Steve Paul

Hooray for the Kansas City area arts scene, but then what?

Survey respondents throughout the metro area put a high value on the need for arts education, according to the new OneArtsKC Regional Cultural Plan. Pictured is a band session at Olathe North High School.
Survey respondents throughout the metro area put a high value on the need for arts education, according to the new OneArtsKC Regional Cultural Plan. Pictured is a band session at Olathe North High School. The Kansas City Star

A lot of talk and brainpower went into developing the OneArtsKC Regional Cultural Plan.

The 60-page document released on Friday represents a collaboration of five counties, numerous arts organizations and committed individuals. Its backers tout the process as an unprecedented conversation spanning state and county lines.

It bubbles with expectations about the unifying power of the arts. Well, “bubbles” is kind of a generous word for a slick packet loaded with bureaucratic evaluations of how our creative community operates and how the area can generate more business, more residents and more well-being by embracing the arts.

I dove into the report wondering how it would speak to the average person or even the average arts-savvy person about the need to build on what the area has already accomplished on the cultural landscape. I came away unsurprised by the repetitive and rather common-sense message that more focus needs to be placed on arts education and more collaboration among far-flung towns and organizations in the region would benefit all.

I was somewhat surprised, however, by a subtext of the report. Directed by a third-party consultant, the report seemed to lay a huge responsibility on its sponsor, ArtsKC, the well-meaning but underfunded advocacy organization. ArtsKC, the report notes, is just the right connector, collaborator and provider of consulting services to municipalities, school districts and organizations. And it’s well-positioned to create a centralized cultural calendar, which people seem to want.

This document follows by a year and a half the Arts Convergence Report, which was produced by the same consultant, with ArtsKC’s help, for a task force appointed by Kansas City Mayor Sly James. That wide-ranging effort produced a useful picture of the city’s cultural economy and provided some action items that have already come to fruition, including the creation of a Cultural Services Office in City Hall.

The new Regional Cultural Plan sets out a lot of goals for the metro area, but they seem somewhat diffuse and less obtainable unless new funding can be found.

Deep inside, the report suggests that the time might be ripe to discuss some kind of cultural surcharge that ticket buyers would pay to support communitywide education or arts efforts. And then comes the other shoe: Does the metro area have the gumption to try another bistate tax in support of these worthy goals? It has been nearly 20 years since the passage of a bistate sales tax, which helped give a new life to Union Station. Each of these suggestions will require some extraordinary heavy lifting.

Helpfully, on this funding issue, the survey research compiled for the report found overwhelming willingness by respondents in all five counties to spend a modest amount of tax dollars — $5, $10 or $15 a year — on direct support for arts activities.

“The how isn’t finalized yet,” said Becky Blades, ArtsKC’s board chair, “but the shared vision is exciting.”

Much of the report’s survey data is revealing. Yes, arts education is highly valued, and that’s useful for everyone, Blades said.

As someone who has deeply invested a life in books and literary culture — along with other significant interests in the arts — I was dismayed to find support for “literary events” and “library programs and events” at the very bottom of residents’ interests in all five counties.

Well, then again, in another point on the dinosaur meter, the decline in newspaper employment stands at the very bottom of a chart measuring creative jobs in the local economy from 2001 through 2014. Conversely the greatest job growth in the period was among independent artists, writers and performers. Hooray for that.

I wish I could swirl up more enthusiasm for what this report brings to the table. Of course, the metro area needs to nurture cultural aliveness and a pervasive belief in the transformational quality of arts education. But it’s really unclear whether an expanded bureacracy is the way to accomplish it. Let’s just do it already.

Reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, at Twitter: @sbpaul.