Snapshot of Kansas City: The Crossroads District

In the past ten years, the arts in Kansas City have again been riding an upswing, largely due to the reclamation power of the arts, particularly in the Crossroads district.  The district became home to more than 60 art businesses and organizations, with developers and architects very cautiously following the artists’ lead.

Considering the ebb and flow of its art scene, Kansas City might as well be on one of the coasts. The fluidity of momentum seems as ever changing and cyclical as lunar-determined tides. For a brief decade, the city will glimmer in a capriciously dubbed “gilded age,” ornamenting itself with hot new galleries that dangle precariously above the financial precipice, barely secured on a shoestring of cool. Strings break, knots slip, and then for the next dreary five or dime years, locals bemoan the cultural wasteland that their town has become, redeemed only by the Art Institute, the Nelson, and a few stubborn strongholds.

In the past ten years, the arts in Kansas City have again been riding an upswing, largely due to the reclamation power of the arts, particularly in the Crossroads district. For years, it was an urban area ripe for revitalization, a languishing no-man’s-land just south of downtown. Empty warehouses could be bought for next to nothing, transformed by tireless artists with strong work ethics and pugnacity. The district became home to more than 60 art businesses and organizations, with developers and architects very cautiously following the artists’ lead. The monthly “First Friday” became the biggest regular event in town, with over 40 galleries and design studios open late, aided by free trolleys providing transport throughout the evening.

Unfortunately, this arts-driven success story has proved to be its own garrote. In recent years, the assessments and tax bills for rehabbed buildings have doubled, even tripled. As is often the case in urban renewal, those who worked hard to bring about change are being squeezed by their own gentrification efforts. Some resident artists and gallery owners are worried that the skyrocketing property taxes will force them out, which begs the rhetorical question: “If the galleries and colorfuls leave, what will be the district’s drawing card?”

Though the Crossroads’ pioneers are smarting from property inflation and a citywide bureaucracy that does little to positively address their problems, there are still more than enough art venues to make Kanas City worth a weekend trip. A recent visit offered more gallery experiences than a single day could hold. One particular block in the district (Baltimore Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets) hosts at least seven galleries and art societies. It’s difficult to determine the exact number, because within the huge warehouses typical of this district, one art space merges into another, often without clearly defined boarders. Leedy-Voulkos becomes the Backroom, which becomes the Beth Allison, which leads into the Opie Gallery and the Vault. One door down is the Sherry Leedy, and next to that the Society for Contemporary Photography. In addition to its dense population of galleries, the Crossroads is also home to Grand Arts Organization, Belger Arts Center, and an extension of KCAI (the Art Institute).

MICHAEL EASTMAN: THE AMERICAN SHOW
 
SHERRY LEEDY CONTEMPORARY ART

On a certain Saturday in November (the day after a First Friday event), the galleries seemed unnaturally subdued, gingerly recovering from the previous night. It was, in effect, the perfect time to actually encounter the artworks. Among the venerable among KC galleries, Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art holds a certain pedigree, and with good reason. Currently on display was Michael Eastman’s series of large, exquisitely lit cibachrome prints, The American Show. Bearing signifying titles such as “Texas Stage” and “Memphis Doorway,” the photos offer color-drenched slices of Americana, each as carefully composed and cropped as a meticulously followed recipe. Uninhabited, the buildings and interiors are humble, homely, yet unabashed. The photographer imbues them with a sympathetic respect that would slump into nostalgia under a less rigorous hand. Eastman’s superlative use of light and color enable us to take stock of the mute and often invisible icons of America’s quickly disappearing past.

JEFFREY DACOSTA: DEAD SPACE
BETH ALLISON GALLERY

Hidden among the labyrinth of the cavernous repository of galleries on Baltimore, there is a quiet subterranean venue, the Beth Allison Gallery. During November, the gallery displayed an installation created by Jeffrey DaCosta. The proverbial “day after” was a perfect time to experience this piece. Along the entire length of the narrow, whitewashed, low-ceilinged room, sand was banked up on both sides, leaving a sunken path in the middle. Standing at attention, two rows of 18 bronze rifles (Calashnikov 47 and M4 Carbine) flanked the aisle, a small flame rising from the end of each barrel. The effect was—pardon the pun—luminous. Brilliant, even. With a seemingly simple composition, the artist had created a contemplative space open to interpretation for all audience members. In the brief artist’s statement, mounted unobtrusively on the end wall, DaCosta cites familial military service as an influence, and that the rifles refer to “reverence, memory, and life itself.” The small wavering flames, posted as sentinels, granted those who serve and those who die a symbol for their humanity. It is significant that the differing origins of the rifles gave a global obeisance to our human family. Dead Space felt very much like a holy place, one for introspection and remembrance. DaCosta’s evocative work would be an appropriate piece to include in either a war memorial or peace museum.

Out of pure luck, the artist was on site that day; he graciously discussed his exploration of processes and hinted at (though not quite stated) the symbolism in his installation. Assiduously avoiding any language of dogma, the artist was eager to learn about his audience’s impressions, rather than impose a predetermined imperative upon it.

The artist offered two surprises before we parted: one, that he himself had served time in the military, and two, that he is yet completing his final semester at the Art Institute. Considering the quality of this young man’s work, and the depth of commitment that the community’s artists hold for their city, it’s clear that tides are rolling in its favor.

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