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America's Creative Crossroads

The national spotlight shines on Kansas City’s burgeoning arts community

by Darren Mark

It’s rare that arts leaders in creative hubs like New York or L.A. will deign to recognize Midwestern arts communities as anything more than the figurative farm teams to the coasts’ major league powerhouses. But recently, a kind of big league general manager—Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City—presented a case that doesn’t just urge, but nearly forces skeptics to notice a Midwestern arts community poised for its national close-up.

In an article for the Kansas City Star, Levy wrote, “The sheer variety of visual and performing arts activity emanating from a town the size of Kansas City and the generosity of individuals, foundations and corporations necessary to support it are simply outstanding. Few cities can match this track record, at least those situated between America’s east and west coasts.”

On Canvas

Creative KC

  • 125 years of the Kansas City Art Institute, whose list of notable students includes Walt Disney
  • #3 on “10 Cities to Watch for Contemporary Design,” Urban Land Institute
  • #3 in America for its number of festivals, fairs and cultural gatherings per capita, Urban Institute of America
  • A Top 10 Arts City, Kiplinger’s
  • #4 largest concentration of graphic designers in the country
  • #6 largest concentration of commercial/industrial designers
  • #7 largest concentration of visual artists
  • ¾ of all new sporting facilities are designed by KC sports architecture firms

This city—one whose Crossroads Arts District is a seductive perfume for publications like USA Today and The New York Times—has metamorphosed from pimply teenager into coveted ingenue. But more than just a city boasting an arts district branded as the “Crossroads,” Kansas City is becoming a creative crossroads. Regionally. Nationally. Undeniably.

“You reach a critical mass where there’s such synergy between the business world, the scientific world, the industrial world and the art world,” says Jan Schall, the curator of modern and contemporary art for The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “People want to be part of that, and they come here.”

The Nelson is a voice in the national arts conversation, thanks to the recent addition of the Bloch Building. In 2007, Time magazine named it the number-one “best new or upcoming architectural marvel in the world.” That helped validate the national importance of a museum with works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Pollock.

But more important for Kansas City, the Bloch anchors a multifaceted arts movement that helps define a city once known nationally only for barbecue and professional sports.

Says Schall, “The Bloch Building demonstrated that the museum was committed to art of this time and moving forward. But it’s not the only one. The Kemper Museum is doing it. The Kansas City Art Institute is doing it. And so is the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s kind of a landmark demonstration of faith in art and the creative world to build this building and to fill it with the treasures that we have of modern and contemporary art.” 

Nelson Atkins Museum InteriorIf the 1933-built Nelson is the seed of Kansas City’s creative crossroads, the Crossroads Arts District is the bud, and art havens like Blue Gallery—representing fine artists like landscape painter Rich Bowman—are the flower.

Blue Gallery is one of dozens of independently owned galleries, retail spaces and design studios centered around 19th Street and Baltimore, the district’s core. Together, they practice, manufacture and promote creativity. On the first Friday of every month, all possible shades of it are on display well into the night. This clockwork event—called First Friday—bears testament to this region’s remarkable appetite for art through the throngs of people who descend upon the neighborhood.

“There’s excitement in the air,” says Blue Gallery co-owner Kelly Kuhn. “What am I going to see tonight that blows my mind, that captures my imagination? There’s an electricity of ‘anything is possible.’” 


Continue To Part 2: On Stage >>

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