Kansas City's Mid-America Arts Alliance has shared world class art with small towns for 50 years
Mid-America Arts Alliance has a relatively low-key presence in Kansas City, but it has a big impact across the Midwest — enriching cultural and creative life through exhibition programming, grant making and professional development for artists.
Art McSweeney is on the front lines of the Mid-America Arts Alliance's mission to get more art in front of more people.
"We’re trying to get people to know about art and what’s out there,” McSweeney says. “I'd say we were more of an educational organization."
As fabrication and preparation manager, McSweeney oversees the assembly of art for ExhibitsUSA, the nonprofit's traveling exhibition program.
His latest job is preparing to frame artwork for an exhibit called “Hemingway in Comics,” which explores the American novelist as a 20th century pop culture icon.
“We do framing and then packing and shipping,” McSweeney says.
Mid-America designs, curates and ships six exhibitions every year from its offices in the Crossroads Arts District. Since 1988, 270 exhibits have toured at 1,500 different venues in more than 980 communities. More than 25 exhibits are available at any one time, and they tour exhibit spaces both large and small.
Now in its 50th year, Mid-America Arts Alliance is the oldest nonprofit regional arts organization in the U.S.
President and CEO Todd Stein says when the organization first started work in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, the goal was to enrich cultural and creative life in the heartland.
“One of the reasons why M-AAA was created 50 years ago was to bring arts and culture to the Midwest,” Stein says.
That mission still fuels the work Stein and McSweeney do everyday.
“It's a way of providing access to arts and culture experiences that small towns don't typically have," Stein says. "We reach really tiny towns all across the United States.”
They do that with discounted exhibition fees that hundreds of venues wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Stein says bringing art to people has a real impact.
“It's the stories about interaction with arts and culture, which I think are so powerful," Stein explains. "It's a child that sees an exhibition that informs them about Japanese incarceration camps during World War II or the civil rights movements."
"Artists tell those stories. Artists lead the way,” he says.
Art on the road
David Barnes is director of the Shafer Memorial Art Gallery on the campus of Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, about four hours west of Kansas City.
In 2014, the Shafer Gallery hosted a traveling show from Mid-America called "Estamos Aquí: We Are Here," featuring work by 40 Latino artists.
"We have an increasingly growing Hispanic population," Barnes says. "They had not had much access to the gallery."
In addition to helping the Shafer Gallery acquire the show, M-AAA helped Barnes apply for grants for a cultural event tied to the exhibit. They hired a local mariachi band, food vendors and traditional Mexican dancers.
"We realized we weren't reaching out to that community. That particular show really opened the doors," Barnes says. "That was really one of the best things we've ever done here at the gallery in a long, long time."
M-AAA has expanded their work to include Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, and has awarded more than $51 million in federal and state grants to more than 18,000 cultural organizations and artists.
The nonprofit also helps teach artists how to do things like write about art, plan a budget and build a personal brand.
"You build these really strong bonds between people," says Kalyn Fay, a Cherokee and Muscogee Creek musician and visual artist who took part in Artists 360, a professional development program that helps artists deal with some of the challenges unique to art making.
Fay says connecting with other artists helped her feel like she was part of a community.
"The most important part for me is, through that program, you see that networking isn't a gross thing," says Fay, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "It's a really beautiful, community-based thing, and building long-term, sustainable relationships."
Songwriter Justin Kinkel-Schuster also benefitted from Mid-America programming. Kinkel-Schuster lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and applied in 2019 for a grant to create a studio space in his home. It turned out to be a critical time for performing artists.
“Getting the grant from M-AAA at that time really was absolutely vital to me," Kinkel-Schuster says. "That grant really helped me feel like I was starting out with a solid footing under me. I'm sure everyone says this, but it really was absolutely huge for me.”
The grant helped fund the purchase of the recording gear Kinkel-Schuster uses to record music at home. He says they're the tools he needs to highlight his voice in a region that is often given short shrift.
“The South has informed all of the writing that I've done," Kinkel-Schuster says. "It's that sort of thing that's kind of in your bones. And I think anybody who comes up in a particular area feels that way, whether it's Arkansas, Kansas City, Montana or upstate New York. If a person is an artist who pays attention to things, then you just end up absorbing that.”
Kaylyn Fay and Justin Kinkel-Schuster will perform at the Mid-America Arts Alliance's 50th anniversary Block Party, which begins at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, June 2 at 2018 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.