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Kansas City Artists Open Storefronts In Neighborhoods So More People Can 'Sit Down And Create'

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
Cynthia Hardeman runs Blackbox on Troost through a Charlotte Street StartUp Residency.

Cynthia Hardeman, a playwright, knew that families along the Troost Corridor enjoyed the Drama Time children's program that she and performer Victoria Barbee created in 2017.

The 10-week program, where kids could show up, slip into character and act out a story completely different from their own, was popular. But until a few months ago, she didn’t have a permanent address for that project, and worked out a borrowed temporary space at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Now she runs Blackbox at 40th and Troost, known as BOT. It's helped bring art to the neighborhood.

"To be able to spend time away from work, school, family responsibilities, to actually sit down and create, is a luxury that some people feel they don’t have," Hardeman says of some of the families she met.

Angie Jennings was in a similar situation. She's president of the Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography, which was founded in 1983 as the Society for Contemporary Photography. But, since coming out of an eight-year dormancy in 2015, the organization's 140 members hadn’t had a set place to meet or show their work. 

BOT and the Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography are two of four new storefronts that Charlotte Street, a nonprofit that works to bolster local artists and the community through the arts, has opened within neighborhoods that otherwise might not have access.

Credit Mason Kilpatrick / Charlotte Street
Charlotte Street
Blackbox on Troost serves the Troost Corridor and surrounding neighborhoods, but everyone is welcome.

The Society for Contemporary Photography's neighbors in the ArtsBlock building, in Pendleton Heights near Independence Avenue, are the African American Arts Collective and the Kansas City Public Theater.

Pat Alexander, Charlotte Street's programming and studio residency manager, says a lot of thought went into the two locations. He and his staff attended neighborhood meetings and listened to community officers to learn what sort of programming would be of interest to residents.

"So they're not just popping in and saying, 'We're art. We're here. Like it,'" Alexander notes. Instead, they're asking themselves, "How are you really going to interact with these communities?"

The Society for Contemporary Photography's first exhibition in the new space opened on Feb. 22 — the photos were taken by people who live near Independence Avenue. Jennings had coffee set out and the door wide open for the event.

"They were so thrilled that something was in the building that they could come to on a Saturday afternoon. They could walk down the street and say, 'Hey, let's go in the gallery and see what's up," Jennings says.

Her idea for the first exhibition started last summer when Free Film USA came through town in an Airstream trailer. For several days, they handed out film, then developed and printed photographs for anyone who returned it. But not everyone who wanted to try noticed it in time to participate.

When Jennings realized this, she rounded up some old cameras, film and batteries, and handed them out.

"It was a way to continue the excitement of shooting film that Free Film has brought to Kansas City and to engage people so they wouldn't feel left out," she says.

She gave nine people one week to document their lives, and six people completed the assignment. Only two had had experience with cameras.

"The others, they just wanted to go and photograph, and that's what I love: putting cameras in hands of people who may never have held a film camera, who had wanted to try it and shoot and see what they get," Jennings says.

Credit Angie Jennings / Angie Jennings Photography
Angie Jennings Photography
Angie Jennings is the president of the Kansas City Society of Contemporary Photography and has just moved into a storefront in the Pendleton Heights ArtBlock.

Hardeman has felt that same joy as she's watched her community on Troost participate in comedy, drama, painting and music classes at Blackbox.

Her most popular class is for children, but parents feel the excitement as well.

"They see their kids and what it does for the kids and how it makes them feel, and then they want to be involved," she says. "Maybe they never had the chance to when they were younger, but they had a heart for it."

At the end of their StartUp Residencies, which last one to two years, Charlotte Street plans to give the artists the option of taking over the lease and keeping their spaces.

In addition to free rent, Alexander says they've provided each location with a sort of mentor who knows the ropes of managing a building or setting up a nonprofit.

For anyone trying to make sense of a business for the first time, he says, "That can really kill off the dream quickly; they can burn out pretty fast."

And then the dream is over, which is exactly what Charlotte Street is trying to prevent.

Hardeman says that having a solid location is helping her tackle her mission of making art a part of everyday life for anyone who’d like that.

"I want kids to grow up in a world where art isn’t a luxury, it's an asset," Hardeman says. "Incorporating art in your life on a daily basis, whether you're reading a book, you're drawing a picture, you're dancing, that's art. You can use that as your voice to speak to the world."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf 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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