The Stockyards area of Kansas City, once home to an active livestock market, is transforming into a new arts hub in the city. (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — I love road trips, and I love arts communities. So why not combine both? Recently, I took a road trip through the US and visited arts communities with a good friend. We stopped by Kansas City, Missouri, smack dab in the middle of the country. I’d heard of the rapid growth of the art world there but was stunned to see just how developed it really was.

“Kansas City, artistically and musically speaking, is a really exciting place to be right now,” said Laura Isaac, a native Kansas City resident who watched the art scene grow. “Over the past ten years the arts have become an increasingly important part of the city’s fabric.”

When my host picked me up at Kansas City’s Union Station, a stunning Beaux Arts-style station, we drove past a number of Depression-era buildings. Most of them, she told me, were developed as part of the Works Progress Administration’s efforts to revive the city. Unlike in, say, Detroit, the buildings remained not only intact but seemed to have been actively restored.

“A friend of mine who hadn’t seen my work in 5-6 years came to visit me in Kansas City,” artist Diana Heise told me. Heise, who teaches photography and digital filmmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute, had previously worked in Brooklyn but moved to Kansas City, where she landed larger studio space and access to a 6,000 square foot exhibition space. “It just opens up different types of possibilities of experimentation that can happen.”

Map indicating location of Kansas City (via theredshoeexpress.blogspot.com)

Indeed, artists who have larger spaces also have more to work with. But where to get the money to actualize the projects? “There’s not necessarily a collector base, nor is there a particularly large gallery scene,” Heise noted. Instead, however, artists have access to grants and residencies, and lots of them.

Consider Charlotte Street Foundation’s studio residencies. Heise recommends the residency program to her students, who can land a large studio space for two to three months immediately after graduating. Other programs, like the Lighton International Artists’ Exchange Program, helps artists and arts professionals from Kansas City and the Midwest to travel to other countries for residencies and exchange. Artists who show at the Belger Arts Center receive generous residencies.

The Crossroads Arts District features galleries, studios and cute cafes and is a mainstay of Kansas City’s art scene.

Traveling through Kansas City, I could understand the appeal. With a smaller art scene, it’s much easier to just dive in and get started. My host had moved to the city after a stint in New Orleans, and she found a strong community that immediately welcomed her. Arts spaces likes Plug Projects hold regular events, including an open art crit for artists interested in testing out new ideas.

“There’s a lot of freedom in working in Kansas City,” Isaac explained. Indeed, the draw of more space, a rich arts community and a variety of funding sources is hard to resist. The biggest cost? Possibly being cut off from the larger American art dialogue, which is still centered in New York and, increasingly, Los Angeles.

“If I start to feel like I’m not part of the greater dialogue,” reflected Heise, “I aim to still be connected with friends and colleagues, especially with the internet.” Indeed, Heise has had no trouble securing opportunities, such as a recent show at the DUMBO Art Under the Bridge Festival and a recent Fulbright grant to Mauritius.

Planning a trip to Kansas City? It’s easy to get hooked into the scene if you know where to start.

A view from within Plug Projects, a new artist-run gallery space and studio complex.

Here are some highlights:

Charlotte Street Foundation

In addition to residencies, the Charlotte Street Foundation recently launched the Rocket Grants.  Supported by the Warhol Foundation, the grants offer $4,000 to artists for works, especially those that focus on social practice. The Foundation also features Creative Capital Workshops and an active series of events.

Dolphin Gallery

A staple of the Kansas City art scene for over 15 years, Dolphin Gallery features and supports local artists. According to Heise, their regular BBQ features a cross section of the entire scene, from “the old guard, the middle guard with kids and the young guard.”

Other gallery spaces like Plug Projects and Kansas City Crossroads are also worth a look.

Nerman Museum and Nelson Atkins Museum

And of course, Kansas City’s museums are a must-see. Isaac considers the Nelson Atkins “one of Kansas City’s treasures.” “The Kuan Yin statue alone is worth the visit,” she told me. The Nerman Museum features exhibitions of artists both contemporary and local.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...

12 replies on “Art World Road Trip: Kansas City”

  1. Union Station is Beaux Arts style not Art Deco.  But yes, KC has a busy and accessible art scene and great local institutions to help nurture it. It’s fun living here.

  2. Other good places to visit in KCMO if you’re an artist:

    Zahner — they’re the architectural firm responsible for high-end metal and glass facades on notable contemporary architecture around the world (frank gehry, cooper union, etc), but they also make art installations and public art.  They love working with artists, and the building itself is quite stunning (pictured).

    The Kansas City Art Institute — On a good day, there’s better art to be seen there than the two museums which sandwich it.  

    The Boiler Room artist studios — Christian art studios, and they hold their own. 

    Hmmm… what else.  What did you eat while you were there?  The food is fantastic.

    1. Oh this is great! Thanks for the other suggestions.  Please add more. I really enjoyed my brief visit to Kansas City and would like to see more when I’m there again. My host recommended Arthur Bryant’s, which was deeelicious.

      1. Arthur Bryants is classic, presidential! I’m going to be back in Kansas City in March for a few days, and my mouth is watering, so this is written as much for me as you. Gates BBQ has the best ribs, and Oklahoma Joes is the best new-style BBQ — their Z-Man sandwich is unbeatable.
        I really like Blue Stem — they have an amazing happy hour where you can get the best Hangar Steak in the world. You may have seen R Bar across the street from Plug Gallery, I’ve never tried the food, but two of the best bar tenders in Kansas City work there.
        Grinders Pizza in the crossroads has a really great atmosphere — the backyard eating area doubles as an outdoor music venue, its gotta be at least an acre.
        @portfondakc is my favorite taco truck on twitter, and he would have the inside info on anything awesome happening food-wise in Kansas City.
        I also failed earlier to mention the Kemper Contemporary Museum, which shows a lot of emerging artists and new media work.
        I <3 KCMO

  3. great article! thank you when were you here? you missed America:Now and Here this spring. we had an amazing collaboration between local artists and nationally known names hanging next to each other on gallery walls… 150 pieces and a month’s worth of events and additional presentations in 5 different forms of art. i love the arts in KC and KC loves its arts community… 

  4. well when visiting the KC art scene….Be sure to stop at YJ’s snackbar,and have a smoke,a snack or just grind with the locals. David Ford has made this scene a community.

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