James Martin, an independent consultant and curator, writer and educator, has been hired by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, to serve as its public art administrator. The position has been vacant since April 2018.
Martin's appointment fills a crucial need, coming just as questions and tensions mount over the most expensive public art project in the city's history: a new $1.5 billion single terminal project at Kansas City International Airport budgets $5.6 million for art as part of the city's longstanding One Percent for Art program.
More than a handful of public art projects are also in the pipeline.
"Kansas City has had such a long commitment to public art," Martin told KCUR. "You know, we've had a great run, and I'm just thrilled to be able to continue that tradition and contribute my part."
He is scheduled to begin work on Oct. 21.
Martin earned a bachelor's degree in Art History at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In 1989, he served as interim director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition, and then went on to pursue a master's degree in Art History at Case Western Reserve University.
He returned to Kansas City in 1996 to take on a role as assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, working on exhibitions with artists such as Isamu Noguchi and James Turrell.
"I worked a lot with outdoor sculpture," said Martin. "I coordinated an exhibition of Ursula von Rydingsvard's work, the piece by Magdalena Abakanowicz (when it was sited on the south side of the museum). I was kind of the point person for installations of various works."
In 2001, Martin began a seven-year tenure as curator of the Sprint Art Collection, where he built and oversaw the contemporary art collection for the Sprint Campus in Overland Park, Kansas. The collection started with 350 pieces; by the time he left, according to the Kansas City Star, it included more than 1,300 works, with 25% of them by Kansas City artists.
Martin also made connections to the city of Kansas City, Missouri, public art programs. He volunteered for the Avenue of the Arts, a temporary display of public artwork in downtown Kansas City, and served on an advisory panel for the $1.3 million public art project at the Sprint Center, where artist Chris Doyle's "The Moons" consists of three circular LED screens showing video of Kansas Citians flying across them.
In 2008, Martin launched an arts consulting business called artin(kc)c, where he worked with a variety of clients, including cities such as Gladstone, Missouri, and Olathe, Kansas, and institutions such as the Kansas City Art Institute and the Center for the Healing Arts at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Missouri.
"I've been doing the same type of work, in terms of calls for artists and managing a selection process in the suburbs that will be a big part of my job in KCMO," he said.
Megan Crigger, the city's director of the Office of Culture and Creative Services, said she looked forward to "a new set of eyes, great energy."
"I think we're heading into a really great direction," she said.
Crigger has been shouldering much of the administrator duties, along with now-retired city architect Eric Bosch (James Freed has been named as the new city architect).
In April 2017, voters approved $800 million in general obligation or 'GO' bonds, to pay for capital improvements. These projects, Crigger said, expand the types and uses of public art beyond city buildings.
"Now we're going to be working with the water department, with the stormwater project, which could look like arts integrated into green infrastructure projects," she said, "or the street and the bridge projects throughout public works, starting up what will be really unprecedented public art for Kansas City."
Martin said he was "thrilled" and eager to go to work.
"It's an incredible opportunity," he said, "and I think I'll be able to hit the ground running."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.