We've been hearing it and feeling it for years: Kansas City is emerging as a vibrant place for the arts and culture. But it took a timely swipe by a prominent spokesman for the arts to turn the subject into an agenda item at City Hall.
Now, the newly formed Mayor's Task Force for the Arts is launching a series of community meetings this week aimed at finding ways to bolster the city's growing image as a center for arts and culture.
The campaign is officially called "Envision Arts & Culture KC," and Mayor Sly James will lead the first meeting, scheduled for 6:30 tonight at ArtsTech, 1522 Holmes St. A total of 25 "brainstorming sessions" will be held through Thursday at community centers, libraries, museums and nature centers. Using feedback from the community, the task force will organize the results and present the findings in a report to the City Council.
Leading the task force is lawyer Mike Burke, a former city councilman whom James defeated in the 2011 mayoral election.
"At the very basic level it's 'Let's take a look and see where we are now,' because the city's policies haven't been examined for well over 20 years," said Porter Arneill, the city's public art administrator and director of the Municipal Art Commission. Arneill, a member of the task force, dubbed the series of meetings a "festival of ideas."
One question to consider is whether the Municipal Art Commission, which was created in 1926, should have a beefed-up role, Arneill said. Its present primary function is to administer the city's One Percent for Art program, which sets aside a slice of new construction costs to fund public art. The panel has 11 commissioners, who must approve any new artwork on city property.
"The body is made up of mayoral appointees, and over the years their primary initiative has been the One Percent for Art program," Arneill said. "The power of that body has waxed and waned depending on the leadership at City Hall. In recent years the commission's role has become somewhat antiquated, and what we're doing now is overdue."
Part of the impetus for re-examining the commission's role was a visit in 2010 by Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Speaking at a Downtown Council luncheon, Landesman observed that Kansas City lacked what many cities have: a dedicated office in City Hall to facilitate arts growth.
One of the goals, Arneill said, would be to identify the logical role of the art commission going forward.
"I think first it would be more clearly defined," he said. "Very truthfully, over the years, because the arts tend to be such a political hot potato and because we have such a generous philanthropic community, it's been easy to push the arts aside."
Burke said the idea of charting the city's future in terms of the arts was discussed even before the mayoral election.
"I've been talking to Mayor James about it all the way back into the campaign," Burke said. "He said, 'Well, you've got a good idea.' The mayor is very supportive. This is his task force. He gets the vision, and he understands the importance for Kansas City's future in doing this task force. My sense is that this is the right time and the right issue to be looking at because it has a great deal of bearing on Kansas City's future."
City government has supported the arts in various ways through the years. Aside from the One Percent for Art program, the city built the $47 million parking garage adjacent to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The city also froze property owners' taxes in exchange for renting space to artists in the Crossroads Arts District and has awarded small grants to nonprofit arts groups through the Neighborhood Tourism Development Fund.
But much of the dramatic growth in the arts has occurred without much direct involvement by City Hall. Most of the $300 million-plus required to build the Kauffman Center came from local philanthropists. That's true of the major capital campaigns undertaken by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet. The initial emergence of the Crossroads as a gallery district happened independently of any city initiatives.
The growth of professional theater, symbolized by New York productions developed and originally staged by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and the Coterie Theatre, as well as the Grammy nominations earned this year by the Kansas City Chorale and the Kansas City Symphony in performance with Joyce DiDonato have all helped put Kansas City on the national cultural map.
Those notable examples, Burke said, prove the point: A comprehensive vision for the future of the arts in Kansas City is needed to sustain momentum.
"We've been somewhat spoiled by the wonderful philanthropic community in Kansas City ... in their ability to literally carry the arts on their back," Burke said. "But there are important strategies that need to be carried out by the city."
Burke said the task force would address five areas of concern:
Urban planning: This could include tax incentives to artists as well as assessing the impact of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's proposed downtown arts campus "and what the city needs to be doing in anticipation of that event happening. That's one thing we can get out in front of now."
Getting the word out about the arts: "Sometimes we do better on a national scale than we do regionally and locally," Burke said. "People interact with the arts every day and don't realize it. ... We need to make sure that word gets out in our community, whether it's in our schools or our community centers."
Education: Although most of the established arts organizations have programs in the schools and various forms of education outreach, Burke said the city could do more. "One of the goals of Mayor James is to broaden what's available to children after school and in the summer. Not everybody wants to go shoot hoops. ... There's an ability to do more."
Governance: "I will say the mayor and the City Council and the city manager are very open to new ideas," Burke said. He noted an "outpouring of interest in terms of volunteers for the community meetings. It stretches all over our community, and what we're hoping is we take this energy ... and outline a strategy for the mayor and the City Council that will last into the next decade."
Technology in the arts: Google's decision to introduce fiber-optic cable in Kansas City is a "game changer," Burke said. "I think there's some amazing opportunities for Kansas City as the first in the country with a gigabyte to the home. That opens up entertainment possibilities, and we have app developers in town as we speak working on those issues. I'd love to see an arts channel emanating from Kansas City where you could showcase local artists -- put 'em in the cloud, put 'em on YouTube and have sufficient product that you could have it 24 hours a day."
Arneill said the Cultural Planning Group, an arts consulting agency, has been hired to assist the task force. He said the steering committee has raised $90,000 for the purpose.
Burke reiterated an old argument that he said is still valid: that the arts fuel redevelopment and economic activity.
"The arts are a great redevelopment incentive," he said. "If I lived in a dilapidated neighborhood and I saw artists moving in, I'd be thrilled."