Guest Commentary

The success of KC’s Open Spaces arts festival goes far beyond numbers

Artist Ebony Patterson transformed an abandoned hydrotherapy pool for children in Swope Park into a exbihit in the 2018 Open Spaces arts festival.
Artist Ebony Patterson transformed an abandoned hydrotherapy pool for children in Swope Park into a exbihit in the 2018 Open Spaces arts festival. RICH SUGG

Near the end of the Open Spaces arts festival, artistic director Dan Cameron commented that our city’s response following the event would reveal much of its meaning. Kansas City-based artist Brent Jackson recently called Open Spaces a “generative disruption,” a break in routines that brings creative outcomes. While some will look back at the nine-week event for an analysis based in numbers, Cameron’s and Jackson’s statements hold wisdom gleaned from the history of art: The experience was a catalyst that will continue making change long after its apparent completion.

With this perspective, I reflect on the statement by City Hall spokesman Chris Hernandez, who said we can measure the success of Open Spaces simply by the fact that we staged it. Indeed, the staging was more than a fancy feat or an expensive showcase. It plowed and planted our urban space, and we benefit from what emerges from that work.

The staging of Open Spaces invited us to see how “art” and “city” overlap. As we visited artworks embedded in the urban scape, we discovered the city much as the eye moves over a canvas or the ear through a piece of music, and we felt Kansas City’s beauty and its creative capacity.

As the city’s character develops on an international stage, it stakes its future in its cultural identity. The Open Spaces audience was an active player in our historical and economic development. When we measure the value of its staging, we can imagine what the outcomes will be if Kansas City does not rise to the occasion of global cultural exchange.

For most, including arts lovers, the event presented an unfamiliar approach to art. Audiences chose their own paths through the citywide, multi-genre experience. To participate, attendees moved out of familiar settings and into changing perspectives offered by contemporary art. As we recount these wide-ranging experiences and build on what we learned, the event takes root in personal and collective histories, steadily changing how we see ourselves.

Tourists are unlikely to say, “I’m going to Kansas City. Can’t wait to see the Mutual Musicians’ Foundation and check out its Caravaggio painting.” And yet that 100-year-old music hall at 18th Street and Highland Avenue and that 400-year-old Italian canvas on the wall of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art form part of our urban fabric. With them, the city draws us into history. Open Spaces’ leadership recognizes that Kansas City’s artistic heritage is ready for dynamic, contemporary settings, and the festival put the power of contemporary art in everyone’s reach.

From urban ecology to the state line, the event invited us to explore new views on countless issues. Its staging let us break from habits that entrench our legacy of black-white segregation to consider that issue with shared courage. People of all colors visited the Mutual Musician’s Foundation not only to take in Nari Ward’s homage to Charlie Parker, but also to feel the aura of its piano and jazz photos, listen to a panel of music experts — black and white, male and female — and look down Highland Avenue from the front step with our illustrious musical inheritance in mind.

Sculptors worked with dancers and poets. Art students broke language barriers with mentors from across the ocean. Fabricators and construction firms undertook challenging tasks as the capacity of local shops was tested on a global stage. Galleries contributed space and personnel to a civic effort that brought in big dealers and ordinary passers-by. Artists and local entrepreneurs planned events alongside city employees.

Our economic leaders know Kansas City’s growth depends on our ability to interact in a cross-cultural marketplace. To become cultural leaders, we have to take creative risks and both export and acquire art from beyond the region and around the world. We must make everyday urban experiences feel significant and imbue daily life with innovation. To stage our economic future, we need to reflect civic engagement in the changing times and invest in art, each according to our means. In staging this event, City Hall, arts patrons and arts professionals invited us to be not just an audience, but actors and producers of these needed civic advances.

Through the ambitious citywide Open Spaces, countless seeds were sown. Numeric assessment of the yield matters less than nurturing the outcomes of our groundbreaking and generative Kansas City arts experience.

Anne Gatschet develops arts programs and writes about art in Kansas City.