When First Fridays started in Kansas City, the whole point was to bring more people to the Crossroads to experience art. But for years now, critics have been saying the festive scene has lost all focus on art.
“Most contemporary artists in Kansas City have a tendency to hate or just throw vitriol at First Friday because they think it’s an annoying touristy trap of everyone from the suburbs,” said Melaney Ann Mitchell, an artist who runs a website called Informalityblog, where art critics write about what’s happening in area galleries.
Each month Informalityblog features Radar, a concise rundown of all the First Friday shows recommened by its writers.
“To me," Mitchell said of the First Friday crowds, "these are people who are coming out and making the conscious decision to look at contemporary art.”
So Mitchell and Blair Schulman, a senior art critic at Informalityblog, have taken on a role similar to that of the volunteer docents who lead tours at museums. For First Fridays, they dress all in black and call themselves the Guerrilla Docents.
In May, they started at the corner of 18th and Wyandotte. It was a beautiful spring night, and the sidewalks around YJ’s Snack Bar were crowded. But it didn't appear as if everyone was interested in the art.
Mitchell and Schulman's objective was to enlist a small group of people from the street to take on a tour at a nearby gallery down the street.
Schulman has been writing art criticism since 2002, when he started working for the now defunct Review magazine. He also regularly contributes to Hyperallergic and HuffPost Culture & Arts. He said he knows the gallery scene can be intimidating, but he wants to change that by starting a conversation with the strangers he meets.
“When you go into a big gallery and there are a lot of people there, you tend to move through it pretty quickly and you don’t ponder, you don’t linger,” he said. “Suddenly here are these two, weird people who stop you and say, 'Can we talk about this?' And they think for a moment and they’re like ‘Yes! Let’s talk about this.’ And it’s fun.”
Mitchell and Schulman apprpoached two young women who, it turned out, had come to the Crossroads for the first time and had no idea what to expect from the monthly gallery event.
Schulman and Mitchell led them half a block down the street to Front/Space, a small non-profit gallery filled with whimsical cement sculptures by Andrew Ordonez. Schulman and Mitchell said they thought Ordonez’ work would spark some interesting responses from their pop-up tours.
During the summer months, Schulman and Mitchell usually do three of these tours each First Friday. They’ve done about 36 tours since they started a couple years ago.
“We want to start asking people, first, 'What are you seeing?' But also, 'Why are you seeing it?' And that way they’re able to absorb it,” said Schulman.
He said getting people to think a little deeper boosts their confidence in the way they think about art.
The two young women stood in front of one of Ordonez’ weathered cement panels covered with colorful peace signs, butterflies and baby animals. It reminded one of the girls of the stickers a child might receive as a reward at a dentist’s office.
Front/Space co-director Bordallo Dibildox said the Guerrilla Docents are putting a lot of work into making exhibitions in the Crossroads accessible to people. She said she can see how it’s easier for visitors to talk to Mitchell and Schulman than it might be to talk to an artist or gallery director.
“I think it’s really brave work," she said, "because I think they have been definitely met with rejection in the past where people are like, ‘No, I don’t want to talk to you about this. Like why are you asking me these questions?’”
Mitchell said she just wants to guide people to thought-provoking art in Kansas City.
“Most people are out and they are looking for something that’s going to, you know, blow their minds or make them think differently. They’re out to see the weird in the world, see what us artists are up to, so I like that.”
And Schulman said conversations like these are liberating.
“We’re all asking each other what we think of something that we’ve never seen before," he said.
"There’s something kind of great about that, because your fear starts to go out the window and your real feelings start to come to the surface if you just leave yourself a little bit exposed. And when you do, you feel so much better for having done it.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.