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With Millions Of Dollars On The Line, Stakes Are High For Kansas City's Art World In 2020

Julie Denesha
James Martin, Kansas City, Missouri's new public art administrator, measures a wall at the KC Pet Project's new shelter. The city's One Percent for Art Program has funded several new animal-themed paintings by Westwood-based artist Michael Savage.

The KCUR news staff presents the State of Kansas City series as a look ahead to 2020 on topics of importance to the region. Find the State of Kansas City report on other topics in the series as they are published each weekday, Jan. 6–Jan. 20. Follow coverage on these topics at KCUR.org and on 89.3 FM throughout the year.

Kansas City’s art world is at a turning point.

A brand new public art administrator has stepped into office at Kansas City, Missouri’s City Hall — the position had been vacant for more than a year — just in time to oversee the city’s largest public-art investment in the city’s history at the new terminal under construction at Kansas City International Airport.

New people are also in key positions at the American Jazz Museum, the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the Kansas City Symphony and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

A fatal First Friday shooting might have permanently changed the nature of a monthly street party that drew tens of thousands of people to the Crossroads. The Kansas City Artists Coalition left its home of 33 years in the River Market and moved into the Acme Building at Gillham and Linwood, with plans to expand its services and reach throughout the metro. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival staged its first work not by William Shakespeare.

KCUR’s arts reporters will follow how these changes play out, and we’ll be watching for the most challenging and relevant work by metro artists. We’re also thinking about the ways art can inspire new experiences, which is why we’ve started a weekly Creative Adventure email that goes out every week — sign up here.


Besides the fact that art makes our hometown interesting and nourishes humanity, it’s also big business.

“The arts are also our area’s third largest employer, with almost 9,000 people, so talking about the impact of the arts is a cultural, economic, and workforce discussion,” says Branden Haralson of ArtsKC-Regional Arts Council. According to ArtsKC’s latest figures, spending by metro audiences totaled $96.6 million in 2015, and the industry’s total economic impact was more than $276 million.

Also, cities throughout the metro spend everyone’s money on arts and culture. Kansas City, Missouri, has devoted more than $6 million in this fiscal year's budget, including $538,532 to the office of creative services, $1,025,000 for the American Jazz Museum and $733,779 for 18th and Vine operations. It’s scheduled to spend $5.6 million for public art at the new airport terminal as part of the city's longstanding One Percent for Art program.

Cities across Johnson County, including Leawood, Lenexa, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, and Shawnee also offer public arts programs. And city leaders in Missouri cities, such as Gladstone and Liberty, set aside public funds or gallery space for art.


  • Kansas City's increasing lack of affordability puts additional pressure on artists. Last year, three artists' collectives and spaces in Midtown and the Crossroads shut down within about a month of each other (Front/Space, Open House and the Drugstore). It might have been a natural season of turnover, or we could be seeing a bigger shift due to rising real estate costs. Projects such as ArtsBlock, a mixed-income development with living and gallery spaces for artists, could help.
  • The death of Erin Langhofer on the First Friday of last August, when she was hit by a stray bullet while waiting in line at a food truck in the Crossroads Arts District, led neighborhood officials to enact immediate changes to the street festival, which draws crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 people. Decisions still need to be made about the role of food trucks, art vendors and performers on streets, sidewalks, and alleys.
  • Bentonville, Arkansas, just under four hours south of Kansas City, has become an arts (and mountain biking) hub due to the largesse of the Walmart heirs. The Momentary, a new contemporary art space and satellite to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opens in February. Look for performance festivals as well as bluegrass and roots music. Kansas City is well-represented among the 61 artists included in the first exhibition, "State of the Art 2020." And in July, Missouri native Nick Cave creates his “largest and most ambitious project yet.”
  • Renovations are drawing to a close at the Kansas City Museum’s Corinthian Hall in the city’s Historic Northeast after nearly 15 years. The museum hosts pre-opening events in the fall, with a grand re-opening in spring 2021.
  • A roster of esteemed national and local authors gather in Lawrence in April for the inaugural Paper Plains Literary Festival. Directed by Raven Bookstore owner and poet Danny Caine, supported by many of the city’s cultural institutions and inspired partly by Columbia, Missouri’s massive Unbound Book Festival, Lawrence's free, four-day festival could provide real evidence of a Kansas literary renaissance.
  • The Kansas City Art Institute should have a different footprint in its Midtown neighborhood by the end of this year. A new residence hall opens for students in January, with a restaurant and cafe open to the public. The KCAI Crossroads Gallery: Center for Contemporary Practice closed in November (the former Grand Arts space at 1819 Grand is now on the market) and should re-open on campus later this year, with space for a black box theater for student and public screenings.
  • We're highly anticipating two new books from the always timely and provocative Kansas City writer Natasha Ria El-Scari. In March, she’ll release her first novel, “Growing Up Sina,” which El-Scari describes as “a classic American coming of age story set in the 1990s.” In April, she’ll publish a “creative non-fiction poetry” chapbook written in African American dialect to honor her maternal grandmother. These are in addition to her ongoing work as curator of the nomadic Black Space Black Art gallery and her El-Scari Harvey Art Gallery and various other projects.
    Credit courtesy of Natasha Ria El-Scari
    Writer Natasha El-Scari (left) poses for a selfie with her son, Nazr. Last year, El-Scari published 'Mama Sutra: Love and Lovemaking Advice To My Son.'


65 — Age of the Barn Players, the city’s oldest community theater, known for its plays and musicals. Founded in 1955, the theater was first housed in a barn near 83rd and Mission Road, which had once been the home of 1938 Kentucky Derby winner Lawrin.
100 — The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum celebrates a century since the founding of the first successful all black baseball league at the Paseo YMCA; throughout the year, arts organizations all around town commemorate the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage; August 29 is the 100th birthday of Kansas City jazz genius Charlie Parker.
$647 — the cost of a floor-seat ticket to Cher (with a VIP hospitality package) on April 18 at the Sprint Center, Row 6 Seat 5, last time we checked.
300,000 — number of objects (at least) that will be shown for the first time in a series of spring exhibitions at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, which began collecting artifacts, yes, 100 years ago.


James Martin
Public Art Administrator, Kansas City, Missouri

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3

When Martin stepped into the job of Kansas City’s public art administrator in October, the position had been vacant since April 2018. Martin arrived just in time to oversee the largest public-art project in the city’s history, an investment of $5.6 million in art (as part of the city's longstanding One Percent for Art program) at the new single terminal project at Kansas City International Airport. Several other public art projects are also in the pipeline, after voters in April 2017 approved $800 million in general obligation or 'GO' bonds to pay for capital improvements.

Rashida Phillips
Executive Director, American Jazz Museum

Credit Silvia Ines Gonzalez

Phillips is a St. Louis native who had most recently been in Chicago, serving as senior director of community ventures of the Old Town School of Folk Music, the largest community school of the arts in the United States. She also worked with organizations such as the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Chicago Children's Museum and helped launch the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The American Jazz Museum has been without a permanent director for nearly two years, after a scathing consultant's report that called for a "complete rethinking, akin to starting a new museum ... starting with its leadership." In a news release announcing her appointment in December, Phillips appeared up for the challenge, saying, "I believe all the roads of my life's journey have led me to the American Jazz Museum." She started her new role in January.

Pete Cowdin and Debbie Pettid
Co-founders, The Rabbit Hole

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3

After Cowdin and Pettid closed their beloved children’s bookstore Reading Reptile in 2016, they turned their full attention to The Rabbit Hole, a national museum celebrating children’s literature. Work is now underway in a 165,000-square foot warehouse in North Kansas City, where The Rabbit Hole is scheduled to open this summer. Cowdin and Pettid promise changing installations as well as permanent exhibits including “the great green room” from “Goodnight Moon,” along with a print shop, a maker-space, a performance space and a bookstore. Modeled on attractions such as the City Museum in St. Louis, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Denver, The Rabbit Hole is billed as “the world’s first explora-storium.”

Stuart Carden
Artistic Director, Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Credit Brandon Dahlquist

Carden started as the new artistic director of the KC Rep in September (only the fifth in the theater’s 55-year history), after working as a freelance director and producer in Chicago with organizations such as The Old Globe, Chicago Children’s Theatre and City Theatre Company. Carden embarked on an “aggressive 90-day plan” to get to know not just the organization but also the city’s wider artistic and cultural community. His warmth and engaging personality were obvious during the Rep’s 39th annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” when Carden energetically interacted with audiences before each performance, asking members to raise their hands and offering prizes for those with the most years in attendance.


Jan. 26: Five Kansas City artists are nominated for Grammys or contributed to Grammy-nominated records: Jan Kraybill (Best Classical Instrumental Solo); Joyce DiDonato (Best Classical Solo Vocal Album); Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale (Blanton Alspaugh is nominated for Producer Of The Year for “ClassicalArtifacts: The Music Of Michael McGlynn”); Logan Richardson, who plays sax on one track of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s “Ancestral Recall” (Best Contemporary Instrumental Album); Justus West, who co-produced “Ballin’” by Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch (Best Rap/Sung Performance).

Feb. 29: "Staging Shimomura," a major exhibition featuring the performance art of Roger Shimomura, opens at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Shimomura, 80, who taught at KU from 1969 to 2004, is well known for his paintings and prints, often reflecting his Japanese American family’s experience in internment camps during World War II. But audiences are likely less familiar with the experimental film and performance art aspects of his practice.

May 8: After 20 years of a relatively nomadic existence, this spring marks the tentative opening date for the Charlotte Street Foundation’s new homeat 3333 Wyoming Street in Roanoke Park. Charlotte Street anticipates two or three two or three days of programs in the yet-to-be-officially named Black Box Theater and White Box Gallery. Charlotte Street cautions, though, that bad weather in January and February might delay the opening.

May 14-25: The World War I Museum and Memorial hosts an 80% scale replica — that’s more than 300 feet long — of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in conjunction with the special exhibition "The Vietnam War: 1945-1975."

June 19-20: For its 7th year, Kansas City’s beery Boulevardia festival moves from the West Bottoms to Washington Square Park and “throughout Crown Center.” Besides the usual multiple stages of music and the Ferris Wheel, Silent Disco and Makers Market, organizers promise “many new elements and experiences.”

October: Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas Citymoves into a 30,000-square foot indoor space, plus one-half acre of outdoor space, at the Red Bridge Shopping Center in south Kansas City, expanding its offerings from a former (and cramped) elementary school in Shawnee, Kansas. The organization has a science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) focus for kids ages 8 and younger.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer. Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital managing editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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