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New art center opens in 18th and Vine district: ‘It was destined that we should have a gallery there’

A man stands in front of a colorful painting of a man playing saxophone.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Michael Brantley stands in front his portion of the exhibit "A Benediction from the Rubble'' at the new Zhou B Art Center.

Now open in the old Crispus Attucks School, the Zhou B Art Center brings free exhibitions to the public, beginning with a show that combines local and international artists.

There’s one word Kansas City-based artist Michael Brantley thinks of when he sees the brand new Zhou B Art Center in the 18th and Vine District: scale.

When you walk into the building, “light is coming in from every angle,” Brantley notes. The tall ceilings and concrete floors give artists room to spread out and get messy with their creations and let the work speak for itself when displayed.

“This center is where I need it now, 18th and Vine,” Brantley says. “It was destined that we should have a gallery there — you feel different when you walk in. When I walk into the facility, I actually feel like I'm there to do art.”

The $27 million art center opened Saturday in the previously abandoned Crispus Attucks School, with 45 artist studios, multiple gallery and event spaces and a 30,000-foot sculpture garden in the works.

The project began in October 2022 as an extension of the Zhou B Art Centers in Chicago and Beijing, created by artists ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou as a way to nurture artists and bring more exhibitions to the public.

Art hanging on a wall sits next to a doorway where an artist's studio is inside the door.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
The Zhou B Art Center has 45 artists' studios in addition to its exhibition and event space. The center's foundation subsidizes some studios to help artists focus on their work.

The Zhou brothers first came to Kansas City in 2017 on an invitation from Allan Gray, an equity partner with the center and the former chairman of the Missouri Arts Council and Arts KC. Gray took the pair to various art scenes around the city, including 18th and Vine, where the Attucks school caught their attention.

“I was surprised that they would bring it to the Midwest because we're usually a flyover state and that's why a lot of us don't get the recognition we deserve,” Brantley says. “I think that this facility will bring a more international appeal.”

Art Director Izzy Vivas says the center came together with “a lot of love” from a relatively small team. She hopes it becomes a new hub for visual and performing arts.

“There's art all over Kansas City — it's not just in one neighborhood, it's everywhere,” Vivas says. “Having this space in the 18th and Vine District that has historically been known for so much creativity, I think we'll expand the geography of what people think when they think where art is.”

A woman with long brown hair stands in front of a massive painting that features a red abstract design.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Izzy Vivas has been the art director of the West 18th Street Fashion Show for six years. She says the opportunity to be the art director at the new Zhou B Art Center is her "dream job."

Brantley says the center will shake things up in Kansas City’s art scene by changing who has access to art and where they go to see it – especially for Black artists. Even after having his art shown in an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Brantley says he still finds it hard to get the recognition he feels he deserves.

The goal of the center is to bring together international artists with local ones to get their art seen by people who would not otherwise see their work or even be in Kansas City.

That effort is reflected in the first exhibit, curated by Emmy-award-winning actor CCH Pounder who used her collection for the show. Alongside Brantley, Harold Smith, Robert Hale and Tony Ramos are featured for their connection to Kansas City either through their art or location.

“They're going to see my color,” Brantley says. “They're going to see some of my best work, my earliest work. They're going to see my latest work. They're going to see my technique. In each corner, they’re going to get a different delight.”

Paintings hang in a room with large windows and hardwood floors.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
The Zhou B Art Center's first exhibition, curated by actor CCH Pounder, is called "A Benediction from the Rubble" and is a nod to the work it took to restore the historic Attucks School. Some of Michael Brantley's paintings, including "The First Lady of Song" (center), are featured.

Vivas says the exhibit is just one way the center is working to engage with the surrounding community. It will host educational programs to make art more accessible and allow artists to share larger studio spaces to encourage collaboration and lower costs.

The new Zhou B Art Foundation will subsidize some studios so those artists can create without the stress of worrying about funding. The center will also participate in 18th and Vine’s First Fridays events.

According to Vivas, the enormous space is meant to be a way for artists and the community to come together to grow Kansas City’s art scene. With the center finally open, Vivas says she hopes people will “come curious” to learn more.

“This first exhibition, ‘A Benediction from the Rubble,’ is talking about revival in correlation to the renovation of the Crispus Attucks School,” Vivas says. “This school sat vacant for 20 years, and the exhibition is an homage to the renovation of this building that would have otherwise been demolished.”

‘“A Benediction from the Rubble,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through Sept. 1 at the Zhou B Art Center, 1801 E. 18th St., 816-208-4300.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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