Shiyuan Xu, Untitled, 2016. Porcelain, paper, and clay, 7 x 9 x 11 in.

Made in the Middle: Art and the Crossroads of Kansas City

In many ways, the story of art in Kansas City is a familiar one – adventurous and untamed, with a rogue determination that lingers as a holdover from the days of the Wild West. Artists are trailblazers. They are the first to persist in cold winters and hot summers, working in structures suitable for little more than warehouse storage. They are the first to see potential studio space in an irreparable building. They are the first to put creativity above profit, renting out or lending rooms to other artists for less money than conventional landlords. They are the last to give up on underdeveloped districts and the last to yield to greedy commercialization. Artists in search of cheap housing and studio space – residential blank slates – plant the first seeds of growth in neglected neighborhoods, turning them into vibrant communities. Artists in Kansas City don’t play by the rules, because the rules are flexible in the open space between the coasts, where artists can do their thing and be forgotten. Kansas City is for outlaws.

The Crossroads District epitomizes the tenacity of one group of artists determined to pioneer a creative community. Now an essential artery of the Kansas City creative body, the Crossroads has gone through major transformations over the years. The gritty birthplace of Kansas City’s beloved First Fridays was once virtually a ghost town, an uninhabited limbo between Midtown and Downtown; now it is a destination for locals and visitors on the hunt for contemporary art. Jim Leedy, veteran ceramic artist and grandfather of the scene, bought property in the destitute area in the early 1980s. Long before the neighborhood had a name, artists simply called it Leedy – ville. Today, the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center is considered one of the best places to find large-scale ceramics and sculpture in various mediums. Longstanding institutions share blocks with newer galleries, interlacing classic with contemporary in a borderless web of expanding commerce. Hip boutiques, coffee-shop bakeries, and worldclass restaurants are some of the many businesses that have sprung up beside or connected to galleries and working studios. Even when visitors believe they are leaving the art district, another gallery comes into sight in an unexpected part of town – another empty space surprisingly filled by an artist.

Kayla Mattes and Justin Seibert, The Shape of Things, 2017. 2 views of installation at Front/Space.

The Crossroads Art District has boomed to include more than 90 galleries altogether. Even compact spaces, like Cerbera Gallery, make room for exceptional small sculpture, and local artists like Emily Connell, who casts Hungarian Bibles in fine porcelain, can be inches away from Beth Cavener and Tara Donovan. Venues that make a special place for large sculpture include the beloved Blue Gallery, which shows Graham Lane’s self-reflective bronze and wood sculptures; the diverse Paragraph, where fiber sculptor Noël Morical’s Wiggle Room turned the space into another world, and the impressive Weinberger Fine Arts, which represents Misty Gamble’s decadent busts and Brett Reif’s bulbous, tiled organisms. The open spaces in these galleries accommodate a variety of sculpture, giving it plenty of room to breathe, and even hang from the ceiling.

Brett Reif, Billow, 2015. Tile, soffits, and mixed media, 39 x 28 x 29 in.

While the established institutions of the Crossroads are worth visiting, the neighborhood thrives on the innovation of ambitious young artists. True to the district’s humble beginnings, student- and alumni-run spaces all over the city pump out diverse and avant-garde work on a regular basis. Front/Space on 18th Street economizes its small area with a storefront/gallery/apartment for artists. Mixed-use spaces like this are becoming more common, responding to a younger generation that prioritizes function and affordability over traditional gallery values. Front/Space’s widely varied, noncommercial art events, readings, installations, musical performances, and collaborations mean that it reinvents its aesthetic with each new show. Notable installations over the past year included Caitlin Horsmon’s room-size camera obscura – constructed to block the light from the north-facing picture window and project the outside indoors on the opposite wall – and Kayla Mattes and Justin Seibert’s personality quiz sculptures in The Shape of Things. Horsmon’s time-based pinhole camera could be fully experienced only at a certain time of sunset, engaging viewers in an of-the-moment light phenomenon. Mattes and Seibert brought personality types to life with an algorithm that printed out unique shapes for every person who took the test. These shapes were folded and installed on the walls, resulting in an odd and colorful array of what essentially amounted to different people. Playful and unconventional, Front/Space has become a local favorite among those of us who seek something a little different.

Another gallery, emerging from the same class of Kansas City Art Institute graduates, lives half a mile east of Front/Space. Vulpes Bastille lies just beyond an orange, fox-colored exterior wall, and a maze of studios woven through the back host painters, photographers, and installation artists. Exhibitions showcase work produced by studio residents and others. Shows at Vulpes Bastille are unique for their emphasis on creative communication. No piece in the gallery ever feels stand-alone, and the benefit of artists working together in close quarters means art is treated like an ongoing call and response. Artist Caranne Camarena procured the 6,300-square-foot property in 2012 and invited fellow graduates to improve the space according to their unique visions. Group exhibitions are more like nebulous conversations held by participating artists, like the ongoing “RE/WORK” project, a three-month experimental collaborative exhibition between all the artists in the studios. If nothing else, the overarching goal of Vulpes Bastille is to dismantle the myth of the solitary artist – a radical step even for today’s creative community.

The spirit of community-building continues in Midtown, blocks away from the Kansas City Art Institute, in an old Osco drugstore that had been vacant for years. Accurately named The Drugstore, the huge space has been converted for communal studio use, with cubicle walls erected for roomy 10-by-10-foot studios. The open front room houses exhibitions, live drawing events, fundraisers, and raucous artist parties. (The space is big enough for the sizable glittering sculptures of Dylan Mortimer, whose work examines health, Christianity, and the biology of disease.) Every year or two, tenants rotate out or build more studios, so the work inside never stales. Each studio feels like a miniature gallery, but the inhabitants exchange so many ideas that common threads can be spotted during open-studio events. The area around The Drugstore is in a developed part of Midtown, but the neighborhood’s acceptance of the collective that took over the old Osco represents one of the best things about Kansas City: KC loves artists, because art symbolizes growth.

Caitlin Horsmon, Practical Optics, 2016. View of installation at Front/Space.

Kansas City is a unique home for contemporary art. Galleries and art businesses stick around, because the arts economy is estimated to be worth almost $70 million. Businesses and benefactors extend their generosity by hiring artists with some frequency. But even here, the cycle of artist-pioneered neighborhoods often ends in rent hikes and commercial spaces. Many of the artists who got their start in the Crossroads have moved to the outskirts, where there is less pressure for them to sell. These eclectic spaces allow them to experiment, unrestricted by profitability. The Kiosk Gallery, which relocated to Columbus Park, schedules shows based on original thought instead of demand. It allows space for experimental projects like the Black House Collective, a residency founded by composer Hunter Long that encourages the integration of sound, sculpture, and performance. Considering the small size of the gallery, owners Eric and Erin Dodson have made a uniquely inclusive space for cross-medium experimentation. In the East Crossroads, the Belger Crane Yard Studios provide studio and exhibition space for artists working in clay, metal, and lithography. In a separate building, the affiliated Belger Arts Center offers a less formal but continuously charming gallery and workspace on the first floor and a vast exhibition space at the top accessible via an old-school freight elevator. International artists, including El Anatsui and Robert Stackhouse, have displayed critically regarded works on this upper level, a raw-wood warehouse space with carefully arranged white walls. Many of the ceramic works at Belger don’t require the “white cube” and instead occupy pedestals and shelves in the unrefined interior. Belger Crane Yard Studios and the Belger Arts Center may occupy two separate buildings, but the residency offers two functional ceramic studios, gallery spaces, and more in each location. A rotating cast of ceramic artists can be found in the lower-level space, which remains raw enough to flaunt its warehouse beginnings.

Caitlin Horsmon, Practical Optics, 2016. View of installation at Front/Space.

Deep in the outskirts of Kansas City, in Wyandotte County, artist Michael Wickerson has built a haven for sculptors who require more space. The 11-acre property has been completely transformed to suit iron pours, mold-making, performance art, and even outdoor musical events. Wickerson Studios and Foundry provides tools that iron casters might find difficult to access outside the art college, and Michael Wickerson emphasizes a hands-on, interactive experience. Inspired by his two young boys, Wickerson pioneered a unique program for children to attend a class and cast their first bronze sculpture as a direct way to encourage art at an early stage. Similarly, Jacob Burmood builds and casts his large-scale public sculptures on a 15-acre plot in a studio equipped for clay, bronze, and aluminum. Finished pieces are transported to be shown outside the Olathe courthouse, the University of Kansas, and the Leopold Gallery in the Crossroads.

No matter where art begins in Kansas City, or where it ends up, much of what is created eventually passes through this celebrated neighborhood. What stands out is an overwhelming variety of mediums and a focus on experimentation that swells with new waves of artists each year. While the region might appear to offer less visibility than a city on a coast, artists stick around for the flexibility, an advantage for those beginning their careers. Wide-open spaces, a history of community building, and an outlaw spirit make Kansas City an exceptional place to be an artist.

By Annie Raab

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