After a false start last year, Kansas City officials announced plans Monday for a two-month festival of visual and performing arts, to be anchored in Swope Park from August to October 2018.
The event, titled “Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience,” represents the city’s attempt to establish the kind of festival that has become a mainstay of arts scenes in Charleston, Austin, New Orleans and cities across the globe.
Planners envision painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers and musicians from the city and beyond to participate in the 60-day affair, which will run from Aug. 28 to Oct. 25. An “arts village” in Swope Park will be the focus of free weekend events, with other performances and exhibitions, some requiring purchase of tickets, running at other times in various venues throughout the city.
The public-private venture, budgeted at $3.5 million, has been a goal for Mayor Sly James since 2013, when it was a major recommendation of an arts task force he convened.
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“The arts have the power to capture our past, challenge the present and inspire our future,” James said in prepared remarks for the kick off event at the Kansas City Art Institute’s Crossroads Gallery. “I am encouraged by the outstanding artistic talent our city has to offer and the possibilities this event could bring for the future.”
James said it was also important to him that Open Spaces be anchored in Swope Park on the city’s often overlooked and under served east side.
“We do a lot of things that are on the west side,” James said. “It was time to do something significant on the east side.”
James pitched a much smaller version of the idea in 2016, a three-day event in Swope Park slated for Sept. 2017. But in June, officials decided too many outstanding issues remained to meet the schedule.
The city has committed $500,000, including $250,000 from city’s Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund (NTDF).
The $250,000 is a significant sum for the fund, which has historically underwritten smaller community and neighborhood-based events. The expenditure drew push back from some neighborhood advocates. Jayson Pryor, former co-chair and mayoral appointee to the NTDF committee that reviews spending proposals, said he was troubled by the lack of detail and specificity for such a sizable amount.
“To be good stewards of Kansas City tax dollars, it was not what I considered a good investment,” said Pryor, who contends that he was not reappointed to the the board by James earlier this year because of his opposition to funding the festival.
Joni Wickham, the mayor’s chief of staff, disputed Pryor’s assertion. “We like to try to get new blood on boards and commissions whenever we can,” she said.
James said that over the years that the fund’s mission to draw tourism — and tourist dollars — into the city has received short shrift.
“It’s become the kind of fund that if you had no other place to go you could usually get some money,” James said.
The festival will be a joint venture of the city’s Office of Culture and Creative Services, the non-profit KC Creates and Kansas City philanthropist Scott Francis, whose family foundation will help fund the event and lead a private fund raising effort. Tickets sales and corporate sponsorships are expected to cover other overhead costs, officials said.
Francis said Monday that in his travels through Europe he’d seen numerous arts festivals such as Documenta, held in Germany once every five years. “I asked myself this question: why couldn’t something similar happen in Kansas City?”
Open Spaces–the name was chosen to evoke Kansas City’s history as a crossroads of the Midwestern plains–will be an event grounded in the city’s history and culture, planners said. Artistic director Dan Cameron, a veteran curator hired to stage the festival, said it will show Kansas City “as both the cradle of modern jazz and the present day site of unprecedented technological innovation.”
Cameron is the original artistic director of Prospect New Orleans, the triennial festival founded in the wake Hurricane Katrina to help revive and heal the city.
Exhibitions in some cities have generated controversy as contributing artists ventured into politics, race relations and and other sensitive subjects. In Pittsburgh earlier this year, a painting called “Within 2 seconds, the Shooting of Tamir Rice,” was withdrawn from the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival by the artist after reactions on social media. Rice was the 12-year-old boy shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.
Cameron said Open Spaces would not shy away from work that explored the darker aspects of Kansas City’s history.
“I think Kansas City is ready for that,” he said, adding “how important it is that Open Spaces reflect diversity as one of its core values.”
Some arts festivals run into financial difficulties as well. The first version of Prospect New Orleans in 2008 went $1 million into debt, according to multiple reports.
Cameron said he expects Open Spaces to make money.
“There are ticketed events we are working in now that we believe will be highly successful, sold-out events,” he said.