3.10 / Kansas City

Kansas City, Here I Come

By Jessica Brier, Patrick Gillespie February 28, 2012

Image: Paulo Cabezas in conversation with artist Victor Cartagena, 2012. Courtesy of Cara and Cabezas, Kansas City, MO.

The San Francisco Bay Area and Kansas City, Missouri, are rarely compared by the usual standards: one is a metropolitan sprawl anchored by a west-facing port city on the Pacific Ocean, the other is a landlocked midsize city perched at the crossroads of the American Midwest. Thinking about how to profile Kansas City, where one of us has never visited and neither of us lives, we decided to enter the topic by examining the Bay Area and Kansas City through dialogue. We set out to uncover what connections and discrepancies might exist between the cities by talking to artists and cultural producers in Kansas City.

We began with the premise that both Kansas City and San Francisco might accurately be described as off-center areas of cultural production, and we aimed to discover areas of overlap that encourage and promote vibrant cultural practices in each respective city. Some of our guiding questions were: How important is geography in shaping cultural production? How do we come to know the place where we live and work? How might the place we call home inform our understanding of uncharted territory? How do we begin to imagine a place?

We posed these questions to Barry Anderson, a Kansas City–based artist and curator; Cara Megan Lewis and Paulo Acosta Cabezas of the Kansas City– and San Francisco–based gallery Cara and Cabezas Contemporary (their collaborative responses indicated below by the initials CML/PAC); Erika Lynne Hanson, a Kansas City–based artist, California College of the Arts alumna, and lecturer at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI); and Charlie Mylie, a Kansas City–based artist and self-proclaimed dreamer and luminary.

Their responses aren’t meant to provide a definitive profile of either city. Idiosyncratic and personal by nature, they reveal the opinions and experiences of the various contributors, true to the way in which personal experiences shape our perception of place. What follows are the major ideas we posed, explored through excerpts of our Kansas City counterparts’ responses.1


1. Utopias, Real and Imagined: Activism, History, and Social Change

Jessica Brier and Patrick Gillespie: San Francisco and the mythological West have a long history of utopian ideals, including acts of protest, cultivation of social change and acceptance, experimental models of community, and diverse creative practices that are both condoned and anti-establishment. What projects or social movements at any level of society have influenced the cultural sphere of Kansas City?

Charlie Mylie: The energy in this city is amorphously entangled in obviously discrete but hardly distinct scenes. It’s as complicated as it is messy—complicated because creative people come to town for whatever reason and stay despite [few] career opportunities, geographic isolation from other cities, and extreme weather conditions.

Cara Megan Lewis/Paulo Acosta Cabezas: Being in the heartland of America, [one feels] an unavoidable connection to the land, which establishes an artistic voice that is strongly grounded as well as generous. Art made here, regardless of medium, has roots—originating from a tradition of oral history and a tendency toward hospitality. There is a spirit of show-and-tell that creates a very welcome and open environment for cultural exchange.


Erika Lynne Hanson. Wind Survey: .05, 2011 (still); dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.

Erika Lynne Hanson: I do see the history of Kansas City as a point of transit. When entering the city from nearly every direction, one is greeted by warehouses, factories, and train tracks, all of which act as a reminder that Kansas City was and continues to be a resting point when [one travels] east to west or north to south.

Personally, I have used the city in a similar fashion, as a stopping place that is neither a point of origin nor destination. I think that the Bay Area functions in a similar way, where a number of members of the arts community are not natives but become so, over time.

Barry Anderson: My impression has always been that the art scene in Kansas City has very [few] “radicals” or political elements, so in that [sense], we do not share the same sort of historical references with San Francisco.

JB and PG: A common goal for the arts in many cities is connecting with communities. Nonprofit institutions and academic programs often seek to pair the arts with underrepresented communities or to initiate public art projects. One challenge for such programs is to transcend the time frame of a semester or the duration of a grant in order to foster longer-term relationships. How do organizations in Kansas City engage with communities? Why might they succeed or fail?

CML/PAC: One group that has been successful is ArtPlay, which is a student organization at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI).2 It has had a long-standing relationship with the Rose Brooks Center, a women’s shelter, offering classes and organizing events for children. Though students may only be involved for a few semesters at a time, the relationship between KCAI and Rose Brooks continues as new students assume the positions of their predecessors.

BA: Charlotte Street Foundation and its Urban Culture Project (UCP) arm have hosted projects that foster partnerships with neighborhoods and groups outside the typical art world. Their La Esquina exhibition space is located in a historically Latino neighborhood, and UCP hosts an annual block party combining art, local music, and custom cars. Whoop Dee Doo, [a nonprofit faux public-access TV show], also has some strong ties to traditionally underrepresented communities.

CML/PAC: There is a very rich synergy between contemporary churches and the arts in Kansas City. This has resulted in several social projects that are initiated by faith-based groups but [are] fueled and made dynamic by the participation of artists. The Boiler Room is one such group that is located in the urban core and serves its local community.

There is an authenticity about the Midwest and Kansas City in particular that makes collaboration and support among cultural producers feel very natural. So, in general, this results in long-standing community-based initiatives.

CM: Discussions on art are engaged insofar as they serve some form of utility. Everything from simply having fun (which is a critical standard in Kansas City) to empowering a low-income community is reason enough to produce artfulness. The market is not a reason—what market [is there]?

spurse. Door to the archive room in Deep Time + Rapid Time research lab, Grand Arts, Kansas City, MO, February 6–April 4, 2009. Courtesy of Patrick Gillespie and Grand Arts, Kansas City, MO.

2. Artist Spaces and the Time to Use Them

JB and PG: The Bay Area is well known for exorbitant real-estate costs, which in turn affects how low-income cultural producers establish their work. Most artists cannot afford single studio spaces, and there is very little derelict real estate to be occupied. Real estate that can be occupied tends to be in neighborhoods where art constituencies do not or cannot access or where they are simply not welcome.

How do low-income cultural producers navigate Kansas City real-estate opportunities, and is there a tendency to navigate through or around implicit social boundaries in order to produce work?

CML/PAC: There are a number of buildings that are dedicated to artist studios—[such as the] Livestock Exchange Building and the Hobbs Building—as well as studio residencies such as The Studios, Inc., and the Urban Culture Project [Studio Residency Program].





Patrick Gillespie is currently based in San Francisco and has multiple art/curatorial projects running throughout the Bay Area. His relationship to Kansas and Kansas City developed over a three-year period while working as part of the collective spurse on an exhibition at Grand Arts, which opened February 2009, titled Deep Time + Rapid Time. The exhibition included collaborations with the Land Institute, the Linda Hall Library Rare Books Collection, paleontologist Glen Rocker, a summer intensive at KCAI on Clothing and Architecture Design, and many, many others.

Barry Anderson is a Kansas City artist and curator who has served on the curatorial board of the Urban Culture Project, served as director of the UMKC Gallery of Art, and curated over a dozen exhibitions in the city. His own work is included in the collections of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Everson Museum of Art. In 2009, he was awarded a studio residency at The Studios Inc. (formerly Review Studios), which is a five-year residency program for midcareer artists in Kansas City.

Also in 2009, Anderson was awarded a commission to create a three-channel video installation for the offices of the National Center for Drug Free Sport in Kansas City through the Art Through Architecture organization, which is a partnership between Charlotte Street Foundation and the Kansas City chapter of American Institute of Architects.

Paulo Acosta Cabezas is the owner and director of Cara and Cabezas Contemporary. In 2004, he opened Mamá Art Cafe in San Francisco, where he has organized and curated more than eighty art exhibitions. In 2008, he opened Cara and Cabezas Contemporary and represented the gallery’s artists at the Verge Art fair in Miami in 2009 and at Next Art Chicago in 2010. He was the recipient of the 2010 Latino Heritage Award in San Francisco. He is currently curating the exhibition Borderless as a collateral program during the 2012 Havana Biennial.


CML/PAC (cont.): [The] low real-estate cost is a huge benefit to being an artist or cultural producer in Kansas City. In addition to [our enthusiasm for] the dynamics of the Kansas City art scene, the lower rent was one of the main reasons that we decided to open Cara and Cabezas Contemporary in Kansas City. With lower overhead in Kansas City, Paulo has been able to invest resources and time into representing Kansas City artists at art fairs in Miami and Chicago, traveling to Biennials, and building a fluid exchange with other international cultural centers.

He has brought artists from Latin America to do short visiting artist residencies in the gallery in Kansas City…This would have been more difficult to do with his venue in San Francisco. Kansas City offers the opportunity to explore so many possibilities.

CM: When almost everyone in a city makes art for a reason other than money, the work becomes as varied as the motives. Money is not an issue here—it’s cheap [to live here], real cheap. So cheap that I have some friends [who] have bought houses for the price of one month’s rent in major coastal cities. These houses, like every other aspect of life in Kansas City, are not only subject to but also become creative [centers] that generate vibrancy in Kansas City culture.

I have a friend—who lives in Brooklyn but who spent almost all of his life in Kansas City—who noted that because space is so cheap, there is space for people to leave materials around. [You can] look in a dumpster to find a good portion of your next project [and] take a walk around the block to find the missing pieces. [The] availability of resources in Kansas City is only limited by our ability to imagine them.

paleontologist Glen Rocker

spurse with paleontologist Glen Rockers digging near Monument Rocks, Kansas, 2009.

ELH: The artists are usually the first to capitalize on [affordable space in Kansas City]. Soon after, businesses and developers move in, prices go up, and the artists move to another area. The Crossroads and the Power and Light district are prime examples [of this type of development].

That said, I do not feel that development is inherently positive or negative. Oakland is a decent comparison—both cities have very similar issues, and artists navigate them in a similar fashion…except that space is still cheap in Kansas City.

BA: Not only is it much easier in Kansas City than coastal locations to find private (and sometimes very large) studio space, it is also relatively easy for artists to own their homes. I think this generally adds to the quality of life, which can have a positive effect on artistic production.

For me, this allows for ample time to spend on my work and to travel extensively, which has positively impacted my career. On the flip side, for some artists it seems to [lead] to complacency. There is not always the same [career] hunger that can be found in artists on the coasts.

3. The Off-Center Hub as Cultural Incubator

JB and PG: San Francisco is often mentioned as an incubator for innovative ideas, but it is not considered the cultural magnet of the West Coast. As far as the arts are concerned, [its status as an] incubator may be attributed to the number of academic arts institutions in the Bay Area, as well as to an ideology of openness that underlies San Francisco’s cultural history.

How is Kansas City described as a cultural center? What is the overarching historic narrative of the city, and how do you think it affects the arts and cultural production? Do young professionals believe that to succeed means to leave Kansas City, or is there something that causes them to stay?

CML/PAC: Because of Kansas City’s central position on the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails, as well its proximity to the Missouri River, a hybrid culture of settlers established an early pattern of confluence. Over the decades, this led to an organic mix of the old with the new—the presence of one of the last remaining Art Deco skylines in the nation, [for one] example. [The city’s] history of being a crossroads of the United States has produced an open environment for cultural production, experimental work, and a strong tradition of collaboration.

ELH: It’s important to note that Kansas City is young in its development as an arts and cultural center. It has been steadily growing for approximately the past twenty years.

BA: There is, somewhat, a sense of Kansas City being an incubator due to the influence of KCAI, which has a long history of notoriety as an artistic influence in the Midwest. There would definitely not be a respected art scene in Kansas City without KCAI.

There are also many opportunities to exhibit work in the city, no matter what an artist’s career level, which can [aid a] young artist’s development. The relatively small size of the art community allows for a level of dialogue between artists, critics, and curators that can be more open than [that] in larger art communities. The city itself has an unusually high level of support for the visual art community, in particular. All of these factors contribute to Kansas City being a nurturing and supportive community for an artist’s career.

CM: There is a wildly dynamic, shared resource of common imagination: Give a house a name, and suddenly it’s a venue. Give yourself a title, and you have a role. Take a walk and talk, and there’s a project. This can happen anywhere, right? I thought so and I moved. Two years later, I am back. I gave myself titles, transfigured houses into residencies, and took up dreaming as my work.

It can happen anywhere, but there is something special, almost magical, about how Kansas City as a common vision can play with us when we decide to play. It’s loosely shaped by the gut feeling that you shouldn’t leave and by the [understanding that] you can propose any idea [without fear]. We are responsible to each other here: poor as we are, free as we are, seemingly disinterested as we are, passionate as we are.


Barry Anderson. Deep Down Trauma Hounds, 2011; five-channel video animation, 3:30 loop. Courtesy of the Artist.

BA: On a negative side, there are two key areas of the art ecosystem that are woefully deficient here. While there are a good number of nonprofit institutions that support local artists, the commercial gallery world is not very supportive in fostering local collectors and patrons or in advancing the careers of local artists. For artists who desire this path in their careers, a focus on national and international avenues is essential.

Excluding recent attention given to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, as well as a short article in Art in America, there has also been a fairly appalling lack of national media attention on the Kansas City art scene. The few viable commercial galleries have very little [interest] in advertising nationally and in attending national art fairs. The same could be said for the area’s museums. Reviews of exhibitions in Kansas City are incredibly rare in national art magazines like Artforum. Because of these factors, certain young and promising artists [feel] that their careers are limited here, which often spurs them to move to New York or Los Angeles.

CM: Johan Huizinga defined the space of play as the Magic Circle: a space with rules, activity, freedom, and play held together with the most sincere dedication to preserving that game’s life. When a spoilsport dishonors [the game], we realize we are there just touching each other. Now that I have gotten to this idea, I have begun to suspect that this is why critical art dialogue is scarce in Kansas City. Not because people aren’t educated or are just apathetic—perhaps [it’s] because criticality gives the game away. We aren’t playing for art. Art plays for us.

CML/PAC: Kansas City has become a very convenient home base for the gallery. As Paulo travels in between San Francisco and Kansas City, he is able to share networks in both cities and create opportunities that might not happen otherwise. For example the upcoming exhibition in Kansas City, Now Knowing, features the work of five San Francisco–based artists.

Likewise, Paulo is bringing the work of Kansas City–based artist Ryan Haralson to San Francisco to exhibit at Mamá Art Cafe. This bilocality also enhances our collective perspective and ability to tell the stories that audiences in Kansas City are interested in hearing through carefully curated art exhibitions.

ELH: From an artist’s point of view, I find that there are two ways of viewing Kansas City: interior and exterior. With regards to individual development, there are two institutions that serve as incubators. The Kansas City Art Institute is the single largest source of bringing young artists to the city and then providing them a space to develop a practice and a point of view. The other is Charlotte Street Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization that supports visual and performing artists through no-cost studios and exhibition spaces and grants, [which plays] a crucial role in developing the arts community.

From a broader, regional point of view, Kansas City is the largest metropolitan area for many of the surrounding rural communities. The growth of the city’s arts infrastructure—the Kauffman Center and the Bloch addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum—have provided reasons for Kansas City to be a tourist destination. This fact does affect the programing choices, which often result in an interesting mash-up of exhibitions and performances.



Erika Lynne Hanson is a Kansas City artist, California College of the Arts alumna, and lecturer at the Kansas City Art Institute. Currently her studio practice is centered on investigating the notion of the iceberg as an icon of flux. The resulting work varies from meticulous weavings to video projections of melting icescapes, all of which come together in installations. She currently teaches weaving at KCAI; she feels contributes to the community most in conversations with students about the meaning of learning how to weave in a culture that is far removed from such practices.

Hanson’s work moves between studio-based research, course research, and physically making art in the studio. Since moving to Kansas City from Oakland, she has also participated in Charlotte Street Foundation’s Studio Residency Program and organized the exhibition RE-SEARCH at the Paragraph Project Space.

Cara Megan Lewis is the curator of Cara and Cabezas Contemporary and works independently with artists in Kansas City and San Francisco. Cara received her master’s degree in June 2007 from the curatorial practice program at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Her professional experience includes three years as a registrar at Fraenkel Gallery, registration work on the Diane Arbus retrospective at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and curatorial consulting for the Rita Blitt Museum Without Walls.

Charlie Mylie is a Kansas City artist, dreamer, and luminary. He is a curator and a pioneer for grassroots residency programs. His projects have taken him down the Missouri River by raft to an old farmhouse outside Kansas City, where he hosts artists from all over the United States. He is one of The Luminaries, a group in pursuit of play, discourse, and community building. Mylie notes that many of his successes can be attributed to the wonderful community that supports him, in both his life and artistic practice.




1. The responses were separately submitted in writing, so the contributors do not directly address each other’s comments.

2. ArtPlay is a registered student organization supported by the Community Arts and Service Learning program at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Comments ShowHide