America's Creative Crossroads
The national spotlight shines on Kansas City’s burgeoning arts community
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.”
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-Atkins Museum of Art is a defining institution in Kansas City, acting as a pillar of culture and a beacon for what’s to come in the arts community. The museum, which was crowned “Best U.S. Museum” by Yelp reviewers, boasts an internationally recognized collection both indoor and out, including in the original 1933 Beaux art building, in the bold, contemporary Steven Holl-designed Bloch Building and on the grounds of the 22-acre Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park.
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.”
If 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.’”
Credit an organization like Quixotic Fusion for co-generating that electricity. Whether it’s hanging aerialists from cranes, projecting art installations onto buildings or marrying original music with unique expressions of modern dance, Quixotic is one of this city’s symbols of its intrepid creative renaissance. So is its founder, Anthony Magliano.
He says, “When we first started Quixotic, although we used movement and dancers to tell theatrical stories with the bodies, we never really labeled ourselves as a dance company. There’s a lot of unexpected things that happen with our group. Everything is all about collaboration and innovation—just always trying to change things around and push ourselves to create multisensory experiences for our audiences.”
“Did you see the YouTube video of the projections that Quixotic did on the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts?” mused Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony. “Show that to anybody, anywhere, and if anybody can top that, bring it on. The fact that that happened here as an original expression of this building is the tip of the iceberg.”
The Kansas City Symphony is a likely candidate as the envy of the majority of the world’s symphony orchestras. In fall 2011, it moved into its new home, Helzberg Hall, the 1,600-seat performance venue inside the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Kauffman, which is also the new home for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet, is the Moshe Safdie-designed building that will live among the most acoustically sound performance spaces in the world.
Byrne says, “The number-one comment that I heard on opening weekend is, ‘I can’t believe I’m in Kansas City.’ And then walking into Helzberg Hall and hearing something that is like the world’s greatest stereo times 10—I don’t think you can be in many places in this world that can offer that kind of experience.”
"THERE'S AN ELECTRICITY OF 'ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.'"
Word of mouth led Time magazine critic Richard Zoglin into a seat at Copaken Stage, one of the two performance spaces where Kansas City Repertory Theatre challenges its audiences with a brand of original and classic theater that requires them to journey into the depths of creativity and expression. When Zoglin left the performance of the original hip-hop musical, Venice, co-created by KC Rep’s artistic director, Eric Rosen, he proclaimed it the best musical of 2010. This is the feather in the cap for the company that consistently recruits those residents of Broadway like Moises Kaufman, Gary Griffin and David Kroner to direct its shows.
Kyle Hatley is KC Rep’s associate artistic director. “After our first season, we realized that our audience wanted more of the kind of fearlessness that we brought to them—the more daring projects. And not only that, but the sort of daring vision that we interpret classics with.”
Those standing on the sidelines of the city’s creative renaissance are apt to notice that the most successful creative leaders are indeed the ones who are most daring. Reference Christopher Elbow, the Kansas City pastry chef turned chocolatier whose No. 6 Dark Rocks bar topped Food & Wine’s list of best chocolates on the continent.
Nearly 10 years ago, Elbow challenged Kansas City to embrace a concept, Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate, that celebrated chocolate as an artistic medium, and not as sugary, waxy “candy.” Today, his relentlessly perfect-looking bonbons are the culinary equivalent of supermodels, and year after year, they’ve walked the catwalk of magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appétit and O, The Oprah Magazine.
“We work with chocolate as a medium just like someone else would work with clay or metal. People eat with their eyes, so we put a lot of focus and emphasis on how our product looks. We try to use new techniques to always make it look very cool, and have it highly decorated and ornate.”
Elbow’s fans span the world. But one of them works down the street and is himself an artist whose resume includes that standard set of accolades and honors that define this nation’s best chefs. He’s Colby Garrelts, co-owner of Bluestem, and this year, the James Beard nominee and his wife, Megan, wrote a cookbook that announced a new movement in cooking: Kansas City Regionalism.
“It’s about the smoke flavors, with the sweet and savory,” he says. “Megan is doing a lot with fresh fruit, preserves and cobblers. I’m working on a barbecue sparerib. But I’m actually taking the meat off the bone and shaving one tiny, little perfect slice off a cabbage and dressing it in buttermilk. And I’m serving this perfect piece of rib meat and then garnishing it like crazy. I’m trying to really capture the flavors of barbecue, but when you look at it, you think, ‘Holy crap, it’s a work of art.’”
This rib—it’s a symbol not just of an artistically driven culinary movement, but of a broader, more aggressive, region-wide arts movement—one that’s finding fans in unlikely places. Like in New York.
“What’s happened here in Kansas City is cause then for both celebration and emulation,” writes the Lincoln Center’s Levy. “So, bravo, Kansas City. You are a national model of positive change. Please count me a loyal fan.”
Says Byrne, “Here’s someone from N.Y. saying we can learn things from you, and I don’t think that we should pass over that without stopping to say there really is something significant going on here.”
“I think Kansas City is seeing what Atlanta or Seattle saw 15 years ago—this kind of surge of artistic interest and artistic creation,” Hatley says. “And the two are meeting kind of brilliantly, and we’re at the crossroads of that right now.”