Government & Politics

Mayor Sly James lays out vision for a signature KC arts festival

Kansas City mayor lays out vision for signature KC arts festival

Mayor Sly James outlined his vision for a signature Kansas City arts festival at the City Council's Finance and Governance Committee meeting at City Hall Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.
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Mayor Sly James outlined his vision for a signature Kansas City arts festival at the City Council's Finance and Governance Committee meeting at City Hall Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.

Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore and many other cities have huge festivals that celebrate and promote their local artistic talent while drawing national attention and tourism.

Now, Kansas City Mayor Sly James would like to see a signature Kansas City arts festival that would do the same thing, while remaining uniquely Kansas City. It would include visual, dance, music, film, youth exhibitions, tech and a host of other arts activities to “showcase the creative potential that is in this city.”

“My vision for the festival is simply to maximize Kansas City’s talent and resources, put them on display, provide a venue for them to collaborate, bring regional and national attention to the city, and finally to produce some revenue related to the arts,” James told the City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee on Wednesday.

The committee supported the mayor’s request for $250,000 in Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund money to seek out and hire a project manager and to help put on such a festival. It could possibly be a three-day event, held next September in Swope Park, although a thousand details are yet to be worked out. The full council will consider the request at its Oct. 6 meeting.

Committee Chairman Scott Wagner voted for the request but noted it is highly unusual. Typically, he said, NTDF funds go for events that are fully formed, and this currently is just an idea. The $250,000 would also be one of the largest NTDF allocations ever given for a single event.

James told the committee that the arts generate an estimated $250 million in economic impact for Kansas City and can be an even bigger engine for cultural tourism and growth.

“We participate at a higher level as individuals in the arts and culture in this city than anyplace, and even more than the average New Yorker, for example,” James said. He noted that an arts festival was a major recommendation of the 2013 mayoral task force on the arts and has the potential to bring many local arts organizations together and promote them in a way that hasn’t been achieved in the past.

Other cities have amazing events, like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and Spoleto in Charleston, S.C. In their maturity, they can draw several hundred thousand participants and generate millions of dollars in economic impact for their cities.

James said Kansas City is not trying to duplicate what Chicago or New Orleans do with their jazz festivals but wants to celebrate Kansas City’s local resources and artists with a potentially national audience.

He suggested that “Swope Park is perfect” as a location because it is city-owned and has amenities like Starlight Theatre, the Southeast Community Center, plenty of land and pavilions. Even more important, he said, is it can serve as a bridge between both the east and west sides of town.

Committee member Lee Barnes wondered whether such a festival might compete with other events, such as the Plaza Art Fair, the Ethnic Enrichment Festival already staged in Swope Park, and the many other music and arts events around town.

James said he didn’t think so, because enthusiasm hasn’t waned for things like First Fridays. But he said the city will listen to the arts community and work to ensure this enhances rather than detracts from other events.

“It will be unique,” James said.

He suggested one aspect of the festival could be a half-mile-long table where people from all walks of life would sit down to a meal together. Another would be an “arts marketplace” where vendors and other arts businesses and organizations could share information with the public.

James pointed out that the Plaza Art Fair is more of a showcase for national visual artists, while this new initiative would focus on local artists of all different mediums and arts education.

James said government can’t and won’t be the leader of this arts initiative, but major funders look to government to jump-start the funding. He said the $250,000 in tourism tax dollars will help provide that momentum, and the private sector will also be asked to contribute sizable sums.

The proposal calls for the city to undertake a competitive solicitation bid process, leading to a contract for festival production, curatorial and artistic services.

Jim Giles, director of council and community relations with the mayor’s office, said the festival would not be free but would sell tickets. Its overall budget is currently estimated at about $1.4 million, including the $250,000. The goal would be to raise $1.5 million in revenue. If it is successful, it could turn into an annual event.

However, several noteworthy arts festivals in other cities lure large crowds in part because they are free of charge.

Baltimore’s Artscape, which launched in 1982, annually attracts about 400,000 people over three days in July and is the largest free arts festival in America, according to festival director Kathy Hornig. She said the city provides police and other services and equipment but no direct funding. The festival costs about $1.2 million to produce and generates nearly $26 million in economic impact, she said.

For more than 50 years, Pittsburgh has hosted the Three Rivers Arts Festival at Point State Park, where three rivers converge. It draws an estimated 450,000 visitors to arts events and an arts market that spans 10 days in June.

“It energizes the whole city,” said Sarah Aziz, director of the Three Rivers Arts Festival and other special projects for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. “It’s just on everybody in Pittsburgh’s radar.”

Aziz said it galvanizes many families, community and arts organizations and is a big local and regional draw. But if James is hoping to attract national attention, Aziz cautioned, that’s a heavy lift.

“We don’t get national tourism,” she said of Pittsburgh’s event, adding that only a few festivals like Austin’s South by Southwest attract the national spotlight.

Pittsburgh’s event is especially popular because it is free of charge, which Aziz said Kansas City should seriously consider. As to whether Kansas City should locate the festival at Swope Park or someplace like downtown, Aziz said Swope Park could be great, but Kansas City should be prepared to nurture it for a few years and not give up if it’s not initially hugely popular.

“Give people a little time to catch on,” she said.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley