Things have been humming along nicely of late at the Kansas City Art Institute. A state-of-the-art kiln room, funded at $750,000, is about to open in the ceramics building along with a lab featuring 3D printing capabilities. An expansion and update of the sculpture department, also bridging old and new technologies, is soon to begin, and plans are in the works to tuckpoint, reroof and replace windows at Vanderslice Hall, the historic, 1893 mansion at the center of campus.
Then something completely unexpected and astounding happened. On Tuesday, the 123-year-old art college found itself $25 million richer. A gift, made by an unidentified donor, arrived from the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and college officials are saying the “astronomical” donation will help secure the institution’s place among the top tier of American art schools and make it become better known in its own backyard.
“It’s a complete game changer,” said Tony Jones, who arrived in Kansas City just eight months ago to serve as the school’s interim president. “It’s just going to enable us to do things that would have been extraordinarily difficult and would have taken a long time.”
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With an annual budget of $18 million, the Art Institute enrolls about 620 students and possesses something of an insecurity problem in the wake of the recession and recent leadership turbulence.
Although some of its academic programs — ceramics and painting in particular — have long and deep reputations, Jones said school officials have been challenging themselves to determine where it was heading and how it would get there. The unprecedented donation, if used wisely, will accelerate its progress.
The gift will inject $14 million into the institute’s general endowment. Of the rest, $5 million will fund even more campus improvements, and $6 million will go toward a challenge grant to boost student scholarships and pay for new faculty and endowed professorships.
A key feature of the matching grant is that it will provide $2 for every dollar donated by other sources through the end of 2016, thus leveraging as much as $3 million more in private donations. As Jones described it in a conversation with The Star, if someone were to give the school $1 million for an endowed professorship, and the foundation gave the $2 million match, “it’s your name that goes on the chair not theirs.”
Jones credited the late board chairman Steve Metzler with opening doors to potential donors and helping to shape the school’s message as a place with a vibrant future and the potential “to become part of Kansas City rather than a gated community.”
The school sprawls gently over 16 acres — “most colleges in America would kill to have a campus like this,” said Jones — but it’s somewhat hidden, Jones laments. The school could do a much better job of bridging two important neighbors. It stands between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. As Jones puts it, the art institute is a factory, a place where art is made, between two showrooms.
The art institute’s faculty members — painters, potters and digital media makers — learned of the gift late Tuesday, and will play an important part in the campus conversation about how best to accelerate their dreams for students and their programs.
When classes begin again next week, the atmosphere clearly will be one of renewed optimism for the institution and for the students who envision their futures as creators and innovators. The gift announced Tuesday affirms the Kansas City Art Institute’s importance on the city’s cultural landscape and also raises expectations that it can only get better.