. "But now, it’s the same old story. You know, artists have been displaced."

In 2014, Watne, a studio art lecturer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, co-founded KunstraumKC, a collective that offered affordable rent ranging from $150 to $300 for two dozen artist studios at 1523 Oak in the East Crossroads.

KunstraumKC closed in June after a five-year run when Paul Migliazzo and his brother, John, decided to sell the building, which they'd bought around 2002 for their digital printing company — before the Crossroads was packed with shops, restaurants, studios and galleries and First Fridays boomed.

RELATED: How Kansas City's Crossroads Became An Artist District, And The Story Behind First Fridays

"The neighborhood just got to the point where the property was worth real money," says Paul Migliazzo. "We either needed to invest in the property or find someone that was willing to invest in the property. So we sold it and started this whole process."

By "this whole process," he means creating another space and teaming with Watne to invite other artists in.

Migliazzo, his brother, and his brother-in-law wanted to re-invest. They purchased a building at 1328 Agnes on the city's east side that once housed the traffic division and backup dispatch for the Kansas City Police Department.

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Work is in progress at this building at 1328 Agnes to turn it into affordable artist studios by late summer.

Plans call for affordable artist studios, a meeting room, and a gallery. There's also the potential for a performing arts space and music rehearsal studios as well as arts-related businesses. 

"Rather than developing 45,000 square feet and then hoping people show up, we’re going to do it in pieces, and try to fill it," Migliazzo said. "Because, you know, candidly, this is not the Crossroads. We’re a mile and a half down the road. There’s going to be some getting used to here as opposed to there."

The first phase starts with 15,000 square feet, with 40 artist studios, for new and established artists, on two floors.

"So if your budget is $150 a month, up to $500, $600 a month," Watne said, "we’ve got a space for you that’ll fit your size and your budget." 

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
There's a lot of work ahead, but studios will line the windows of two floors of the building at 1328 Agnes.

Both Watne and Migliazzo envision the site, expected to open in late summer, as a new destination.

"There's a lot of potential for artists to help create activity and other business districts in Kansas City and surrounding communties," says Bob Long, senior development services specialist with the economic development corporation of Kansas City.

"But it does tend to then kind of trigger a wave of redevelopment activity," he adds. "And that can lead to displacement and gentrification." 

Long is helping Migliazzo navigate an urban renewal plan, which has a potential of up to 10 years of tax abatement for the property. He also worked closely with the Crossroads Neighborhood Association on the Crossroads PIEA, which provides tax abatement for arts-related businesses in the arts district. In 2016, a 50% tax abatement for artists was extended for 15 years.

"But then," he cautioned, "you need to be planning for the future as well." 

And last year, many artists were scrambling after buildings went up for sale in the Crossroads, East Crossroads and Midtown.

For most artists, studios aren't a luxury; they're a necessity. A January session of GUILDit, which hosts forums and panels on the arts and business, focused on the challenges of affordable studio space.

Dylan Mortimer, known for his glitter-adorned works, described how the Drugstore Studios inside the former Katz Drugstore at 39th and Main were barebones, but cheap — about $75 a month.

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Artist Dylan Mortimer (at center) was one of the panelists for a January GUILDit event at 21c Museum Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, called 'Vanishing Studios: Can we reverse the trend?'

"We knew it wasn’t going to last forever," he said. But the Drugstore did last — as studio spaces for several dozen artists —  for seven years until Redeemer Fellowship, who'd bought the property at auction, decided to sell and the Drugstore closed last August. 

Mortimer found a space inside Townsend Communications on East Gregory, a building that also houses KC Studio.

Some artists have turned to working from home.

Rachelle Gardner-Roe, who creates sculptural vessels and textile works, has worked out of several different studio spaces in the metro, including a Charlotte Street Foundation studio residency in downtown Kansas City. For now, her primary studio is her apartment in Mission, Kansas, a location she shares with her husband and cats.

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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Gardner-Roe's sits in her studio at her home in Mission, Kansas. Soon, she'll be moving it to the West Bottoms.

"And so I've basically taken over what would be a dining room and it is very obviously a studio right when you walk in," she says. 

Working at home can cut down on costs, but it also has its downsides. For example, gearing up for a solo show in October at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Gardner-Roe says, was a challenge. 

"It spread, it spread over the entire area," she says. "I had six-foot pieces hanging in the kitchen. I had sections of work under construction on our chaise lounge in the bedroom."

Now, she’s moving her studio to the West Bottoms, where another artist has rented one floor of a building and plans to rent out studio space to other artists.

Gardner-Roe says she’s looking forward to more collaboration.

"So I think it will be great. Not only another textile artist, but two video artists and a painter," she says. "So we’ll have quite a lovely mix in there."

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Union Studios, an artist-run gallery and studio space, is in a former post office in the north section of Kansas City's West Bottoms. It's housed other galleries through the years, such as Green Door and the Post Office.

That sense of community is one thing besides affordability that artists have to consider when it comes to studios. There are also factors such as room to spread out and natural light. 

Union Studios, a former post office in the West Bottoms, has six artist studios upstairs with a common gallery space. Current mid-career artists are Miki Baird, Cory Imig, Marcie Miller Gross, Armin Muhsam and Caleb Taylor; Marie Bannerot McInerney will be relocating to Studios, Inc. for a three-year residency.

"They were all artists that I really admired and felt I related to aesthetically," said Imig, the last artist to move in, who just received a Charlotte Street Foundation visual artist award. 

Union Studios is run by James Woodfill, a professor in the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute, and his partner Kirsten Gustafson.

On the ground floor, Woodfill has kept a studio, office and shop for the last six years.

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Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Artist Jim Woodfill is in his studio and office in the ground floor of Union Studios.

"I like being in the West Bottoms," says Woodfill. "It’s a wonderful place and we’ve developed a big, a thriving kind of little micro-community here that I think is really worth trying to preserve and maintain."

It helps, he says, that Gustafson, a freelance designer and yoga teacher, owns the building and plans to keep it as an arts-space.

Something that's becoming more difficult for artists in the Crossroads.

"We hit a real sweet spot in the last 20 years with the Crossroads," Woodfill says. "But then a lot of people are trying to hang on to that, that nature of the Crossroads. As it turns out, that's very hard to do."

Despite what feels like a crunch for artists right now, there are still opportunities, he says, to carve out new territory. As rents rise throughout the city, it's once again the artists who are finding the most affordable spaces.

"Like we always have," Woodfill says. "And I think if you start down that path, then you realize that this city is vast and there are all kinds of places to go."

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

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