Arts & Culture

KC’s Open Spaces arts experiment had successes over 9 weeks, so will it happen again?

Take a drone flight over an “Open Spaces” art installation at Swope Park

Ebony Patterson, of Jamaica, used an abandoned hydrotherapy pool for children in Swope Park, and transformed the site into a memorial for those who suffered from incurable ailments in the years before penicillin was developed.
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Ebony Patterson, of Jamaica, used an abandoned hydrotherapy pool for children in Swope Park, and transformed the site into a memorial for those who suffered from incurable ailments in the years before penicillin was developed.

Kansas City this year conducted a 9-week public art experiment called Open Spaces that, for many people, flew completely under the radar.

But for many others, the first-time event brought favorable attention to the city and was worth the $500,000 in taxpayer dollars that contributed to it.

“We certainly consider Open Spaces a success,” said city hall spokesman Chris Hernandez. “While there are many ways to measure success, the most important is simply staging this two-month arts experience for our residents.”

The city’s half-million-dollar contribution was combined with private funds for a total Open Spaces budget that was forecast to be $3.5 million. The city hired a fiscal agent to oversee the public money as well as private fundraising, Hernandez said. But that report is not due until late January.

Open Spaces was foreseen to be the first in a series of biennial events. The financial analysis may help to determine whether that will happen.

“It’s still too early for all the data to be reconciled and analyzed, but I’m proud of our city’s commitment to support artists and their work by hosting an event of such expansive vision and scope,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James.

From late August to late October, there were free art installations — from sculpture to painting — by local and international artists all over town.

There were free weekend events — from music to dance to spoken word — at the pavilion in Swope Park.

And there were ticketed concerts with big names at Starlight Theatre.

It’s not possible to know exactly how many people experienced some or all of the free art. But organizers collected analytics that paint a picture, so to speak.

There were more than 1.4 million social media impressions regarding Open Spaces, including more than 4,000 Facebook likes and more than 4,100 Facebook followers, nearly 4,500 Instagram followers, nearly 1,000 Twitter followers and nearly 2,000 subscribers to a weekly e-blast.

The Open Spaces website. openspaceskc.com, drew 253,000 page views from 60,000 unique visitors who did more than 32,000 unique searches.

More than 3,700 people downloaded the Open Spaces app and used it nearly 33,300 times.

The Visit KC website had more than 7,300 views for its Open Spaces content, and more than 22,200 recipients opened an Open Spaces e-mail blast from the convention and visitors agency.

Open Spaces drew more than 65 art collectors and gallery owners from 10 states other than Missouri and Kansas to Kansas City, including art professionals from more than 15 New York galleries and organizations.

Dan Cameron, who was artistic director for Open Spaces, said he was happy with the event but acknowledged he is biased.

“As far as turnout, that really wasn’t in my wheelhouse,” Cameron said Thursday. “The idea was to present excellent programming for the people who did turn out. I think 90 percent of it was in the excellent category.”

Some sort of major art experience, like many other cities have, was one of the goals envisioned in 2013 by a task force created by Mayor James. That led to the creation of an Office of Culture and Creative Services at city hall. The concept grew from what was initially planned as a 3-day festival in Swope Park.

“One of the important things the task force did was to survey residents about the arts in our city,” James said. “From that survey, we learned that many Kansas Citians wanted a city-wide arts initiative. That became one of the task force’s major recommendations, so we worked to make it happen. Open Spaces was a first-of-its-kind event — not just in Kansas City, but the entire country.”

James said the art fest also brought people to Swope Park and helped to change perceptions of that area.

Open Spaces got attention nationally, receiving press coverage or mentions in The Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Traveler, Artnet News, Art in America Magazine, Cultured Magazine and Interior Design Magazine.

Local artist Phil Shafer, who runs Sike Style Industries, said he and others initially wondered why Kansas City needed another arts event when it has First Fridays and artistic enclaves in the Crossroads and West Bottoms districts. But now he thinks Open Spaces was worthwhile.

“I was happy with what I got out of it,” said Shafer, whose mural “Wake Up & Live” lives on with high visibility at the intersection of Main Street and Westport Road. “It was good to meet a lot of international artists and see their installations in Kansas City.”

Local artist Shawn Bitters, also a professor at University of Kansas has inserted a code in his installation on the Rancho D-Lux Trail in Swope Park. Crack the code and nature will impart a secret message.

Shafer, who went to Swope Park to catch the art there once early on but not later, said the 9-week duration might have been too long. Many people, he knows, may have seen the Open Spaces catalog and still had no idea what it was about.

“You kind of have to want to connect to art,” Shafer said.

Shawn Bitters, an associate professor of visual art at the University of Kansas, was pleased with how the arts experiment turned out.

”I think a city doing something as adventurous and ambitious as Open Spaces is important,” said Bitters, whose three-dimensional work “Burn Out” was installed on a wooded trail in Swope Park. “I’m thrilled about the artists I met from around the world. Wonderful artists, writers, curators and collectors come to KC from all over. It was remarkable.”

More than 100 artists or groups were engaged in Open Spaces. They came from as far away as Germany and Brazil.

Although there really is no way to know, organizers believe Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibit to have been the most-photographed of all the art. Her work, titled “. . . called up,” filled an abandoned hydrotherapy pool for children in Swope Park with flowers as “a memorial for those who suffered from incurable ailments in the years before penicillin was developed.”

Missouri native Nick Cave’s “Hy-Dyve” is believed to have had the most visitors. It transformed a former Catholic church at 2800 E. Linwood Blvd. into a fantasy light show. Because volunteers were counting visitors at the door, organizers know it attracted roughly 6,000 visits.

The headliner for ticketed events at Starlight the weekend of Oct. 12-14 was Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monáe. Just over 3,000 tickets were scanned for Monáe’s appearance at Starlight. But fewer than 1,000 tickets were scanned the night before for The Roots, the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Cameron said he thinks Open Spaces is “definitely” worth doing again, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in two years.

“The more times you do it, the more it gets implanted in people’s consciousness and awareness,” he said.

If organizers decide to stage another arts event like Open Spaces, James said it will be important to “review and debrief” this year’s event.

“This review is still ongoing, so it’s too soon to say what Open Spaces will look like in the future,” he said.

Shafer and Bitters said they think a future art fest will benefit from lessons learned and perhaps more organization.

“I think that Open Spaces was a massive undertaking and they pulled it off in a really short period of time,” Bitters said. “With more time to plan for the next iteration it will be even more wonderful.”

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