Summer is usually a time for rest and renewal for major arts organizations. And in their downtime, the city’s cultural landscape has become nicely populated with summer theater productions, the ever-provocative Fringe Festival, a young but maturing Kansas City Dance Festival and the stirring chamber music at SummerFest. It’s also high season for outdoor pop and rock concerts.
But beyond the performances, this summer in particular has brought an atmosphere of evolution, upheaval and excitement largely behind the scenes.
Change and new opportunities can bode well for arts-connected institutions if they are well managed.
Here’s a rundown of recent highlights and challenges on the arts landscape, which collectively speak to the vibrancy and fragility of the city’s cultural assets.
Exits and opportunities
▪ Lyric Opera of Kansas City: The departure in April of artistic director Ward Holmquist — after 17 years of admirable service and more than a year before his contract was due to expire — has never been adequately explained by the Lyric’s leaders. And there’s a sense of disappointment in the air, which general director Deborah Sandler and board members must hasten to overcome.
▪ American Jazz Museum: It has been clear for some time that Kansas City officials have been putting the squeeze on operations of this 20-year-old city-owned complex. The museum, in the 18th and Vine Historic District, should play a more vital and inspiring role in the city than it has, and the recent ouster of executive director Greg Carroll could well lead to a more vigorous and successful institution.
“The good news is that this is not an organization in crisis,” board chair Trey Runnion told The Star this week. “But there’s certainly work to do.”
A nationwide search might land a successor by the end of the year, he adds, and a collaborative exhibit with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art this fall is a further sign of the organization’s commitment to national and local strategic alliances.
▪ ArtsKC: After producing planning documents highlighting priorities and opportunities for the arts throughout the metro area, executive director Harlan Brownlee has stepped down. Now, in its selection process for a replacement, the organization’s board must undergo a candid assessment of its sometimes uncertain role in the community.
“We are heightening our emphasis on promoting the arts,” says board chair Becky Blades. “We will be hiring a director-level marketing communications professional to build our ability to celebrate diverse arts offerings in diverse communities throughout the region, and to spread the word outside KC.
“And,” she added, “we are responding to the community’s demand for attention to arts education.”
To boost its educational profile, the organization has added an arts educator award to its lineup of annual honors.
Building for the future
▪ Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: CEO Paul Schofer has undertaken something of a listening tour, inviting stakeholders and others to visit one-on-one and brainstorm on their experience, ideas and hopes for the complex, which stands as a symbol of the city’s cultural health. To his credit, Schofer’s not creating a “strategic plan,” he says, or looking to change the center’s mission. He’s gathering real feelings and observations in the service of building on the Kauffman’s first four years of successful operation.
▪ The Kansas City Repertory Theatre is in the midst of renovating its Spencer Theater. The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures has reopened after a major overhaul. And the Kansas City Art Institute has completed a state-of-the-art renovation of its kiln room, which will certainly fire up students in its long-influential ceramics department. That project is just the beginning of a series of major restorations and transformations planned for the midtown campus, including a complete freshening of the historic Vanderslice Hall.
▪ Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: It remains unclear what will happen with the vision-building exercise that has taken place over the last year. But a planning process for a midtown cultural district, connecting the museum with surrounding neighborhoods and institutions, is on the verge of developing a refined proposal. A series of community workshops and conversations revealed some real passion for protecting the historic qualities of the neighborhood’s park settings and enhancing the urban experience and connections to the Country Club Plaza on the west and to Troost Avenue and the Paseo on the east.
As for the museum’s primary mission, its collection is growing — and glowing — with the recent arrival of 29 impressionist and post-impressionist art works, an astoundingly generous gift from Henry and Marion Bloch. An $11 million gallery renovation is underway at the museum to house the collection, and completion is expected in early 2017.
As Kansas City leaders continue to tout the importance of our cultural DNA, focusing on the collective momentum generated by the arts is paramount. It’s also a valuable and rewarding summer activity.