Character. That’s the word I was looking for.
We were in groups, six of them scattered around the top floor of the ArtsTech building on Holmes Street. The brainstorming was in full swing, and the facilitator asked us to name the things about our town that made it unique. We were a pretty mixed bag: visual artists, musicians, actors, educators, and others, and once the suggestions started flowing they came in all directions: the city’s history as an incubator of artists, the Crossroads district, the unique musical heritage, and new artist communities popping up all over the metro area. All good things, fine things. But I couldn’t help but feel these were all subsets of something larger, something untouched-on. It wasn’t until afterwards that what I had been searching for hit me.
I’ve lived in small towns, college towns, major cities. I’ve lived in military bases large and small. I’ve lived in cities that thought like towns and towns that dreamed beyond their abilities. I’ve lived in cities that were essentially giant suburbs looking for an “urb” and places that had clearly just given up a long time ago and only stayed extant through sheer force of habit. But I’ve never lived somewhere like Kansas City. A place born as a nexus, a meeting place, where people came from all directions with all different dreams. A rococo-art-deco-highbrow-lowbrow-country-blues-jazz-Mediterranean gumbo of fountains and murals and ideas tumbling and jostling each other forever.
The evening had started off well. Mayor Sly had opened the festivities, invoking the ghosts of Disney, Benton, the royalty of 18th and Vine. Kansas City had always been a leader in the arts, he declared, but now it was time to take it up a notch. He wanted the city to become the benchmark by which others were judged, and it would all start here.
Next to speak was Mike Burke, the man who ran unsuccessfully against Sly in 2011. He told us how he and Hizzoner had worked out that whichever of them won, the other would pitch in on side projects such as the one we were helping launch that night. “I told him, I’ll take getting Google Fiber here and the arts, and you can have snow removal, crime, and the city council,” he joked. “You can figure out who really won.” He went on to emphasize his belief in the project, and encouraged all assembled to play an active role in the weeks to come.
Shortly after that, we found ourselves in our groups. Each had a facilitator and a note-taker to keep track of the results of our brainstorming. We went through some of our favorite cultural items and events here in the city, and started to throw ideas around. At first the ideas were hesitant and far between, but as the group warmed up to the idea they came flying. Funding came up, of course, as did better transportation infrastructure, venue support, preservation of arts districts and so on. But the real light went on when the topic got round to education.
Teachers of music, artists, poets all spoke up about the need to engage the young people of the city. Discussion was made of the lack of coverage of the arts by the popular press, with one woman wishing there could be arts coverage on a parity with the sports coverage in this town. Much was made of the lack of artists being made available to help children nurture early talents (I recall one person telling a story of a school that asked some local artists to come in and, essentially, teach for free. “Now just how,” she asked, “are we supposed to convince children that art has value when the schools won’t even pay for it? They’re getting mixed signals there!”) Many brought up the importance of working arts into the educational curricula, not just as a class in and of itself, but throughout the whole program. “Art integration in ALL education” became the rallying cry for our group, and if nothing else comes of that night, I only hope that at least makes it out.
Around the large open space that served as the kickoff point, the other groups thrashed out their vision for the next five to ten years. After this night, the city will be sending groups out into the community to talk to people where they live and work and find out what they see as the future of arts in Kansas City. This, we were told, was the first step for a decade-long process, one that would need foresight and planning not only from the civic government and art communities, but from the city as a whole. It’ll take a long time to pull it off but, we were assured, we were just the place to do it.
After the groups broke up, I wandered around the room, listening to music fair organizers talk to photographers, teachers talk to sculptors, all twos and threes and drifting from one knot of people to the next. Then down the stairs, past the proud rows of children's’ art projects and out into the night past unique old buildings and over ancient brick paving. As I got back to my car, I looked back over the quiet nighttime scene, and all of the ages of the city were there at once, jazz-aged, city-slick, post-modern dreaming serenely together into the future. Standing there at day one, ten years seemed a long time in the future, but this city s patient; it will make it, and when we get there, who knows what changes will have come from the seeds that were planted this night?
I took the exit up to the highway, headed home to the suburbs. And behind me, the city forged in amalgamation and collaboration and with music and art flowing through its very veins slept, and dreamed of the future.
To share with Envision Arts KC your vision of the future of arts in the Kansas City area, please visit the Envision ACKC website at www.kcmomentum.com.