Wine, hors d’oeuvres and three artists greet guests who have come to enjoy an opening of the new show at a local gallery on a Friday night in Prairie Village. The featured photographs are a mix of familiar Kansas scenes with shots from around the world. Dozens of patrons stroll through the gallery, sipping and chatting and experiencing art.
A curator carefully places paintings and sketches along the halls of a wide two-story atrium with plenty of natural light. The thousands of people who stroll through this Liberty gallery every week will be treated to a special show featuring sculpture, painting and sketches from three artists in the same family.
Are these typical art scenes? Well, yes and no.
The Prairie Village gallery is better known to most residents as City Hall. And the Liberty gallery is the space outside City Council chambers in the large two-story atrium of City Hall.
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Both mini-art galleries are part of a growing scene that partners extremely hard-working volunteers dedicated to the idea that art makes living better with governments in small municipalities that understand that art also makes economic sense.
The galleries in Prairie Village and Liberty city halls are two of many throughout suburban Kansas City, in Johnson County especially.
The city hall galleries that are so prevalent in the suburbs grew out of local public arts commissions run by dedicated volunteers who were committed to displaying art in their cities. In many cases, the galleries first sprung up at the local city hall because there was nowhere else to display art, especially for local artists.
Many of the city halls in Johnson County have some kind of mini-art gallery and arts commission pushing for public art. Roeland Park, Leawood, Lenexa, Prairie Village, Shawnee, Olathe and Overland Park all have public arts programs or some kind of arts council or commission working to put up art in city hall.
Liberty City Councilman Greg Duncan finds that City Hall is the perfect environment for art. He believes it is important for citizens to find public art in any space related to the city.
“City Hall is our primary public space in our city,” Duncan said. “We have citizens coming and going all day long. They are coming to do business, and they get to admire art while they are there.”
The public spaces in the Prairie Village City Hall are also known as the R.G. Endres Gallery, named after a resident who spent many years promoting public art in Prairie Village. Endres helped start State of the Arts, the city’s annual juried art show that grows each year.
Soft gray walls and art-appropriate lighting frame the business in City Hall with an average of 60 artworks every month. The second Friday of each month, the gallery hosts an opening of the new display.
Prairie Village’s hard-working arts council curates the shows. The council’s 12 volunteers oversee a dozen art shows a year, including State of the Arts each October and a new event this spring aimed at showcasing school-age artists called Future of the Arts.
The arts council takes care of the gallery, painting the walls and changing light bulbs, curating the shows and hanging the art. Arts council members also choose the artists. They generally can hang 60 pieces in the gallery at a time. They select the artists and plan the shows at least six months in advance. When the day comes to change the shows, they work quickly to get the old show down and the new show in place.
Arts council chairman Daniel Andersen said his group enjoys using City Hall because it affords the volunteers an opportunity to present art to people when they might not be expecting an art experience. City Hall is also the only major public building space owned and operated by the city. The public library is operated by the county.
Besides, everyone doing city business travels through Prairie Village’s city hall.
“We are in a unique situation, because we have an ability to spark interest in people that are not necessarily seeking out art. We have 3,000 people or more that come in every month to see our art show who don’t necessarily have another experience with art,” Andersen said.
The gallery tends to have two different audiences: the group that does not expect the art when they are headed to city hall for business, and those who regularly come out to the monthly second Friday art openings and are specifically seeking an art experience.
Prairie Village Assistant City Administrator Wes Jordan says he notices the City Hall art makes a difference to people who come in the building on a regular basis.
“The building doesn’t seem as sterile when we have art here,” Jordan said. “It’s also always changing. So citizens who come for permits and things like that are always walking the hall always looking at the art. It’s not just a blank space. It’s like a fresh look every time they are coming to the building.”
The art may also help calm tempers. Jordan says he sees that the art exhibits defuse people who might otherwise be there for unpleasant business, like a court date. It may not have been the intention of placing art in the city hall, but it certainly helps.
Jordan says the base of volunteers who keep the program running is what makes it important for the community.
“It’s all a volunteer effort. I think it goes back to the sense of community is what makes it special. People get to know each other and contribute. It gives a sense of ownership,” Jordan said.
The newest exhibit in Liberty’s City Hall features the art of three members of one family. Greg Powell is a Liberty City police officer. His father, Lonnie Powell, is widely recognized in various arts circles. His uncle, Robert Powell, is a sculptor in St. Louis. Work from all three Powells will be on display for the next two months in Liberty City Hall.
The City Hall “art gallery” is one of three in public spaces in Liberty, a list which also includes the library and the community center.
At City Hall, the gallery is next to the window where people go to pay their water bills and take care of other city business. The police station is downstairs. Permit applications are on the second floor.
The gallery was established in 2008, but has gained momentum in the last year. The Liberty Arts Commission, which the Liberty City Council created in 2006, had helped create public art galleries in other spaces in town, but those places did not get a lot of traffic and slowly went away.
About seven months ago, the commission established a public arts committee, which began looking for more visible locations for the art.
That group, headed by commissioner Carol Kariotis, has worked to expand the offering of temporary art exhibits from City Hall into other public spaces in the city. They now have mini-galleries in both the Liberty Community Center and the Liberty branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library.
While exhibits in each of the spaces are set to last about two months at a time, the goal is to eventually have about 12 art shows a year among the City Hall, library and community center spaces.
Kariotis, who volunteers her time and expertise to the project, said she believes art is vital to a community for three reasons: to accentuate the beauty and enhance the culture of a community; to give local artists venues to exhibit their work; and to promote economic growth.
“You see a really good example of how important art can be with what happened in the Crossroads District,” Kariotis said. “They started with four galleries and it grew. That was the beginning of the Crossroads District which has become a major arts go-to place in the whole Midwest.”
City leaders in Liberty have connected the economic impact of art directly to the city’s tourism dollars. It is offering public funding to the arts commission for the first time through a new transient guest tax. The tax on hotel rooms gives the arts commission funding it did not have before. The group also works with a partner nonprofit organization called the Liberty Arts Foundation, which serves as a fundraising group for the arts. While there are city staff members who work on the project, both groups are driven by and the vast majority of the legwork is done through volunteer labor.
Most cities do not have any budget for the mini-art gallery exhibits that go up in city hall.
Roeland Park volunteer Art Commissioner George Schlegel has operated an art exhibit in City Hall for 26 years without a budget. Like other volunteers, he does it because of the opportunity the exposure at City Hall can provide to artists.
“A lot of artists, it’s their first gallery show and then once they have it they really take off,” Schlegel said.
The exhibits usually feature Roeland Park artists, but will sometimes feature work from other places in the Kansas City area.
Like Roeland Park, most of the temporary art showings that happen in city halls do not require public funding. With the exception of some support staff time, they are usually tax-dollar free exhibits. Many times artists are allowed to sell their work as a part of the display. Sometimes cities take a small commission, but the curating, jurying and selection of the art is done primarily by volunteers.
Lenexa provides an example of how the city hall art gallery idea has grown over time. The city currently hosts shows about 11 times a year. Like most city hall shows, the gallery features local or regional artists. The gallery also hosts one show a year which features art exclusively by Lenexa residents.
In the beginning, Lenexa used a local bank instead of city hall. When city hall was renovated in the mid-1990s, the expanded space provided a spot for an art gallery. Shows were well received there and the presence of art in city hall has gradually grown. In 2012, the gallery space expanded into the City Council chambers.
While the temporary exhibits in area city halls are primarily tax-dollar free events, there are a variety of ways cities are managing public collections within city hall. Some cities place the arts under the parks and recreation department and allocate a budget for programming. Some have developed foundations to help raise money for art to be purchased for city hall and other places within their city limits.
Johnson County has a higher than average group of municipalities with art in city hall. The Arts Council of Johnson County helps work with municipalities as program partners and advocate for the arts throughout the county. Their work includes helping municipalities understand the potential economic benefit of supporting art projects.
Executive Director Sarah VanLanduyt says the early history of the organization focused on early education in the arts. That mission changed in 2003, when Johnson County began to look at bringing a cultural center to the area and started focusing on how the arts can spur economic development.
“A creative community can bring new people to a community. They can raise the profile of a community. This is why it’s important and why it can help your community,” VanLanduyt said.
Rose Burgweger, a photographer from De Soto who had her photography on display at Prairie Village City Hall in February, has been showing and selling her art for 10 years. She was a part of the most recent State of the Arts show in October, and she was asked to be a part of the February show.
“It’s a nice venue to be able to show your work and have people come who appreciate art,” Burgweger said. “Art shows are really the venue for artists to have their work shown, because it brings out people who appreciate art.”
Burgweger, who shared the show with two other photographers, says the Prairie Village Arts Council volunteers put a considerable amount of work into the show. “All three of us brought our artwork here and then the arts council intermingled all of our pieces so they would all complement each other. They are very organized and did a nice event,” Burgweger said.
Burgweger also helped establish the De Soto Arts Council, which displays art at the De Soto City Hall. When they decided to put art in City Hall, it just made sense. She and other local artists wanted to have a venue to show art in the city, and the city did not have a museum or other gallery.
“There was a space available that we renovated,” she said. “It really brings your artistic community in with the city to work hand in hand. You are residents of the city and it brings in more of the community and helps you share your artists with the community.”
Some area city halls with art galleries
Prairie Village, 7700 Mission Road
De Soto, 32905 W. 84th St.
Lenexa, 12350 W. 87th Street Parkway
Roeland Park, 4600 W. 51st St.
Liberty, 101 E. Kansas St.