a charlotte street 15 year anniversary project considering the history and future of artist-driven pioneering in Kansas City and the changing nature of the city's "frontiers"
Reviewmagazine, May/June 2002
AFFIRMING COMMUNITY AND ENABLING ART
Review Editor Kate Hackman invited Charlotte Street Fund founder David Hughes, former CSF Advisory Panel member John O’Brien, and current CSF Advisory Panel member Raechell Smith to join her for a discussion. O’Brien owns Dolphin Gallery and Smith is Director and Curator of H&R Block Artspace at Kansas City Art Institute. They gathered in early April at the Artspace. Among other things, it was learned that the Charlotte Street Fund began as an idea scribbled on a bar napkin.
Kate Hackman: The first thing I want to ask you, David, is about how you began the Charlotte Street Fund. How was the idea originally conceived, what made you believe it would be an important thing to do in Kansas City, and where were you at that point in terms of your involvement with art and the art community? What made you feel that you could make it happen — and that it was something that was important to make happen?
David Hughes: I think I had just gone on the board of the Kansas City Art Institute, or was about to. I was on the Contributions Committee for American Century and was responsible for contributions to the arts. We were also doing corporate collecting for American Century. Beyond that, I was on various boards, like the Unicorn Theater and the Coterie, and had friends in the art world: artists, gallery people, people like Raechell, John, etc.
I don’t know where the idea came from — it seemed rather obvious to do in light of government cutbacks and things that had gone on in the politics of the 80s, as individuals had been refused grants nationally. It just seemed like a good idea to raise local artists in the eyes of collectors and to raise the whole art scene in terms of visibility with corporations and foundations. The Charlotte Street Fund seemed like one small way to do that.
I think I saw myself, and still see myself, as a sort of bridge between the art world and the corporate/foundation world. The first person I talked to was John, and we batted around ideas. We recruited three other curators and I talked to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. They had never started a fund where they gave grants to individuals so that was a bit of a hurdle, but we got through that. I talked to American Century and got a commitment to start — I got $10,000 from them.
KH: Is the award administered through the Community Foundation?
DH: Yes, it’s technically a donor-advised fund under the auspices of the Community Foundation. So we got American Century to start it off and that was it for the first year. I thought that first year we would use the grant from American Century and then the second year go after individuals from a fundraising standpoint and the third year go to corporations and foundations. So that’s the way it went, the way it started.
KH: Will you talk a bit about the initial process — how you made the decision, for instance, that it would be an unrestricted grant and that you would use an advisory panel of curators to select artists. What were the initial criteria that you established for the award and how it would be administered, and what was your process in coming to some of those decisions?
DH: We set it up as unrestricted — we felt strongly we didn’t want to dictate where the money would go, so it could go for a trip to Paris, or supplies, or beer! We didn’t have any staff so we didn’t want to take applications, and we felt like the curators knew the world here so didn’t think we needed applications to get started. It was to be solely on the merit of the work —and recent work — not on need, and purely based on the judgment of the advisors. With $10,000 the first year, we wanted some number of awards. We didn’t want it to be one artist, but we didn’t want it to be 20, or whatever. So we decided on four at $2,500.
KH: With that first round, was it a pretty small pool of people that were brought to the table as nominees? Has that pool grown significantly from then to now in terms of how many people are on the list of nominees at a meeting?
DH: I think it was a pretty big pool that first year. It was pretty daunting when we were first starting — there were quite a few artists to put on the list initially. I think our fear in the long run was whether there would be enough artists over time to sustain it. I don’t know if the pool’s gotten bigger, but it certainly hasn’t gotten smaller. And a lot of new names are on the list.
KH: Raechell, you became involved as a panel member how many years ago?
Raechell Smith: I joined the Charlotte Street Fund Advisory Panel in 2000, following the awards and exhibition of the 1999 Charlotte Street Fund, which was hosted by the Artspace. We were just opening and agreed to host the exhibition. I served as curator and worked closely with advisory members and the artists that year. Then, I think the experience for everyone was positive enough that I was invited to join the panel. It was also time to rotate one of the advisors — the Charlotte Street Fund now rotates pretty regularly and brings new advisors in. So that was my introduction.
I felt strongly from the beginning that this was the perfect program to be happening in a place like Kansas City, given that individual artist grants were no longer being made by the Missouri Arts Council or the National Endowment for the Arts. In working locally with the arts community, we know that artists have needs that aren’t always met on a daily basis. As an artist, you want to feel like you have a livelihood that will support you making work, and recognition, so it felt important to increase the level of awareness and credibility for artists working here. People were collecting work at that point, but I don’t know that they were taking Kansas City artists as seriously. There were only a few people in Kansas City that were really supporting and showing work by local artists, so getting it curated and presenting it in a number of different venues felt really important to me.
KH: Do you feel an impact in the sense of people taking Kansas City artists more seriously? Do you think the award and the exhibition, specifically, have put local art on a more viable, more high-profile kind of a level?
John O’Brien: I’d take just a few steps back…David’s initial idea, I think, was to really bring awareness to local artists. There were not people collecting that many local artists, and still today not many people take chances on local artists. But we have a wonderful wealth and pool of work out there that’s done by local artists. David talked about the idea of trying to recognize those that have stayed here, hung in, and tried to create an art scene in Kansas City. The money issue is a big part of what Charlotte Street’s about, but I think even more so it’s about recognizing as a whole the strength that we have here.
From David initially talking to me, this picked up very, very quickly. The initial idea was set in place. David and I had a conversation about the fact that there are people here that are philanthropic and believe in the arts, and that there might be somebody who supports the ballet, supports the symphony, and some people that are not really collectors of art, but who might support it. How do we recognize the artists that are out there producing work and trying to participate in the community? Community is a big part of what Charlotte Street is about. [The recipient is] somebody who has been participating within a community, or within a group of artists; working with their peers or trying to push things with their work. David felt that we could try to spin off and add a little bit of energy to that. There were very few venues for local artists to show and gain recognition or ways just to get their name in the paper.
Early on, David and I talked about not having a catalog and not having a show at all. The show kind of came through because Craig Subler was on the [advisory] board and had a show [at UMKC] that had been canceled, so he offered the space. I don’t think we really realized the power of what the show does for the Charlotte Street and what the catalog actually brought to the plate also, for the artists — that it was almost just as important as the concept of initiating the cash award.
KH: When I was working on the show last year [as curator and essayist], we talked a lot about the evolving concept of the show — the importance of having a curator and the importance of doing the catalog and having an essay. Raechell, would you talk a little bit about that and how it has shifted at the different spaces where the shows have happened.
RS: First I want to add to John’s comments regarding what we see the impact of Charlotte Street being on the community, and the arts community, specifically. It is about recognizing how the arts contribute to the livability of Kansas City and becoming advocates for the visual arts community — but also about encouraging the advocacy of others. I see everyone as a partner: those involved in nominating artists for awards, the recipients of the awards, the volunteers, the curators who write and present the exhibition, all the way to everyone who’s contributing a dollar, and hopefully more, to the fund, as well as everyone who comes to the exhibition. Encouraging that kind of advocacy is really, I think, at the very heart of what Charlotte Street Fund is doing.
The first exhibition was presented in 1997 at the UMKC Gallery, but it wasn’t a curated show. The space was available for the artists, and my understanding is that they sited their own work. There were four awards given, with one of the awards going to two artists who collaborated. They were kind of left to make their own exhibition. And a writer from outside the community, who had been living and working in Kansas City for a while but who had relocated, was invited to write the brochure essay. The second year, 1998, it was presented in Loft 122, which was not affiliated with an organization and had no administrative staff. And so, again, the artists were responsible for making the exhibition happen.
JO: And also hanging it!
RS: That seemed to put a lot of the onus onto the artist, which was fine, but when the Artspace had an opportunity to present it, in 1999, I was anxious to have a role and work with the artists. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons the Artspace was invited: the advisory panel at that point knew that I wanted to be involved and wanted to make some of those decisions with the artists. It shifted a little bit, so that it became more an extension of the award, I think, in that we were seriously committed to presenting and curating the exhibition. An extension of the dialogue that we were all having was this question of what could we do to contribute to the vitality and sustainability of the community One thing that constantly came up on panel discussions that were held at the Nelson, and in conversations at the Art Institute, or at Dolphin Gallery, or in people’s living rooms, was that in addition to the need for developing a stronger collector base and more advocacy and support for creating opportunities for artists locally — we weren’t seeing curated exhibitions of Kansas City artists. We weren’t really creating a context or a specific framework in which we could have a more conscientious, thoughtful conversation about who was here working and what kind of work were they doing and whether it was different than that of artists in Chicago or New York. So, beginning to have a curated show was really about raising the level of awareness of the kind of work that was going on here and adding more credibility to it. What we found when we started seeing curated exhibitions was that the work being made here in Kansas City was competitive to work that was being made by artists in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles. We didn’t really have to define it as if we weren’t part of that ongoing conversation because clearly we were, we just hadn’t put it on the platform yet.
One of the things that happened as a result is that we saw how many people were coming from Raytown and Peculiar and Midtown and Independence and south Johnson County to see these exhibitions. These were people that weren’t necessarily coming to these venues otherwise. They wanted to come because it was an exhibition of artists that were working here in Kansas City. We also saw an increased professionalization of the exhibitions…things that were specifically laid out to tell a story or to make a group exhibition of work by artists who weren’t similar in any way, necessarily, more cohesive.
What I also think is important is creating another level of opportunity, not for the artist, but for arts professionals. We can have 500 incredible artists working in Kansas City, but if there aren’t people who are writing quality art criticism, if there aren’t people curating good exhibitions of local, regional, national, international artists’ work, if there aren’t not- for- profit museum and gallery directors interested in the regional community and local artists, and also if there aren’t commercial galleries committed to Kansas City artists, it wouldn’t matter if there were 500 or two. They wouldn’t have the same opportunities.
KH: Another thing that you’ve mentioned to me, having hosted two Charlotte Street shows, is that your public for them is broader, and a big public. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
RS: The profile is slightly different than what we might get if we’re hosting a student show or an artist who is working in Los Angeles and isn’t known as well here. For example, the first year we presented the Charlotte Street Fund Exhibition I was on the phone for quite a while each and every day giving directions to people who had never been to the Artspace. That’s understandable, because we’d only been open for a couple of months at that point. But I would use the Nelson-Atkins, for example, as in “do you know where the Nelson-Atkins is?” And often the callers who wanted directions to come didn’t know where the Nelson was, couldn’t even use the Plaza as a reference. So that told me that people were going out of their way in a way that they might not otherwise. People want to see what artists are doing here. And often they have an opportunity to meet the artist, learn a little bit more about them, and hopefully then they become excited about the Charlotte Street Fund’s mission. Maybe a year later or two years later they become a contributor. It doesn’t have to be a substantial contribution, but they, in essence, become partners.
KH: In having an exhibition that puts the work directly out into the public, both a public of critics and a broader public, have there been criticisms that then have influenced some of the decisions you have made or the thinking about what sort of artists you’re choosing? I know that there was Elizabeth Kirsch’s review in The Star that sort of called the Fund to task, asking “well, where are the minority artists, where are the video and performance artists?” We’ve all had this conversation. The argument is, “well, we don’t have a lot of performance artists — the award is reflective of the community of artists that are working there.” But what sort of criticism have you received, and how has it been internalized?
RS: Can I start? I haven’t really heard anything in the form of criticism. What I hear is a dialogue about what kind of work is recognized and acknowledged by the Fund and what kind of work is ending up in the exhibitions. I want to make it very clear, because the mission of the Fund is very specific, in that we are recognizing outstanding visual art in Kansas City. We’re not creating the work, we’re not commissioning the work, we are simply finding out what work is being made and making our decisions based on what we feel is here and present in the community. Has it become apparent to us that there aren’t a lot of artists doing one kind of work or another kind of work, or that there might not be a great diversity of artists working here? There are minority artists working here, but they may not have the same kind of visibility. What happens is the dialogue ensues and we become more aware. I think that, too, comes from seeing curated exhibitions of local art for the first time, which puts it into context and says, “okay, well, what’s missing? What’s present, what’s missing?” That gives us an opportunity to look at the situation in a conceptual framework, which we’d never had an opportunity to do. If one person says to me, for example, “where are the artists of color?”, I think it’s the Fund’s responsibility to become a part of that dialogue and ask some questions in a slightly different way. I don’t think it’s the Fund’s responsibility to make something happen that’s not already happening.
DH: It wasn’t as if we hadn’t asked ourselves that question. It wasn’t a new question; it was just out in the open.
JO: A lot of people might not know how the award is structured — that the Charlotte Street has a basic kind of mission statement that leaves things a little open ended, so we can evolve and figure out its path within a certain guideline. There is a group of nominators and some of those nominators are sometimes secret nominators. And sometimes one list might be comprised of numerous individuals’ opinions. When I would compile a list of artists, it would not just be my opinion — I would go to friends if I respected their eye and I would ask them. Many times I would include Davin Watne down at the Dirt Gallery and ask him, “Hey, do you know anybody that I should put on my list? Help educate me.” So I think a real community-based thing is what it goes back to. And then, since it’s not really applied for, that artist has to be within the community somewhere — they need to get their work out to be seen. A community is what really builds things, and you almost have to be somewhere within that larger, greater community of awareness to get on somebody’s list.
KH: In a sense, the criterion is not purely artistic talent — it’s putting your work out there, being involved … ?
JO: Participating within a community. To me, what’s really going to benefit the community as a whole is participating in something, whether it’s showing or writing or criticizing. I think criticism is really welcome because I think that’s really what creates dialogue with other artists. A long time ago, when there were very few galleries for local artists, or venues to show in, art was kind of one thing. Now it is no longer one thing. Local artists are very diverse. You can see it with the nominees. If you throw all their work into a room, or look at their slides on a table, you’ll see how diverse things are. It’s a very open eye of selection for the awards.
DH: But the awards are really based on the quality of the work. You get known through a variety of mechanisms and manners, mostly by getting your work out there, but the decision, to be clear, is based on the work. It’s not based on anything else.
JO: Yeah, it’s really based on the quality of the work. But since it’s so many different board members voting and selecting and adding on lists, that could be challenged some. Because everybody has a different eye. I think that the Charlotte Street represents somebody who is making quality work and also has the confidence to believe in that work — to feel comfortable with getting it out there. The other thing is they have to be producing. I think that comes with confidence in one’s own direction. They really have to be trying to push their own art form — producing and really investigating things. The wonderful thing about the Charlotte Street, and with the exhibitions, is that a lot of commercial galleries might not take some of this work on. Artists have the freedom to dream and do everything and anything they can imagine. Somebody who’s following an honest path with his or her work is what I’m interested in.
DH: One criticism we did get was to have local writers — we had two out of town writers at first for the catalogs. We took that criticism to heart and said, “they’re right.” So we’ve stuck to local writers. There has been criticism that the award wasn’t broader than visual artists, that it was not performing artists. But it was not set up for that. So we didn’t change our mission or agenda based on that.
I want to get back to something we were talking about earlier in terms of the mission statement. Initially, I don’t think it was envisioned that the visibility of the work would be as important, although that was an objective. We thought the cash award would be the most significant thing. But it very quickly turned, particularly with the exhibitions, and particularly in the third year when it came to the Block Artspace. We upgraded that exhibition significantly because of the venue, and because of Raechell, and because it was the first curated show. It became apparent that the visibility and the recognition of the show was every bit as important, if not more important…
RS: … and also helped to serve and extend the mission. Now, not only do the artists receive the cash award, but they have an exhibition presented in which they’re not responsible for all the details. They get to work in collaboration with the curator, but all the details are taken care of for them. They have a four-color illustrated brochure that discusses their work and that can then be sent on to other galleries, other curators, other cities. There is also the web presence, which was added in 2001, so the work is visible now to a much greater regional and national audience through the website. And the recipients have been featured in national art publications for two years.
JO: I remember early on when the circumstance came to us to possibly put an exhibition together at UMKC. There were some curators that were on the panel that really encouraged a brochure to be produced, because a lot of people can’t get out and see shows, and because that’s how some curators educate themselves as to what’s out there. They realized what a tool that would be to benefit the artist and also to raise the awareness of the Charlotte Street. A big goal was for this to carry on and to be able to do it year after year. The education that we could do about local artists would benefit the community but also help us to continue doing this.
KH: This gets back to the funding question. The initial award was $2,500 and this year it was $6,000. I am curious about what kind of fundraising efforts you’ve made and to what extent people have been approaching you as opposed to you going out and approaching them. How has the momentum developed and, hopefully, will continue to develop?
DH: People have been really supportive and I think they understand the mission, the objective. Well beyond the collectors, it’s people interested in the arts that have formed the base. Having said that, no matter how good the idea is, you’ve still got to go out and beat the bushes. And so that’s what we’ve done. It started as I described earlier, and, little by little, each year we’ve tried to ask for different support and to raise the levels of support. I think we could do better, but there’s only so much time and energy
RS: I think it’s important to add that this is a voluntary effort. Everyone who’s involved volunteers their time because they believe this is something that’s worthwhile and valuable. There’s not a full time fundraiser out there writing grants and soliciting contributions. This is all done by the advisory board as time allows.
JO: The brunt of the burden of raising the funds is on David’s shoulders every year. David is the one that’s out there driving it and having lunches and meetings and making telephone calls, and he’s really the one generating all the letters and overseeing other people’s roles… a lot of it falls on David’s shoulders and support comes from really respecting what he’s done. There have been people that have sent a $25 check and it’s just as appreciated as something else because it is their recognition of being able to turn that money over and directly into an artist’s hands.
I remember the first year the checks were given out. David gave me the checks and I ran and slid them in mailboxes, just to try to do it very quickly. We didn’t even really know how to turn around and mail it, whether it should be certified, and it happened very, very loosely. David’s concept was such a pure basic idea of giving back to community and it’s really stuck to that. It seems very odd to look back, thinking about how loosely everything was talked about and then proceeded ahead in a very short time period, with American Century seed money to kick it off. That first year every dime was set aside and turned right over to the artists.
RS: And it has grown from kind of a grassroots, push-up-your-sleeves and make it happen kind of initiative into a mature, well recognized, credible initiative that is now being looked at by others outside our community as a benchmark and a model for other programs.
DH: To back up to what John was saying, the Fund was set up so that there were four curators and me, and I was doing the bulk of the fundraising. The curators were really there to nominate and make selections. As we’ve done more over time, we’ve divvied up other duties. I’ve stayed on the fundraising, primarily. But recently we’ve expanded to include some community advisors, with the hope and thought that others would begin to help with fundraising, marketing, public relations, the web site — other kinds of non-curatorial activities. And that’s just beginning.
KH: Are there examples of people from other places that you looked to for models in establishing the Fund, or who have since approached you with an interest in doing something like it themselves in another city?
DH: Maybe I should have done more research when we started. I did not contact others. We had our own set of ideas and criteria that launched us on this. I don’t really think it was based on other models…
RS: What was obvious though, at that point, was that individual artist grants were no longer being made by organizations — grants that had been relied upon as a potential source of funding for artists. The National Endowment for the Arts was no longer making individual artist grants. The Missouri Arts Council was no longer making individual artist grants. So that was a need that was seen.
DH: So anything you did would be wonderful! We just started from that. We’ve had discussions with other cities, other organizations. I’m not aware that anybody has modeled his or her programs after this. We’ve talked to people in Boston and St. Louis, people in San Francisco and Chicago. There are only a handful of organizations doing this on any sort of basis, whether it’s on a local basis or nationally. As you compare the kinds of criteria or activity, it’s clear that some take applications, some do not; some have an exhibition and others do not. Some of the grants are unrestricted and some are not.
KH: One of the repercussions one might see from this is a heightening of Kansas City’s profile as a viable community for artists both from within and from without, I would think, especially now, having a web site and having national advertisements, where people from outside the state will hear about what’s happening in Kansas City. I am interested in how the sense of this impact has led to other projects. David, are the projects you are currently developing in the Crossroads and downtown directly related to your Charlotte Street experiences?
DH: Can I back up to one other thing? In terms of the impact locally, I think when we started we thought there would be ripple effects, but we didn’t know how and where. Raechell talked about some of those in terms of dialogue among curators. I think there is camaraderie — I wasn’t part of it before, but there seems to be a real camaraderie among art professionals. Maybe Charlotte Street didn’t create that, but I’ve become aware of the fact through it, anyway. And it’s an amazing group of people who really do have the betterment of the city, the community, and the artists in mind. That’s been very positive. I don’t know what the impact has been on the artists per se — I’m going to let them speak for themselves. But in terms of this community we’re talking about, I think there is an increased awareness, appreciation, pride, if you will, in what’s being done here. Amongst the general public, that’s probably a stretch. Raechell’s point was interesting, in terms of different kinds of people coming to the exhibition — perhaps there’s some of that. I think definitely in the funding community there’s an awareness that wasn’t there before. I wouldn’t attribute that only to the Charlotte Street — it’s a number of activities and spaces and people that are together making it happen.
I personally haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the Charlotte Street Fund with others outside Kansas City. But when it does come up, or when visitors come in town, or when it is talked about in another city, I think it’s discussed more in the context of everything else going on. There’s general amazement with the diversity and the amount and quality of visual arts activity in a city of this size. Charlotte Street is just a part of that.
In terms of it leading to other activities — for me personally, I guess my work for the Charlotte Street Fund and the Kansas City Art Institute, combined with discussions with some friends in the theater world and dance world, has led me to these next projects. I think the Art Institute is the most important arts organization in town. Period. I don’t believe people begin to understand the impact on the day-to-day fabric of the community that we’re talking about. What other organization brings so many artists and so much community to bare, day to day, around here? The impact of discussions amongst the Charlotte Street Fund advisors, over many, many lunches and dinners on a range of topics, have certainly manifested themselves in different ways in terms of my interest in doing more.
KH: Getting back to the Art Institute a little bit, did you feel at the time when you were starting the award that one goal was to provide an incentive for students who were graduating from the Art Institute— to give a sense of this as a supportive art community and a place to stay? Certainly things have changed in terms of the number of students interested in staying in Kansas City
DH: Absolutely. I wouldn’t apply that just to the Art Institute. But since the Art Institute provides the preponderance of artists in town, absolutely.
RS: We all understood that there was a certain idea in people’s minds that they could come here, teach here, study here or do a variety of things here, but, in order to move onto that next level, they would have to go somewhere else — they couldn’t justify or rationalize staying here in Kansas Citv — even though there were a number of benefits: it’s a livable place, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to have work/live space, there are venues wherein people can show their work. It was really a matter of asking, “What can we do to make this a more livable community, not only for non-artists and viewers, but also to make it a more attractive place for artists to stay and live and work?” We want to recognize artists who have chosen to live here and work here as opposed to choosing to do that somewhere else. Because we do feel strongly that it makes a difference in our daily lives to have them here, in terms of everything from new neighborhoods, and the economic development that comes from that, to having things to do on a Friday night.
JO: There are probably a lot of people that don’t know where the name came from. It came from a group of artists and musicians and writers — a group of people that hung out on Charlotte Street at an artist’s house. The Art Institute brought many of them here to Kansas City and they stayed and continued to contribute to a community of people in many ways. It was very enriching to be around these artists, and to participate within a group, and to be welcomed into a group of people that had been together for years before I met them and years before David met them. To have the strength of a community is a lot different than trying to do things by yourself and individually. And within that group is a lot of dialogue, a lot of inner criticism and battling and fighting and hugging. That’s what makes a strong art community
I really enjoy when the award recipients are known — when they’re published in the paper or word gets around town — because there’s always somebody saying, “Well, why didn’t I get it?” or “I can’t believe that person got it.” That contributes to a strong community, to criticize from within its own group. It really shows a strong force and even that there are separate little communities within it. As a whole it can really drive things.
KH: One thing I noticed last year, working on the show, was that here were six artists who didn’t all know each other. To have them in the same space at the same time, looking at each other’s stuff and talking to each other about it, was a great experience.
JO: I remember the first UMKC show — everybody was very, very curious. There were some artists who received checks and they thought they were bogus, like, “This money goes toward a TV and come on down and we’re going to show it to you.” And I remember David showing up and many people did not know him. Who was this David Hughes? Numerous times David used Russell Ferguson as a screen to hide behind. Someone would say his name and I would say, “Well, let me find him and I’ll introduce you.” And David would be cowering behind Russell. I think there are still people trying to figure out how this thing works and what is the purpose of it. The main thing that I look at is the recognition and the professionalism, and also the dollars as a collective whole of what’s been contributed back. This is something that was needed, but it’s not something that David, or the whole community that’s come together, have to do. It’s something that all of us contribute back. Because we live here and we would really love to see the community enriched.
RS: We participated in a round table discussion for the 2001 Charlotte Street Fund. What struck me about that conversation was the feedback that we were having from the artists. It was less “I spent this money by doing this, I spent the money by doing that,” but instead, “I so appreciated the opportunity to exhibit with this artist who I’ve always admired, who I never really had an opportunity to know.” And another artist saying, “You know, I really appreciated the opportunity to install my work in the space along with this artist who deals with similar issues.” That becomes a dialogue that they will continue well beyond that exhibition, well after they spend the money from the award. It increases the network of people for them, and for the advisors as well, to have conversations and use each other as resources and really pull on each other’s expertise.
As John and David have been saying, it is much more about this larger thing, about how we all contribute and how we all do what we do because we want to be a part of it and want to continue to create new opportunities and have a platform for advocacy. David was talking a minute ago about some of the impacts and I think it’s really hard to measure that, but what I’ve thought about in the last couple of years is seeing the number of new opportunities that have been initiated that do give serious consideration to local artists and regional artists. It may have been something that was existing in one form or another before, but it seems like there has been a shift. Artists from Kansas City and the state of Missouri are now given greater consideration for Municipal Art Commissions for public art projects. There’s a public and private initiative, Avenue of the Arts, which supports local artists and offers first-time opportunities to create larger scale works within a public arena. That will, hopefully, extend the pool and give more artists an opportunity to work in that manner, proving that they can meet a deadline, conceive of an idea, realize it, and do a project with a specific budget.
Other things like Review magazine have started up, which absolutely are about creating, sustaining, and celebrating a community. Never before have we had a publication in Kansas City that gives quite the voice and thoughtfulness to what’s going on here and that provides not only opportunities for artists to gain exposure, but opportunities for young artists to contribute and for young people who are interested in writing to write art criticism. That’s doing so much to strengthen the fabric, the foundation that we have. Do I think Charlotte Street was responsible for those things? No. But I think we’ve gained a lot of partners moving towards the same point on the same horizon line. That might have been one of the dreams that David had initially or originally but couldn’t quite spell out in physical terms or describe what it might look like. But, in fact, it’s coming true and it’s maybe exceeding what initial hope people had for things that might happen.
KH: What would you all cite as the things that are missing — things that might have the potential to bring things to another level, or just further support what’s going on now?
DH: I think the Art Institute is — I’ll repeat it — the most important thing we’ve got going. My wish would be that it gets as much attention from city, civic, corporate, and foundation leaders, and funding, as the Nelson gets, in time.
JO: I would add that the Art Institute is what brought me to Kansas City and I have many friends that are involved in the arts that have also been brought to Kansas City by the Art Institute. A lot of us have stayed and tried to make it our home. I recognize the Art Institute brought me here and the Dolphin would not he here in Kansas City otherwise.
But I think one of the main things for the arts is to broaden the audience. There are so few collectors here in town. Many of those collectors have over the years developed their own eyes and travel and collect, which you want for any really strong kind of community. But there is a real lack of young collectors coming up that will take chances on work and try to support. Commercial galleries are always a few steps behind on art that’s really being made today, I think. It’s something that I struggle with, with the Dolphin. One aspect is that I need to keep it running so we have our doors open. I have to put work out there kind of on a balance wire to figure out what is going to generate sales. But also I want to be able to mix it up sometimes and be satisfied myself with what we’re showing, and challenge things. The audiences are getting larger. I think Charlotte Street has helped with that, and the Artspace, and everybody kind of pushing in their own little areas. Collectively, we have really come a long way in the last ten years in Kansas City. But I think there’s still so much more potential for people to understand that the arts are viable and to gain new audiences. It is very important on both fronts, as contributors and corporate sponsors, to educate people just how much art is really desired and needed.
RS: One of the things that I think is important at this point is for Kansas City to continue to gain confidence and to do what we can to increase the level of awareness, both within our community and beyond our community, about what’s going on. People who come here and learn about what’s going on here do get excited and they become ambassadors once they get on a plane and go back to wherever they’re going. It helps us recruit students at the Art Institute and recruit really excellent faculty at the Art Institute. It helps us inspire each other and challenge each other to continue doing great programming that is of interest not only to our immediate community but that is worthy of recognition outside Kansas City.
When we look to other cities, other artists, and other arts communities, sometimes we find points of inspiration that we might not see on a daily basis. What’s important to me is always to strive — to bring in that great new idea, to create that wonderful new opportunity for the next artist or for the next group of artists. I want more opportunities for artists and more opportunities to make the artists working here known to other audiences. I’d like to see more artists getting reviewed in national art publications, which is clearly happening and it’s happened more in the last several years than it did for a long time. Just off the top of my head, I can count four, maybe five artists who have been recipients of the Charlotte Street Fund Award who have had one person reviews in important national art publications. Just in the last two years. That’s important to me because I think it’s important to them and it increases the opportunities that they have to continue living and working here. Quite frankly, I love to bring visitors in from outside Kansas City and show them the reasons that I stay here — the incredible stuff that’s going on. It’s probably one of the most dynamic regional art communities outside of maybe New York; maybe … I think what’s going on in Kansas City is just as exciting as what’s going on in Minneapolis and Chicago, San Antonio, Houston — wherever. I’m here because of the energy that’s here. And because of the things that are going on. So I want more of that.
DH: It all relates back to the artist and finding ways to make this a better place for artists to be. That means going to the collecting base and trying to extend that both on an individual basis and on an institutional or business basis. And I still think we’ve got a long ways to go in terms of making the city understand how important art is, and our community is, to the large community — the city. A lot has gone on in terms of work, and in terms of economic development, by artists and by the community, but I don’t think this city really recognizes that. So we need to find ways to make that so apparent that people can’t ignore it. I think that will accrue benefits to the art community in terms of, hopefully, institutionalized funding over time, but also, as importantly, maybe generating more collectors and more business collectors.
The projects we’re talking about — for example, downtown galleries and studios and spaces for artists and for small art organizations — if we can get them off the ground, I think it will benefit artists in the fact that more work will be shown, they will get some temporary free spaces, and maybe we can get some subsidized long-term spaces in there. Artists will be at the feet of these buildings that are, in the eyes of the city, poster children for bad buildings they want to tear down. So if the city can turn inward to us, to its own fellow citizens here, and say, “help us,” maybe we get a spark going and, at the same time, increase the audience for the arts. If any of that works, that’s something they can’t ignore. And as much time as they spend thinking about those gargantuan buildings and tearing down things, if some of this small grassroots activity actually begins to work I think our hope is that adds another layer of support and appreciation.
KH: And it’s another level of community building. It extends that community and involves other people in it who aren’t already in the middle.
RS: Right. It’s about recognizing the valuable contributions that artists can make as opposed to asking them, once again, to contribute a work of art for an event that’s a fundraiser for another organization. Few people understand that when an artist donates a work of art it is not tax deductible for them. There is no financial benefit for them doing it; it’s out of the kindness of their heart. This is a way that an artist can make a really valuable contribution to the community and benefit from it as well.
DH: For what it’s worth, there are a lot of people who are nodding their heads on these topics. The dialogues that are going on are encouraging in terms of people beginning to get this. Whether anything comes of it or not is another matter. But I think the dialogue is good and I think, as Raechell was saying, whether its Review of Charlotte Street or these spaces—its all of these actions together that are creating this.