Kansas City shined on the national stage in last fall’s game six of the World Series. Not only did the Royals defeat the San Francisco Giants 10-0, but the Kansas City Symphony made history with its pregame performance of the national anthem.
“When we had a world stage, all of the stereotypes about Kansas City were thrown out,” said Frank Byrne, executive director of the symphony. “We checked with Major League Baseball and as far as we can tell, this was the only time a full symphony has stood on the field and performed the anthem.”
That image must have thrilled civic leaders, with the business, sports and arts communities coming together to showcase a world-class city. And Kansas City is in the spotlight again this week as host to 3,000 musicians and others at the Folk Alliance International’s annual conference — one more indicator of the arts’ effect on the area economy.
Consider a few of the numbers from a study by the nonprofit ArtsKC organization:
▪ The effect of the arts on the local economy is estimated at more than $69 million, excluding ticket costs.
▪ Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations account for more than $273 million in annual direct expenses, 8,346 full time-equivalent jobs and $237 million in household income.
▪ If all nonprofit arts and cultural organizations were a single private employer, it would be one of the largest in the city.
“We really have had a cultural renaissance in the past 10 to 15 years,” said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC. “The state of the arts is really pretty good. We are in a lot of top five and top 10 lists in comparisons among regions. People are spending more per capita than anticipated, and demand is higher.”
And that means the major arts organizations in the city are holding their own financially too.
“I don’t know of any companies in this town that are running deficits,” said Jeff Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet. “Without deficits, you have a healthy organization that can keep moving forward. We have a bright future.”
Why Kansas City?
Why have the arts thrived in Kansas City when so many organizations across the nation are struggling or even failing? Local groups cite visionary leadership, world-class facilities, a new generation of artistic directors and a generous business community.
“A lot of cities are trying to find the magic ingredients,” Brownlee said. “It was an intentional effort by Henry Bloch 15 years ago to harness the support of the business community. ArtsKC formed in 1999, based on a concept imported from the Rockefeller Foundation on how to engage business support for the arts.”
Julián Zugazagoitia, chief executive and director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, agrees.
“We have great leadership that Henry Bloch promoted by creating the business council in the 1980s,” he said. “We were one of the first museums” to have a business advisory council.
Two of the most dramatic additions to the cultural landscape are the Bloch building at the Nelson, which opened in 2007, and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011. Numerous other performance and rehearsal spaces, such as the downtown Copaken Stage for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, also opened recently. The rapid changes made Paul J. Schofer, president and chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, feel like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a long sleep.
“I left Kansas City in 2007 and had not been back often,” he said. “The Sprint Center had not opened, the Power & Light District was just under way and the Kauffman Center had barely broken ground.
“When I moved back in 2012 and said I was going to First Friday, people told me there would be a lot of people down there. I had no idea they were talking about thousands. This was indicative of what had happened in the urban core and the arts community.”
Passing the baton
An influx of energetic artistic leaders arrived at roughly the same time that the facilities were completed:
▪ Music director Michael Stern took the baton at the symphony 10 years ago.
▪ Eric Rosen was appointed artistic director of the Rep in 2007.
▪ Zugazagoitia was named director of the Nelson in 2010.
▪ Devon Carney was selected as artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet before the 2013-14 season.
“One thing that got me very excited about this position was the synergy that was taking place,” Zugazagoitia said. “Before taking the job, I asked the search committee if I could meet some of the other arts leaders, such as Michael Stern and Jane Chu, who was at the Kauffman Center at the time. I found that this was a city that is flourishing.”
In short, everything was in place for Kansas City to be a dynamic player in the arts. The final piece of the puzzle is the continued support of the business community and arts patrons.
“A lot of businesses have come to conclude that if they are going to drive the talent they need, they need an attractor,” Brownlee said. “We don’t have oceans or mountains, but we do have a vibrant arts community. Young professionals want a stimulating, creative environment. A number of businesses have moved downtown because that is the place to be.”
Jim Heeter, president and chief executive of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, says a thriving arts community offers both tangible and intangible benefits to businesses. And where many companies once had money set aside for contributions, many now consider it part of their marketing budget.
“We have built excellent relationships with the corporate community,” Bentley said. “However, instead of just writing out checks, they want to use sponsorships as marketing tools. We help show them where to put their resource and tailor corporate programs to fit what is valuable to them.
“At the initial exploratory meeting, we don’t ask for money. We ask what is important to them, which doesn’t necessarily have to be the ballet or the arts. We find what they are interested in and how we can provide support.”
The Nelson has partnered with some of the area’s high-tech businesses to expand its outreach too.
“We just hired our first CIO to take us to the next level of the digital revolution to reach a worldwide audience,” Zugazagoitia said. “We are interested in working with businesses such as Cerner, which created the most wired stadium in the world in Sporting Park, and other companies to form a technology group. The museum has opened itself to millennials to try to meet their needs.”
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City is finding new support by broadening its reach beyond the walls of the Kauffman Center.
“We did an hourlong cabaret performance with the National World War I Museum based on the ‘Silent Night’ truce during the war,” said Deborah Sandler, general director and chief executive. “Because of that collaboration, we were able to partner with Midwest Trust, which connected us with another individual.”
Sandler expects that exposure to the music to spur attendance for the Lyric’s performance of the opera “Silent Night,” starting Saturday.
The Rep has long benefited from its partnership with H&R Block. Not many companies have a stage inside a sponsor’s headquarters.
“The Copaken Stage gives us a much smaller space, with about half the seats, which allows us to try new things without the pressure of filling the whole house,” executive director Angela Gieras said.
She added that 2014 saw “lots of artistic success; a number of world premieres; a healthy, strong company.”
With local business and arts on the upswing, area leaders agree that a rising tide will continue to lift all boats.
“Kansas City is uniquely positioned to continue to define itself as a destination for arts and culture,” Byrne said. “The arts are critical to attracting and keeping the kind of educated, informed workforce that our business community finds essential to its own success.”
Arts by the numbers
The Kansas City area ranked third in overall participation in arts and cultural activities among 15 communities studied in the National Arts Index.
The American Choral Directors Association has booked 12,000 hotel rooms for its 2019 convention here.
In the 2013-14 season, the Kansas City Symphony sold tickets to customers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and nine foreign countries.
The Kauffman Center was home to around 300 performances last year.
Kansas City is home to 218 exhibition spaces and 359 arts-related businesses and creative industries. Those account for a 4.7 percent share of all businesses, compared with a 2.5 percent national average.