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Paul Tyler, an 'emotional heart' of Kansas City's arts community, dies at 68

Paul Tyler was a tireless supporter of artists in Kansas
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Paul Tyler was a tireless supporter of artists in Kansas City. He died last week at the age of 68.

Tyler joined the local arts scene more than 20 years ago, and worked to form links between artists and the organizations supporting them. The Kansas City arts community he helped build is now mourning his death.

Paul Tyler, a tireless supporter of artists in Kansas City, died last week at the age of 68.

For more than two decades, Tyler helped artists and arts organizations in the region thrive and flourish by providing financial support, information, guidance and coaching. Tyler believed a thriving arts community benefits everyone, and he worked to form links between artists and the organizations supporting them.

Tyler died at him home on May 30, according to his online obituary.

For many artists in Kansas City, Tyler's death represents the losing of a hero.

Tyler arrived in Kansas City in 2001, just after the September 11 attacks, he told KCUR in a 2016 interview. He came to the metro from Richmond, Virginia, where he had been deputy director at the Virginia Commission for the Arts and general manager of the Richmond Ballet.

Once here, Tyler integrated himself into a community with strong connections to the arts through a web of cultural institutions.

Tyler was an early supporter of Octarium, the vocal group founded by Krista Lang Blackwood in 2003, who said he found vital funding for the emerging group.

"I remain forever grateful that he believed in me and the musical product I was trying to create," Blackwood said. "If you consider the impact Octarium had, and continues to have through recordings, his support ripples far beyond the 13 years Octarium created live music."

Sometime in 2008, Tyler and the Charlotte Street Foundation's David Hughes realized local artists needed help managing the business side of their practices and promoting their work.

Tyler got to work, and was fundamental to the creation and expansion of Artist INC, a seven-week workshop series launched in 2009 to address the business needs and challenges artists face every day.

Paul Tyler and Diane Scott during a break in teaching an Artist INC session 2011. Scott is now Director of Artist Services and Director of Organizational Development at Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Chris Dahlquist
Paul Tyler and Diane Scott during a 2011 break in teaching an Artist INC session.

The program started as partnership of several organizations, including ArtsKC, the Charlotte Street Foundation and the UMKC Innovation Center. It eventually expanded to include six states in the region, and is now managed by Mid-America Arts Alliance. Before its launch, there was no roadmap for creating a professional development course for artists.

"He was literally involved in every word on every page or slide of the curriculum, in every decision, and every single facilitator or subject matter expert," said Diane Scott, formerly of the UMKC Innovation Center.

Part of Tyler's legacy, Scott said, are the connections Artist INC alumni made over the years. Many of those artists have gone on to become important members of other organizations around the metro.

"People look at artists in Kansas City in a different way now because they see them as having so many profound connections with each other," Scott said. "It's impressive all the growth and change that artists can make when they're working together."

Artist INC is now heading into its 15th year, and almost 2,000 artists have participated. The success has spawned sister programs to support and train more artists, like Artists 360, Artist INC Express, Interchange and Catalyze.

"Paul was always the emotional heart of everything we did," Scott said. "He was the soul of that spirit."

As a former grants director of the regional arts council ArtsKC, Tyler was tasked with distributing funds to artists and arts organizations for 14 years.

Scott said Tyler felt that applying for a grant should be a learning experience for an artist. He often gave them constructive criticism so they'd be successful the next time.

"He wrote individual, detailed letters to every applicant who applied and didn’t get in, and followed up with actual support for improving the next application," Scott said.

"A strong, thriving arts community is kind of like a net,” Tyler told KCUR in 2016. “It can reach out and harvest great riches back to the community, and yet when any individual part of the net is frayed or torn or broken, it leaves a hole and it’s hard to mend. It means something’s getting away."

Kansas City guitarist and Ensemble Ibérica leader Beau Bledsoe called Tyler an important mentor for him, early on.

"Paul said a few kind things to me that gave me the confidence to do what I’m doing now," Bledsoe said. "Our arts community has his energy embedded in every medium and, most importantly, he just consistently showed up."

The poet and muralist Jose Faus remembered meeting Tyler for the first time after a presentation, shortly after Tyler had moved to Kansas City.

"He smiled broadly, shook my hand and gave a gentle squeeze of the elbow," Faus said, recalling Tyler's gentle way of putting people at ease.

"Funny how I came to identify those little squeezes like little hugs," he said. "Dude was genuine and passionate about the arts and artists, and I’m saddened as many who knew him are now."

In 2010, Tyler received an Urban Hero Awardfrom the Downtown Council of Kansas City. The award recognizes people who are passionate about making that neighborhood a more vibrant place to live, work, play and visit. When Tyler retired from ArtsKC in 2014, then-Mayor Sly James issued a proclamation in recognition of his work.

But Tyler was never one to enjoy the spotlight. Diane Scott said Tyler felt more comfortable working behind the scenes.

When she learned of Tyler's death, Scott looked for photos of him during their work together, but she discovered she didn't have any.

"The idea that I didn't have any pictures of him at all was just like: How is that possible?" Scott said.

"For the first five years Paul was always there but, as I considered further, it made sense," Scott said. "He was always there in the background, quietly providing support."

As facilitator for the Artist INC program, photographer Chris Dahlquist saw firsthand the the quiet way Tyler worked behind the scenes. Dahlquist said Tyler became a mentor, collaborator and trusted colleague over the years.

"The difference Paul made in the lives of artists, myself included, can’t be overstated," Dahlquist said. "He was a true champion, he connected the dots, he watered fledgling ideas and projects, planted seeds, and the ripples and impact are immeasurable."

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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