ArtsKC working on regional recipe to feed the creative appetite

08/06/2014 7:00 AM

08/06/2014 12:00 PM

Greater Kansas City needs skilled workers to thrive, and increasingly, the arts are viewed as a crucial component of building successful communities and recruiting talent.

“Especially now as we see talent recruiting in high tech, those individuals are seeking creative experiences,” said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC, which is holding meetings around the area as it develops a regional approach for enhancing the arts scene.

And it’s not just symphonies, operas and ballets.

“We’re talking more grassroots. Local theaters, local galleries,” Brownlee said.

As a good example, he cited the KC Fringe Festival, a citywide smorgasbord of creative expression that occurs every July.

The arts plan is being developed for the area that encompasses Platte, Clay, Johnson, Wyandotte and Jackson counties. Each county is holding at least one forum during which ArtsKC identifies existing assets and needs for the specific area.

Two meetings took place last week in the Northland, and sessions are scheduled next week in Johnson and Jackson counties.

Lee’s Summit mayor pro tem Allan Gray, co-chair of the regional plan’s steering committee, said Kansas City’s thriving arts infrastructure is defined by not only the major, nationally recognized institutions — the Kauffman Center, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art — but by organizations that themselves have become institutions — like the Harriman-Jewell Series in Liberty.

Environments like this, he said, are working in symbiosis with the more grassroots efforts such as the Crossroads district to create Kansas City’s unique creative edge. Gray extolled the city’s wisdom in cultivating an arts ecosystem that can find a place for both established and emerging artists.

“Whether it’s at the (Kauffman) Performing Arts Center or at KC Fringe Fest ... it’s all about that sense of place and excitement,” Gray said.

This, for him, is more than a novel pursuit. The arts, he asserted, are vital to the city’s economic livelihood.

“We need to make certain that the business community sees the relationship of art and a creative environment that will attract the best and brightest from the creative class, individuals that will bring value to their workforce,” Gray said. “That workforce is making decision every day about where to locate based partly on the artistic community. They’re asking how they can access creative minds like themselves.”

Brownlee, the ArtsKC leader, said the goal is to strengthen and better organize the arts community, which is already a strong priority here.

To prepare for the forums, ArtsKC gathered local data, which was synthesized by Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit advocating for humanities. The work turned out two studies highlighting the importance of art to the area.

One study found high participation. In a ranking of 100 areas on the basis of arts participation, Brownlee said, Kansas City comes in third, outranking even New York.

Another study identified $1.57 billion invested in the arts over roughly the last decade. The Kauffman Foundation was the leading donor, at about $400 million.

So, Brownlee said, the interest is there, but a coordinated means of nurturing this engagement is what the community lacks.

“One of the things we saw is this very organic and very rich cultural renaissance occurring,” Brownlee said. “With that, we thought, OK, what do we need to do to ensure that this thrives and grows?”

The forums are organized around prompts like “What is the outlook for the creative economy?” and “What can be done to strengthen the visibility of existing art?”

Perhaps it was from having recently returned from Colorado — the high altitudes, thin air and all — but Greg Foss, executive director of the Parkville Economic Development Council, offered some lofty ideas at the first forum in Platte County.

“You know, there’s a nice little spot in Breckenridge — we just came back from there — that’s just great for hearing music,” he said describing a cozy lodge, something that might draw a crowd in Platte County.

“You could lift these garage doors when it’s not cold,” he said, his voice trailing away. “But, I don’t know.”

Brian Nowotny, one of the forum’s facilitators and the director of Platte County Parks and Recreation, wasn’t about to let the idea go undeveloped.

“No, let’s go ahead and speculate here,” he said. “Let’s talk capacity. Greg, what does a venue like this look like? How many people would you want to hold in a place like this?”

The answer: 500 to 700.

Emily Behrmann, general manager of the Johnson County Community College Performing Arts Series, said her county has no shortage of artistic activity.

“Getting the word out about all of the activities is always the biggest challenge,” Behrmann said.

Upcoming meetings

Johnson County: 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 12, Polsky Theatre in Johnson County Community College’s Carlsen Center, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park.

Jackson County: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 14, ArtsTech, 1522 Holmes St., Kansas City.

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