3.10 / Kansas City

Loosed of Limits and Imaginary Lines

By Art Practical Editors February 27, 2012

Image: John Salvest. IOU/USA, 2011; installation in progress; shipping containers; 59.5 x 120 x 40 feet. Courtesy of Grand Arts, Kansas City, MO. Photo: E.G. Schempf.

In February 2012, a team of Art Practical editors and writers left the Pacific for the Plains to visit Kansas City, Missouri, with the task of producing an issue of critical writing on socially engaged art practices in the region. Why did we undertake this project, which took us nearly two thousand miles away from San Francisco and shifted our geographic focus from the West Coast to the country’s center?

It is a valid question to ask a publication whose mission is to produce critical dialogue about the visual arts in the Bay Area, and our answer is twofold, one of inquiry and one of affinity. We left the Bay Area for another place because we believe that by periodically shifting our focus, we can develop new perspectives on where we’re from. We know how certain conditions of the Bay Area visual arts community influence our intentions and activities, but do similar conditions hold true for other locales? What activates and encourages critical dialogue in other art communities? How can learning about another place lead us to new insights about the one we’ve left behind?

But still, why Kansas City? The answer is nuanced, and it gradually reveals itself throughout this introduction and the issue’s remaining seven articles. We begin with the two regions’ shared investment in socially engaged artworks, collectives, and public interventions. These are practices that we believe function as barometers for a community, providing firsthand evidence of the collaborative energy, community interaction, friction, and needs that exist there. Artists in both locations also receive funding for these practices through the Andy Warhol Foundation’s regional regranting program. Through this program, the foundation supports “non-incorporated artist collectives and…their alternative gathering spaces, publications, websites, events and other projects.”1 In San Francisco, the program takes the form of Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure grants; in Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, it manifests as the Rocket Grants, distributed by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art.

The Rocket Grants’ call for writing that critically responded to “art projects that are innovative, relational, and inserted into public space” provided the impetus and resources for our trip. Art Practical proposed examining socially engaged practices in Kansas City, and we were eager to compare the ways multiple factors—geographic, historical, economic, cultural, and philosophical—shaped such practices in San Francisco and Kansas City. By temporarily situating ourselves in a city whose artists are similarly experimenting with and questioning what encompasses contemporary visual art production, we sought to reorient our perspectives about the infrastructure and visibility that artistic communities need.

Since we were brought to Kansas City through a commission from the Andy Warhol Foundation administered by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art, we feel it is important to acknowledge how our association with these organizations could be perceived as affecting our criticality. Our guiding interest in socially engaged art practices created frequent intersections with artists affiliated with the Rocket Grants. This was the result of our conceptual focus rather than institutional influence, but it also gave evidence to the significant influence the Rocket Grants program appears to have had during its short existence.

Eric Dobbins and Kelly John Clark. Hello There!, 2011

Eric Dobbins and Kelly John Clark. Hello There!, 2011; invitation to artists for Field Trip Publishing. Courtesy of Field Trip Publishing, Kansas City, MO.

During our conversation with Sean Starowitz, of BREAD! KC, the 2010 Kansas City Art Institute graduate noted that members of his class were among the first from the school to plant roots in the city following graduation. As with the Bay Area, Kansas City experiences a migration of artists to more visible and market-driven art centers. The shift in artists’ decisions to stay and find opportunities locally corresponds with the advent of the Rocket Grant program. What we witnessed and documented was the nascent stage of what could prove to be a signficant change, in which socially engaged and collaborative practices that had already been in place can take root and expand within the community.

The lens we applied to Kansas City was necessarily limited, constrained by time and the shortsightedness that comes from not knowing a place from the inside. Our exposure to the city’s art scene was certainly incomplete—for example, we received only a tangential understanding of the influence that institutions such as the Kansas City Art Institute and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art have on the community. To possibly fill some of these voids and to provide an on-the-ground sensibility we could not hope to attain, we welcome the contributions of Kansas City writers Rebecca Blocksome and Blair Schulman to this issue, as well as the perspectives submitted by Nicole Mauser and Theresa Bembnister in the Shotgun Review section.

Our short trip functioned as a mirror; the impression we took away was a composite informed by the region’s realities and the identities we brought with us. What we noticed, recorded, and believed about Kansas City was determined by the lens we applied; the picture we took home reveals as much about our regional preoccupations and concerns as it does those of Kansas City. In this way, it offered us a comparative context in which to consider two communities: one that we experienced for a short period of time and another in which we are immersed and choose to call home.

From February 2 to 5, 2012, the Art Practical team, consisting of Christian L. Frock, Victoria Gannon, Elyse Mallouk, and Patricia Maloney met with nearly thirty individuals to discuss their work, collaborations, and perceptions of the visual arts in Kansas City. We held conversations with the following individuals: Julia Cole, the Rocket Grants program coordinator; H&R Block ArtSpace director Raechell Smith; Grand Arts artistic director Stacy Switzer; Jaimie Warren and Matt Roche of the Whoop Dee Doo collective; Saralyn Reece Hardy, director, and Jessica Lea Johnson, information and communication coordinator, from the Spencer Museum of Art; Emily Ryan, coordinator for the Commons at the University of Kansas, Lawrence; the curators of PLUG Projects; David Hughes and Kate Hackman, co-directors of the Charlotte Street Foundation; Subterranean Gallery director Ayla Rexroth and exhibition manager Clayton Skidmore; artists John Salvest and Zach Springer; and numerous recipients of the Rocket Grant program, including A. Bitterman (aka Pete Cowdin, Point of Interest), Eric Dobbins and Kelly John Clark (Field Trip Publishing), Caitlin Horsmon (Resistent History), Judith Levy (NV in KC), Jarrett Mellenbruch (Haven), Lee Piechocki, Aaron Storck, and Jeffrey Isom (SAP), Sean Starowitz and Andrew Erdrich (BREAD! KC), May Tveit (Product Placement), and Julia Vering (You Live Here Too). Only a small fraction of those conversations are explicitly referenced in this issue’s articles, but all contributed to the insights we gained.2 We thank each person for their time.

We conclude our introduction to this issue of Art Practical in the same way we were introduced to Kansas City. A mere three hours after we arrived, we hosted "Loosed of Limits and Imaginary Lines," a town hall–style discussion (the title of which is taken from Whitman's Song of the Open Road) at the Kansas City Art Institute, in which we shared our motivations behind Art Practical, the conditions of the Bay Area, and what we hoped to learn in and from Kansas City. In response, the members of the Kansas City arts community in attendance considered their own questions: Are there focal points for collaborative activities and what do they look like? What is the impact of support structures such as the Rocket Grants program? Are there regional differences in ideas around public space and the definition of art? Where is the friction between the expectations and the realities of regional identities? How can those frictions be productive? What does critical dialogue look like in Kansas City? Their commentary, an excerpt of which follows, sketches a much more nuanced portrait than we could offer alone or glean from observation.


—VG & PM


Patricia Maloney: We’re interested in hearing your ideas about intervention, social engagement, and collaboration. We have a strongly defined sense of what that looks like in the Bay Area, but as this is our starting point for Kansas City, we’d like to hear from everyone here.

Victoria Gannon: From what I understand, there isn’t an arts publication focused on Kansas City. If there were to be one, how would it function? I was thinking that publications are site specific, that they take on the qualities of the communities where they are located, and this makes me wonder what one would look like here and what aspects of the local art community it would highlight or make visible.

Sean: There was a publication here a couple years ago, called Review, and it kind of operates online now, but it finally went under. It did have a printed version, and I think that’s really important for Kansas City because there’s a slowness here, which is not a negative thing. I think it’s a good kind of slowness because we’re three hours from the geographical center of the United States, so I think we exemplify the region. Trends don’t fly here. If there were to be [another] publication, I think it is important that it’s actually printed, perhaps as a quarterly. We are oversaturated online right now, with Twitter and Facebook, and there’s a lot of bad writing out there online, and we get lost in the mix.

PM: How do you find out about things that are happening? How does that information get disseminated?

David: There are email lists. The Charlotte Street Foundation puts out a great list of events. We use Facebook a lot here. We’re such a small [place], it is about, “Hey, did you hear this is going to go on next Friday?” “Well, let me write that down.” So I wouldn’t say that there’s necessarily a central [source], but Charlotte Street Foundation does a pretty darn good job.

VG: What contributed to Review’s demise?

Speaker: Review magazine was around for years and was an excellent publication. As someone who worked with the founder and was a member on their studio panel for many years, [I would say] it was lost through vision and economics.

PM: When we talk about San Francisco being a small community, we mean that the circles overlap so tightly. The art schools are very much the focal points; a lot of people come through them. How do you define the boundaries of Kansas City as a community, and how do you experience that idea of smallness?

Charlie: I think it can be seen in the the word-of-mouth [activity] that happens here. There are a lot of shadow players: people who do things because they want to or because they have friends who would be interested in it. Things don’t always get documented, and a lot of things live on via word of mouth. And there’s a lot of respect for that; it just keeps generating and maintaining energy. It’s really hard to figure out where it’s coming from or how it’s manifesting, but you can walk down the street and hear about three things happening that night. That’s how everything works, and often things seem to resist attention—because with attention sometimes comes a responsibility that some people might not want, although I’m sure there are other reasons.

VG: It seems like that would also impose a structure or definition of something that sounds really fluid and organic. It sounds like some of the energy comes from the fact that it’s moving and free form.

Speaker: It’s very centralized in the urban downtown core: who’s critical, who’s doing contemporary-context work. But here we are, in a room filled with my friends. It’s very cyclical. I wonder how to reach out to those other communities because there is something happening in Johnson County, and there is something [happening] in Independence, Missouri. Hopefully there will be more cross-disciplinary and new audiences, if you will, but right now it is very cyclical. Artists for artists’ sake.

Judy: I travel from Lawrence, Kansas, very regularly into Kansas City. I think a lot about the geographical definition of Kansas City because Lawrence is some distance away and is in some ways connected but in some ways not. It takes me about forty-five minutes on the highway to come in. But my world is here, you know, for the most part. However, I live in a community where there’s a large university and a wonderful museum, and that’s a part of my life as well. Do you feel like your local and/or regional colleges and universities are stakeholders [in local culture]—who you see participating in and also being the recipients of all your work?

David Ford, Relax

David Ford. Relax, 2009-10; billboard; installation view, H&R Block ArtSpace exterior, part of the Project Wall series. Courtesy of the H&R Block ArtSpace, Kansas City, MO.

PM: They’re the biggest stakeholders. In the San Francisco Bay Area, you have California College of the Arts, the San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, UC Berkeley, Stanford—there’s a tremendous number of colleges and arts programs, and that’s why so many of the artists who are in the Bay Area are there. It’s an incredibly generative force in the community.

Nick: I think that we’re always trying to bridge the gap between the different communities. Johnson County is south of here, and it’s just south enough that they’re not really engaged with a lot of the things here. We’re always trying to crossover more, but, logistically, we seem to focus on the urban core, right here. The beautiful thing that I see happening here is that the boundaries are blurring in all directions. The people that I hang out with the most are now running their own start-up gallery out of a basement or a small space that was funded by a Rocket Grant, and then people who I hang out with more now than I ever did before are foodies and chefs and people who cook for a living. But then I also know a lot of musicians, and there’s a real growing sense of pushing towards cottage industries and bringing things back from the past that we got rid of for the sake of speediness or making life more convenient. We used to have butcher shops and local bread, and those things are all returning right now, to where we’re rebuilding the past.

What I see going on here is this resurgence of coming back to community because we got too distant, with outsourcing our labor forces and everything. The world became disconnected and meaningless, a little bit. I think people just want something tangible. The fact that each person here probably knows three-fourths of the other people in the room is just part of the beautiful chaos that goes on. I go to an opening and run into a handful of people, and the next one is a different mix of the same people. It’s kind of amazing and hard to keep up with. At first, I was really overwhelmed because there was so much going on here, but now, I can’t get enough, and I want to go to every single thing. But I’m also working harder than I’ve ever worked, at the same time. 

Christian L. Frock: There’s a huge interest in artisanal production in the Bay Area as well, which is also about revisiting old models and reinventing them. Art Practical isn’t a nonprofit, and it isn’t a commercial organization. It’s a hybrid between the two, looking at the best ways of serving community. Alternative entrepreneurial models are really popular in the Bay Area. We love them. And that’s how a lot of salami and bread is getting made, and that’s how the word about the art scene is happening, too.

Kendall: We do, really, all know each other. And it’s great that we have such a close-knit community. But at the same time, there’s this secret-society thing going on, and if you don’t know the handshake, you might feel a little left out. It’s important to extend the art world to people who have no clue what art is, or maybe they think [differently] about what art is, and [their idea of art] could be expanded. Charlotte Street Foundation is doing a really great job of championing that and expanding what people outside our community think about art, but at the same time, there are people within this art institution who think Charlotte Street is a street.

Amy: I run a collaborative space with friends. There are five of us, and part of what we’ve been talking about lately is a need for an archive. Review really was an archive for a long time; it captured a lot of different things that were going on. I’m a semi-recent [arrival] to Kansas City; I’ve only been here for five years, so there’s a lot of Kansas City history, even fairly recent history, that I don’t just know. We started this space and immediately we heard all of these stories about things that happened before that were really interesting. I wish that they captured somewhere in a way that you can continue to build upon. I think what scares me about not having Review or about not having any kind of archive is that people come later, and they can’t build on it. So there’s no way to grow from what came before, if there’s no archive of it.

Plug Projects, exterior view

Plug Projects, exterior view. Courtesy of Plug Projects, Kansas City, MO.

Will: I’m a student, so my perspective is probably a little more confined than a lot of people who have been speaking, but I’d like to talk about a couple of things. Earlier this week, somebody asked if I saw the Wilbur Niewald lecture. [The exhibit] is right across the street, and I had already seen and was interested in it, but I had no idea there was a lecture or that the artist was speaking. If there was some sort of online database that was trusted about current events, something that I could check regularly, then I would have known about that. One thing to think about, with the idea of Kansas City having a very firm cultural spirit that’s physically manifested: if the people who are active in that are also active in the digital version of that, then it would have a similar spirit. It would mirror what’s going on in Kansas City physically. If these are Kansas City writers writing about Kansas City things, then that would be an extension of Kansas City. One thing that it would do that’s not happening right now is that it will allow the rest of the world to see Kansas City from Kansas City’s perspective, which I feel could be really healthy for growth outside the city limits.

CLF: When we began researching Kansas City, I was looking for very particular kinds of alternative, underground practices. I wanted to find people who were doing things in storefronts or in their apartments or online, and as I was looking, I found something called Artists Research Center (ARC) from the ’60s. It was a group of artists who organized a coalition based on the Bauhaus and de Stijl. The only thing that I could find about it was a Wikipedia entry, and it looked like it was a really killer thing that was put together by some pretty renegade artists who were in the middle of the country. That exemplifies the strength of having something online because now ARC only exists because somebody put it on Wikipedia.

Kaitlyn: My experience of the feelings about critique in the Kansas City art community are that, often, they’re met with the sense of [critics] being anti-communitarian—that by being in a critical discourse, what you’re doing is tearing down the structure of an art community rather than adding to it or enlivening it. I wonder how you have dealt with that in your own practice of writing, where critique is discourse and progress and is actually what should happen when you make art. What kind of pushback have you had, and how have you managed to make that work for your publication?

PM: From the beginning, we’ve had to argue for the ideas that criticism builds community, that putting things in the presence of other people for consideration acknowledges their significance, and that criticism as dialogue acknowledges a community of peers. It’s as if we are saying: “We are taking note of what you’re doing. Everyone else should be taking note of what you’re doing, and even if we’re taking note in a way that calls you to task, we’re saying that what you’re doing is worth arguing over.” It’s about showing regard.

Build Something Together

Zach Springer. Ivanhoe Neighborhood’s Public Art Workshop, March 2009, Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center, Kansas City, MO, from Build Something Together. Courtesy of Zach Springer.

Speaker: Even when you don’t like it, or when you want to be critical of it or challenge the work, it’s still a measure of respect if it’s written well.

PM: And you have to be honest in that. I know that sounds really idealistic, but it’s true because people aren’t going to take you seriously if you only speak to the things that everybody finds favor in. So I just take risks, and I found that there’s room being made for that.

CLF: It’s hard; you cross paths with people so much, and you just never know how they’re going to take something. One of the things that I really value about contributing to Art Practical is that there is that tug-of-war: where you get to go back and forth with an editor who is really forcing you to articulate and to drill down on what you want to say and what your points of criticism are. That in itself is community building.


1. From the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts website, http://www.warholfoundation.org/grant/regranting.html.

2. You can hear our conversation with Plug Projects on Bad at Sports, Episode 339: http://badatsports.com/2012/episode-339-plug-projects/.

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