CJ Janovy, KCUR
Harlan Brownlee wishes he could just erase the state line dividing Missouri and Kansas.
In fact, Brownlee knows how he’d do it. He’s the president of ArtsKC, a non-profit that makes grants and provides other resources to artists throughout the five-county metropolitan region. So, in his vivid imagination, he gets his hands on one of the giant Typewriter Erasers by Shuttlecocks sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and rolls it down State Line Road.
He doesn’t have a giant eraser at his disposal, but ArtsKC does have something perhaps more useful: data. And it shows that, while the state line does provoke “border wars” in sports rivalries and economic-development incentives, it isn’t much of a barrier when it comes to the city’s cultural landscape.
Over the past few years, ArtsKC has taken part in two national studies organized by an advocacy group called Americans for the Arts. Metro Kansas City was among 100 communities taking part in surveys that resulted in a trove of numbers quantifying the reach of an industry more often considered soft and subjective. For example, they found the five-county region is home to:
Among the biggest surprises, Brownlee says, was the when it comes to overall “arts participation,” Kansas City is in the top 20 percent.
“In a ranking of 15 metropolitan communities, we were number three in terms of our participation. In the region, we are participating in the arts at a very, very high level – a higher level than we realized. So that also helps us understand that there’s a high demand for arts," he says.
"Not only do we have this high level of participation, we also have a high level of spending per capita. In both of those categories we were above the national average.”
Artists know no boundaries
The numbers affirm what artists and arts organizations already knew intuitively and anecdotally.
“The fact that we have a highly participatory resident base is unique – but it’s not unique on the Missouri side or the Kansas side,” says Becky Blades, an artist who is chair of the ArtsKC board of directors. “This is an arty town — all five counties, both sides of the state line. Art exists in our community because artists exist in our community. For artists, making art is nourishment – it’s oxygen – and they can’t tell the difference between oxygen in Missouri, Leawood, Overland Park.”
That’s been the case for Lauren McGill, who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in May 2014, held her senior thesis show at the Vine Street Studio near 18th and Vine in downtown Kansas City, Mo., and now works at the InterUrban ArtHouse, an Overland Park, Kan., non-profit that provides studio space and other resources for artists.
Despite their geographic differences, McGill says, Vine Street Studios and InterUrban ArtHouse both places have similar goals.
“They both want to have spaces for artists where they can show their work, where they can talk about their work, and they really want to bring the community that surrounds them together around art and creativity,” she says.
One recent example of arts organizations collaborating across the state line was New Dance Partners, a weekend of performances by Owen/Cox Dance Group, the Kansas City Ballet and the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall — three dance companies based in Missouri, performing at a premier venue on the Kansas side.
“I don’t feel as if the state line is a border,” says Jennifer Owen, co-founder and artistic director of the Owen/Cox Dance Group, which is based in Kansas City, Mo. “We have performed on both sides – our annual ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ at (Johnson County Community College’s) Polsky Theater, we’ve also done a performance at the Jewish Community Center and at the YWCA in Kansas City, Kan., and many performances in Missouri. I don’t feel like we feel restricted border-wise.”
Arts audiences agree.
Lisa Terry has season tickets to multiple theater companies, goes to library lectures, and has even gone on out-of-town trips sponsored by the Kemper Museum of Art. She and her husband used to live in Lee’s Summit, and now they live in Johnson County.
“This year, I’ve noticed some of the Kansas City-based groups coming out to Johnson County,” Terry says, citing performances by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival at both the Jewish Community Center and Johnson County Community College. “And KC Actors Studio has a presentation over at Johnson County,” she says.
Even the city’s major corporations are participating in the arts. Terry is an associate vice president at Black & Veatch, which works with a group called the Kansas City Collection to bring art by Kansas City artists – from both sides of the line — into in its world headquarters in Overland Park. Sculptures, paintings, and installations compliment the comfortable furniture in the hallways and conference rooms, enhancing the creative vibe for the math and engineering types who work there.
The legacy of bistate
Despite the data and ubiquitous examples of arts participation throughout the region, there’s still one huge difference between Kansas and Missouri.
“Historically in Kansas, you haven’t seen the same public funding commitment to the arts that you have in Missouri,” says Mary Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer of the Mid-America Arts Alliance. “You haven’t seen the same infrastructure in place for arts organizations on the Kansas side that you’ve seen in Missouri, and you haven’t seen the same donor base on the Kansas side that you’ve seen in Missouri.”
Kennedy’s group manages traveling exhibitions, performing arts tours and professional development for artists and communities in six states; it also funnels National Endowment for the Arts funding to museums, art galleries and educational programs. So Kennedy had a front-row seat when Kansas lost out on more than $1 million dollars after Gov. Sam Brownback zeroed out the Kansas Arts Commission’s budget in 2011. Some of that funding has been restored, but Kennedy sees the effects of historical patterns.
“In Missouri you have a budget of somewhere between $5 and $8 million for the Missouri Arts Council each year, whereas Kansas has a budget of about $200,000 this year and had no budget two years ago,” Kennedy notes.
That historic lack of support, Kennedy says, means Kansas arts institutions have not been able to thrive in the same ways Missouri institutions have, where there’s a healthy arts infrastructure and organizations have grown.
“When you’re looking at the state line it may not be evident from the consumer level,” she says, “but within the industry there are certainly huge inequities on either side that have impacted those organizations tremendously.”
Enthusiastic private donors have been generous to the arts, particularly what Kennedy calls the “Big 5” organizations: the Kansas City Ballet, the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, the Missouri Repertory Theatre Company, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – all on the Missouri side.
Arts leaders note that other major cities have more public funding for the arts – and that’s another example of how the state line has been a big barrier: A decade ago, when voters considered a bi-state cultural tax, Missouri voters said yes but Kansans said no. More public funding for the arts might be a goal, but that’ll take more than a cultural renaissance. It’ll take a political renaissance too.