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Art World Road Trip: Kansas City

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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