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Meet the woman now championing 400 Kansas City artists

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Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Courtney Wasson took the reins as executive director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition in October. Six months into the job, she’s hosting the organization's biggest fundraiser of the year.

This Saturday night local artworks go under the hammer as the Kansas City Artists Coalition hosts its 40th Art Auction benefit. The nonprofit’s big annual party for people who love art comes six months into the job for new Executive Director Courtney Wasson.

Courtney Wasson says the past few months have been intense.

Since becoming executive director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition six months ago, Wasson has been preparing for the organization's biggest fundraiser of the year — an annual art auction.

“This is the 40th auction," Wasson says. "This is a long-standing organization in our community, and it is important to people."

So, for weeks leading up to the Feb. 25 event, Wasson has found herself surrounded by donated artwork. On installation day in late January, it was stacked on tables and against walls in the group's Midtown gallery space at the Acme Building.

"I feel a little bit of pressure to make sure that this is successful because it is so important to so many people,” Wasson says. “We’ve already had people as we install come in and take a look around and pick their favorites.”

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Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Harold Smith’s contribution to the auction, “Rethinking JET Magazine,” is propped against the wall as artists meet during one of the Coalitions’ Saturday morning Coffee Talk sessions.

Wasson’s been in charge since October, after longtime director Marissa Starke announced she was moving to Los Angeles.

Though Wasson is relatively new in this job, she’s been a fixture in the arts scene since she was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute. Until recently, she led Studios Inc, a nonprofit in east Crossroads that provides studio space and networking opportunities for mid-career artists.

Since taking the job at Kansas City Artists Coalition, the 42-year-old has been working to get up to speed.

“I’m a doer,” Wasson says. “There's a part of me, coming on and learning this role and learning this organization, that I have a hard time allowing people to help me right now because I feel like I need to learn and know.”

The Coalition got its start with a meeting of about a hundred artists in the studio of Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak. Since 1976, it’s served as a nonprofit supporting visual artists.

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Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Exhibitions Director Cicely Jones finds an exhibition spot for a painting, as setup for the auction continues.

“We are that organization you want in your neighborhood, that diversifies your neighborhood, stabilizes and becomes a pride point for the community,” Wasson says. “In terms of the growth of a town or city, the arts are very important and public officials are recognizing that.”

Now the group includes more than 400 members and brings artists together through curated exhibits, and mentors them in their art practice.

Wasson says the organization is not rooted with one person — artists have a voice in the programming, and they want to take on responsibility.

“Artists want us to engage them,” Wasson says. “They want us to hold them accountable and offer opportunities to build their skillset, whether it's learning how to set up a budget or how to do a watercolor painting or maybe it's taking an art history class.”

For artists, the Coalition is also a place for them to learn and be inspired.

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Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Wasson marks a spot on the wall where the next artwork will go, as she prepares the gallery for the Coalition's 40th annual art auction.

Wasson says, even after decades of careful leadership, she still sees room for growth.

“It will require us to build our resources, and build the support in the community, because the foundation is like a launch pad,” Wasson says. “I think this organization — with its wonderful reputation, with its impact — is just poised to rocket-launch."

As a nonprofit gallery space, Wasson believes it’s important for her organization to take on challenging art shows that make people think.

“That’s the importance of artists as advocates,” Wasson says. “It’s that importance of being able to have spaces where you can have a message and you're not at risk of being censored.”

For this year's auction artists have donated drawings, paintings, and works in bronze and clay. There's a large painting by Harold Smith and a bronze sculpture by Tom Corbin.

With so many pieces to keep track of, Wasson says the key is to stay organized.

“Each artwork gets labeled with who donated it, and then it has to have an inventory label because we have close to 200 artworks,” Wasson says.

“It's absolutely generous of the artists who support the coalition, for them to gift these works of art for us to auction off,” Wasson says. “Basically, we're seeking a match to that generosity, so for every artist that was willing to give us an amazing work of art, we're looking for a patron who wants to take that amazing work of art home.”

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Kansas City Artists Coalition
Some of the works in the auction include, from left, "Dutch Flowers" by Ada Koch, "Mujaji’s View" by Kwanza Humphrey and "Clover" by Mike Lyon.

Wasson notes that, for any artist, putting work on the auction block can be intimidating.

“They also have to give an amount of courage and bravery," she says. "Especially if they show up to the auction ... and they're seeing how people react to their work.”

“That can be extremely terrifying and gut wrenching for an artist,” she says.

But the risks also come with rewards.

“There's a joy in it,” Wasson says. “The auction is a big annual party — a good fun time.”

The Kansas City Artists Coalition's 40th Annual Art Auction begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25 at El Torreon Event Space, 3101 Gillham Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri 64109.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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