My friend and I, admittedly somewhat conservative-looking women of a certain age, are the first visitors at the MoMO Gallery in the east end of Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District for the First Friday Gallery Crawl in November. We’re met at the door by the gallery owner, who blocks the entrance in his wheelchair and seems uncertain as to whether to invite us in.
When I explain I’m in town to explore Kansas City’s version of an arts district and to share what I learn with artists and city visionaries in Salt Lake City, he hesitantly lets us in. After explaining that his gallery tends to display “edgier” art, he allows us to preview the show that will open that evening. The extremely graphic photos featuring naked bodies, leather, ropes, chains, and whips (use your imagination) may explain his hesitation. But this is, after all, edgier art and the eastern edge of the arts district, the place where emerging artists have moved as the increasingly popular Crossroads District develops and becomes less affordable.
Situated between the downtown business district and the affluent Plaza development, Crossroads is about a 75-block area of buildings dating to the early 1900s that once housed machine shops, offices, and warehouses. Twenty years ago, it was a blighted area, abandoned by business and ignored by developers and the city. Real estate was cheap; cheap enough for Jim Leedy, an instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute, to buy several buildings near the rail freight depot and turn them into studios and apartments for art students. The area changed organically as more and more artists moved in, purchased property or rented space, and began making enough improvements to make the space livable and workable for studios and galleries. There was no grand plan or vision by city planners. It just happened.
Then, about eight years ago, recalls Suzie Aron, President of the non-profit Crossroads Community Association, some of the gallery owners got together, shared mailing lists, and started promoting the First Friday Gallery Crawl, a monthly event not unlike Salt Lake’s Third Friday Gallery Stroll. It was as though a big secret had been let out of the bag. As thousands of people began visiting the district each month, developers and other business people began to see possibilities behind the old facades of the vacant, boarded-up buildings. In addition to galleries, studios, and newly renovated condos, you find locally owned restaurants and coffee shops, along with unique shops for shoes, clothing, furniture, and gifts. Aron explains that it took about four years to grow from a handful of art galleries to the roughly 40 in the Crossroads District today.
The monthly crawl is more of a social happening than a serious art market. Aron sees it as an opportunity to acquaint more people with art. With an estimated 10,000 visitors to the area in one night, the galleries are sometimes too crowded for any serious buying, but the collectors will return another day. “It shows that art is a hip and fun thing to do,” says Aron. “And it helps the business community feel positive about supporting the arts.”
From Emerging to High Quality
During our tour in early November, we saw a broad mix of art media and skill levels. At the Blue Gallery, we saw fine paintings by Rich Bowman, who paints what he calls “non-descript, intensely emotional landscapes.” At Millennic Glass, we saw wonderfully imaginative glass sculptures by Emporia State University Glass Students. And tucked away in an alley behind a building we found Tuttle & duPont Contemporary Fine Art, a newly renovated gallery space featuring work by Corrie Baldauf. A few blocks away, we visited the studio and gallery of Archival Designs, owned by Jake and Julie Bond, who specialize in custom ceramic tile and pottery. For the Gallery Crawl, they were showing and selling a selection of very affordable bowls, trays, and vases.
All of the work mentioned so far was toward the high end of the quality spectrum, though in most cases the prices were an excellent value. Then we went to the Arts Incubator, a three story building that houses about 48 emerging artists in small studios, with common areas for working, lectures, or just socializing. Here the work was at various stages of “emerging” on the quality spectrum.
The brainchild of Jeff Becker, the Arts Incubator is not unlike a business incubator for entrepreneurs, where tenants can rent cheap space, and form a community for sharing and learning from each other as they develop their businesses. Becker has created some shop areas with woodworking and other tools for common use. On Monday nights, resident artists gather for “Art Stuff” meetings, where they learn from more established artists about the business of being an artist. Not only does the Incubator participate in the Gallery Crawl, but they also hold other special events; in November they held a “Turn on the Heat” gourmet chilli fundraiser, catered by some of Kansas City’s best restaurants. All proceeds went toward heating the building to “prevent starving artists from becoming freezing artists.”
Across the street from the Incubator I saw the most unusual art venue of the evening — teamFOTO’s “Mobile Gallery Show,” a photographic display mounted in the back of a U-Haul-size truck.
The truck was parked in a narrow alley between two buildings, and the photographer/artists milled about outside encouraging visitors to climb the steep ramp into the truck. The innovative Mobile Gallery was spawned by Missouri University photography students in 2002 and revived by teamFOTO as part of its outreach to high school art classes throughout Missouri.
Engine of Change
It may have been only a matter of time before the city and developers began to focus on the Crossroads area. After all, it connects the busy, modern business district and convention area with the affluent, mixed-use Plaza area with its restaurants, shops, and condos, near the University of Missouri campus and the major art museums. But there’s little doubt that the artists who moved in, cleaned up, and made Crossroads a destination sped up the process.
The Crossroads artists have attracted other creative businesses to the area. Printers, graphic designers, architects, ad agencies, and others feel right at home in the energized atmosphere of innovation. And other professionals who enjoy a creative lifestyle are gobbling up the residential lofts (at $400,000+) taking shape in some of the old buildings.
A recent story on National Public Radio’s Marketplace program reported on study by the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota that looked at artists’ impacts in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They found that artists move between the commercial world, non-profit world, and community world in a way that stimulates the economy more than the typical government overtures to manufacturers and other businesses to relocate or expand in their city. Kansas City’s Crossroads District seems to be another prime example.
The Challenge of Sustainability
The progress in the Crossroads District — from abandonment to a spiffed-up magnet for creative commerce — sounds like a win-win proposition for artists, residents, the business community, the city, and tourists; that is, until you consider what the improvements are doing to tax rates. A Jan. 6, 2004 article in the Kansas City Star reported that taxes on Jim Leedy’s building — studios, gallery and living space for student artists — increased from $12,000 to $40,000 the previous year.
At that rate, artists will have to abandon Crossroads and look for another blighted area to start the process all over again. Is that really what anyone wants? The solution, says Suzie Aron, is a plan that will be considered by the City Council early next year. Working with the City, the non-profit Crossroads Community Association developed a “business retention plan” that would freeze property taxes to enable artists and related businesses to stay in the neighborhood. Aron is optimistic that the community’s vision will be realized. “Our vision is all about business retention. If we’re going to keep the creatives, then we have to have a neighborhood that is vibrant and alive.”
Lessons for Salt Lake City
What works in one city does not necessarily work in another. But it seems there are lessons to be learned and applied, not only from the Kansas City experience, but from Baltimore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and dozens of other cities around the country. Following are some key success factors worth considering:
Artists as pioneers — Just as Kansas City’s Crossroads District was settled by pioneering artists attracted by cheap real estate, Baltimore’s 25-block “Station North” area has been settled by more than 300 artists over a four-year period. Old warehouses and abandoned factories are perfect for artists willing to roll up their sleeves and invest sweat equity in enough improvements to make the property safe for occupancy.
Friendly bankers — Aron stressed the importance of finding bankers willing to back art businesses with low-cost loans.
Tax abatement plans — Whether an arts district is created in a blighted area or a block of downtown prime real estate, arts businesses will need protection against tax and rent inflation.
Artists as collaborators and visionaries It’s so much easier for us artists to stay in our studios and make art. Buying and renovating buildings, advocating for tax abatements, and all the other pioneering work is a major distraction. But we can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it for us! We must create our own vision and collaborate to make it happen. The challenge is for artists to band together and settle in an area that, though blighted/cheap today, will be in the midst of other mixed-use development in the future.
Business and community support — Kansas City’s Arts Council formed a Business Committee on the Arts, which includes representatives from some of the city’s biggest businesses. Some member businesses offer their walls as galleries for rotating art shows. They issue calls for entries, jury the entries to select the quality they want, and voila — the artists have multiple new venues for showing their work and the companies enhance the work environment for their employees. The Committee also meets for lunch to hear speakers and see demonstrations from artists in the community, thus spreading arts education through the community.
Location, co-location, co-location — As the Crossroads example illustrates, artists and arts businesses will become magnates for commerce even if they are in the seediest, most neglected part of town. But it doesn’t work if just one or two artists go there. Marketing and advertising are just too expensive for artists to undertake all alone. But when you have 40 or 300 art spaces in the same area, then joint marketing becomes cost effective, or even unnecessary.
Arts-friendly property owners/ developers — Developing an arts district is so much easier if property owners and/or developers share the vision of art as an engine for economic growth. But artists don’t want to pack up and move every 5-10 years, so the motivation must be pure love and loyalty for the arts, not simply greed.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.
Categories: Visual Arts