The storefront along Sixth Street in downtown Kansas City, Kan., sat empty for years.
Few would have been surprised to see it collect dust for several more. The last tenant, a barbecue joint, folded, and viable developers weren’t calling.
The only real suitor of late came from a nonprofit agency, Accessible Arts. And it was only looking to store surplus pottery wheels and a kiln.
The landlord, Community Housing of Wyandotte County, agreed to keep them there as a favor to a fellow nonprofit.
But the request got them all thinking: Instead of letting the equipment and the building sit idle, why not collaborate and find a way to use it all at once?
“Hey, it’s not doing anything. What’s it going to hurt?” said Steven Curtis, a community organizer with Community Housing of Wyandotte County. The group came up with a plan so crazy it worked. They opened Epic Arts Studio.
Community Housing could provide free rent for one year. Accessible Arts agreed to provide the art supplies, programming and teachers. Greater Kansas City LISC, a nonprofit agency working to improve urban neighborhoods, offered to pick up utilities.
The latest tenant won’t generate the type of tax revenue that Kansas City, Kan., desperately needs. But organizers think the studio is filling an important void.
Now that it’s off and running, some artists wonder why projects like this don’t happen more often, especially in the urban core.
“There’s a novel idea. Trying to get rid of blight? How about you use it instead of just letting the place sit empty?” said David Platter, a ceramicist and Epic instructor.
The goal is basic. Pull together residents of different ethnicities, ages and abilities in a relaxed environment to be creative and have fun. The rest will evolve naturally.
“Art really is a viable tool in revitalization. It is a very easy, opening, non-threatening way to engage a community together,” said Terri Mueller, a spokeswoman with Greater Kansas City LISC.
The groups launched Epic with $3,000 — most put up by Curtis and others who thought it was a cool idea. The studio has classes for students and a teen night where disabled children from the School for the Blind and some from the Kansas City, Kan., school district come together and create artwork. Students can work for free. But there are other classes where adults can try their hand at the pottery wheel, and in March the studio plans to offer a class for senior citizens. The project has started small to gauge the interest, but it’s exceeding expectations.
The organizers want to keep it small, but they’re looking for ways to make sure it becomes sustainable. A grant would be helpful, and perhaps an artist in residence to make it even more legit. They’re planning to create a mural, plant some fruit trees out back and maybe even tend a community garden this summer.
Many are just plain happy to see the lights on at 609 Sixth St. again.
The group chose to open a clay studio because working with clay is therapeutic and relaxing. Organizers wanted students to unwind.
“It’s so beneficial for people of all ages and for all abilities,” said Emily Vowiell, executive director of Accessible Arts. “It’s very good for relaxation and releasing tension.”
On a recent teen night, students from the nearby School for the Blind shaped clay into houses and tried their hand at the pottery wheel for the first time.
“It’s messy but fun,” said Mitchell Emerson, who smiled as he steadied a cup on the wheel.
Emerson and Tyler Kavanaugh, both 18, told jokes and talked about girls, the school dance and their future throughout the evening class.
The conversation is casual and the work is unhurried.
The class takes on a new dimension, instructors said, when students from other schools drop in and join in the conversation and the learning. Few students have worked with pottery wheels before, so everyone is learning at a similar pace. Interaction is key, they said.
The adult classes have a similar flair, Platter said.
The first classes filled almost immediately with neighborhood residents who wanted to get back into art. One student brought in a pottery wheel that had sat unused in her basement for more than a decade.
“She’s got the stuff she needs; she just doesn’t have the right community,” Platter said.
The studio welcomes others who have no background at all.
Yet opening was hardly easy. It came together this fall only after volunteers logged more than 850 total hours. It was no small task considering the building walls were caked with greasy sludge from the barbecue. There was a brick barbecue pit to tear out and a floor to stabilize. Community Housing had previously received a quote of $20,000 to flip the building.
The artists had exactly zero.
They weren’t intimidated.
“We’re artists. We know how to do things,” Platter said.
Volunteers began scrubbing sludge from the brick walls. It took three passes in the thick of the summer heat.
Nearby residents asked to pitch in. Medical school students and war veterans came to lend a hand, and before long dozens upon dozens of hands had touched the building.
“If we leave we’re not doing anything to harm (the space). We’re actually trying to enrich the value,” Platter said. “If we do that with a building, imagine what we can do with a whole neighborhood.”
Community leaders are imagining.
The studio has gotten the attention of everyone from the mayor to other small businesses and downtown boosters.
“You never know where Epic might go,” said Ed Linnebur, executive director of Downtown Shareholders of Kansas City, Kan. “It kind of begins to mold hope on that corner on that part of our downtown.”