Preparing for the largest public art project in Kansas City's history is proving to be a challenge.
Controversy often surrounds pieces commissioned under the city’s One Percent For Art Program, which sets aside 1% of city construction costs for public art. But when it comes to the construction at Kansas City International Airport – where a new $1.5 billion single terminal project at KCI budgets $5.6 million for public art – tensions have begun to rise long before any artists have submitted proposals.
Ultimately, the Kansas City Council will give final approval for the artwork inside or outside the new terminal.
Before that happens, however, the process appears to be increasingly contentious. And the airport project is on a fast track, without a public art master plan.
Here’s what we know so far.
1. Currently, there’s confusion about who’s in charge.
The Municipal Art Commission consists of about a dozen unpaid volunteers, most with a background in art or architecture, who meet the first Monday of every month at 3 p.m. on the 26th floor of City Hall. Typically their agenda items are straightforward and mundane (such as approving awnings for storefronts or requests from developers restoring historic properties).
The city charter says the commission is responsible for administering the city’s One Percent For Art Program, among other duties, but commission members have expressed uncertainty about their responsibilities when it comes to the airport art.
"How can we have an impact?" commission chair Kathy Achelpohl, of PGAV Architects, wondered at a meeting in July. "We have at times felt like we're brought to the table at such a late date that we're rubber stamping our approval. And there's not much else that we can do."
"It's a big project, a generational project," added commission member Babette Macy, who's worked in the architectural, construction, and engineering industry for more than two decades. She also serves as Plan Commission chair. "And to me it's unclear. What is our role?"
Ordinarily, there would be a paid staffer at City Hall – a public art administrator – who handles communication between the city council, the city manager's office, and artists on various contracts. But this position has been vacant since April 2018.
The job was posted on July 1, and, according to city officials, a new hire is expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, in May, the owner’s representative for the airport, Paslay Management Group (PMG) contracted with a Kansas City-based consulting artist, Holly Hayden through 2019. It’s a $10,000 contract funded by the aviation department with an option of three one-year renewals.
Jade Liska, deputy director of the aviation department, in June, described Hayden’s role as working with all the stakeholders: “Holly will be that conduit, and will be that voice for us as we move the process.”
Hayden, a Kansas City Art Institute graduate, specializes in graphic design and marketing. This project would be the first time she’s managed anything on this scale. And Paslay consulted with Hayden without informing the members of Kansas City’s Municipal Art Commission.
“I will reinforce arts and culture," Hayden told commissioners at the June meeting, “as an invaluable enhancement to the Kansas City experience.”
2. Artists and other observers are concerned.
Kansas City artists and others in the creative community have been watching the process closely for months. And they’ve raised significant questions.
"Do you want this to be an airport that is astounding, amazing, magnificent?” asked Julia Cole, an artist and educator who coordinates Charlotte Street Foundation's Rocket Grants program. “Or do you want it to be mundane and comfortable and happen quickly?"
"As a citizen and taxpayer of the city of Kansas City, Missouri," added business lawyer David Oliver, "this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate to the world what art can do as a gateway to our community."
Cole and Oliver were among those who spoke up at a Municipal Art Commission meeting in June. With extended public testimony, the meeting lasted for three hours.
The city’s aviation department organized an additional meeting for stakeholders later that month. As a result of that conversation, the department scheduled monthly airport updates during the arts commission’s monthly Monday meetings.
In July, representatives from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM, the international architecture firm that is part of the team designing the new terminal at KCI (which has worked on other aviation projects in cities such as San Francisco and Toronto), shared design slides. In August, they discussed a "heat map" of potential places for art at the new terminal.
The Kansas City-based architecture and design firm BNIM is expected to discuss more design plans in October.
But there are a lot of decisions to make – and there’s no master plan for art.
"I still think there’s value in identifying what the overall plan is for art at the airport,” Municipal Art Commissioner Jan Mulkey said at the July meeting, “whether it’s one piece that’s $5.6 million dollars, or whether it's three pieces in the garage that are $500,000 each and then spend the rest of it in the rest of in four places in the terminal. And whether it's performing art or visual art."
And commissioners want to make sure that public art is integrated into the terminal's design, not just tacked on at the end.
"The piece that's missing is the curatorial vision — there isn't one," commissioner David Dowell, a principal with el dorado architects, said in July. "And I hope it's not too late."
Jordan Pierce of SOM reassured Dowell that it wasn’t too late. "Certainly from our standpoint, this is not late in the process," he said. "This is fairly typical."
But, as Achelpohl told KCUR this week, “The terminal building is becoming fully formed. We wish we could have been talking about it much sooner.”
The design phase for KCI is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year.
3. The City might need national help.
Municipal Art Commission members voted at their July meeting to recommend hiring a national public art curatorial consultant to "lead and implement the city's vision for public art" at the new airport. (This follows a precedent set by the Commission when it hired a consultant for the next largest One Percent for Art project: the Sprint Center.)
A portion of the One Percent For Art budget would pay for the consultant.
Aviation department officials introduced a resolution requesting approval for that expense to the City Council on August 29.
"Without the Curatorial Consultant to guide the City's most significant investment in public art, the Commission believes our world-class public art reputation and ambitions are at risk," Achelpohl wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to the mayor and councilmembers.
Achelpohl pointed out that other cities around the country, such as Chicago, Dallas, San Diego and San Francisco "have hired national consultants for public art planning and implementation" for similar projects.
The resolution was expected to go before the Council's Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee on September 18, but the Committee didn't meet. Without any discussion, it was put on hold until October 23.
Art Commission members were "told by the aviation department that the resolution will be held in committee for approximately one month and will be dealt with formally at that time," Achelpol tells KCUR. Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who represents the city’s 4th district at-large and played an instrumental role in getting the city’s One Percent for Art Program up and running in the early 1990s, reportedly put the issue on hold.
Shields declined to comment.
So, for now, the commission is waiting for an arts administrator and for a public art curatorial consultant — roles that can't be filled soon enough for the volunteers on the Municipal Art Commission.
And, in addition to these vacancies, some could be their own. With the arrival of a new mayor, in accordance with standard operating procedures, commissioners were asked to submit undated resignation letters and to indicate if they would like to continue to serve.
“We carry on,” commissioner David Dowell told KCUR. “We’re not slowing down, not changing what we’re doing at all. Everyone that’s left is pretty committed.”
“I’m, in a way, optimistic that the public art administrator is almost in reach,” said chair Achelpohl. “I do believe that that person has a big challenge.”
Their next meeting is scheduled for October 7.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.