Kansas City’s municipal primary election in April is four months away, but candidates for the City Council were ready to fire up their campaigns this week.
Two dozen of them turned out Wednesday afternoon for a candidate forum sponsored by ArtsKC in its new Crossroads headquarters. ArtsKC is the nonprofit that helped to gather an enormous amount of data about the local creative economy and successfully brought forward a report and a proposal to City Hall a year ago to trigger support for the arts.
Surrounded in the ArtsKC gallery by Danny Bartle’s bold and menacing portrait paintings, most of the candidates — sitting council members, some familiar politicos and an encouraging number of new faces — paid respect to the idea that the arts were indeed important to the lives of Kansas Citians and the life of the city.
Some were more specific and focused than others as to how they would envision making the arts a city priority.
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Ensure spending of the percent-for-art program in all council districts. Increase access to the arts for children in all neighborhoods. Boost opportunities for local artists in education programs and community centers. Turn closed schools and other properties into opportunities for artists and art education.
Those were some of the touchstone comments.
John Fierro, running for the 4th District seat, made the accurate claim that he was the only candidate in the room who runs an arts program. He’s CEO and president of the Mattie Rhodes Center, a West Side social service complex that includes a respectable involvement in the arts. “I’ve seen what can happen if you bring together the community and kids,” he said.
Fierro and others gave a nod to Councilman Scott Wagner for his promotion of the MapIt program (Mural Arts Program Inspiring Transformation), which aims to turn youthful energy toward improving blighted neighborhood streetscapes. It’s modeled after a citywide effort in Philadelphia, said Wagner, the 1st District at-large incumbent. “Everywhere you go art is present,” he said, “and it helps to create the audience of the future.”
Public art in neighborhoods gives residents “a sense of belonging,” said Dee Evans, candidate for 3rd District at-large, who once served on a panel that considered art for stops along the Troost MAX lines.
For Jamekia Kendrix, a political first-timer, engaging the neighborhoods is where any cultural effort ought to start, but, in terms of priorities, she cautioned that “if I don’t have a job, I’m not looking to go to the ballet.”
It’s a good bet that most of those at this session are running for reasons other than a solid passion for the arts.
Third District At-Large candidate Quinton Lucas, for example, lists on his website such aims as creating private sector jobs and improving basic services. Yet, in this forum he said the city should recognize that “the arts are our competitive advantage in the region.”
ArtsKC director Harlan Brownlee, who moderated, prepared the panel with a list of broad statements, asking each candidate to choose a top priority and to explain why. Two statements attracted most of the attention: “Improve access to arts education for every student and adults of all ages” and “Enhance arts and cultural opportunities available in neighborhoods throughout Kansas City.”
In one memorable moment of the two-hour panel, Bryan Dial (3rd District), turned to Jane Rinehart (1st District), his former debate coach at Central High School, and credited her with opening his eyes to the arts during the team’s travels to other cities.
It didn’t have much to do with public policy, per se, but it did help to emphasize that city lawmakers and the people they serve are human beings, a condition of life that would be unthinkable without the arts.