Two Cities Getting Arts and Culture Right: Kansas City

This red-state city in the heartland offers best practices and innovation in arts and culture.

Kansas City
Buddhist meditation and chant Temple Buddhist Center of Kansas City inside an exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo: Shawn Lent.

Last month, the third season of Queer Eye premiered on Netflix. I confess I binged all eight episodes, mostly because the season was shot for five months in and around Kansas City, a city bridging two red states that I visited recently for the first time. As a 2012 Fulbright Scholar, I was honored to be invited to the US State Department’s Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars in Kansas City on the theme of entrepreneurship in conjunction with the Road to GES Heartland event, attended by Secretary of State Pompeo; GES is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, being held at The Hague this June.

My first afternoon in the Kansas Cities, I designated a few hours to visit some of the sites Queer Eye featured. I spent time inside the somewhat disappointing American Jazz Museum as well as outside the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, which was closed for spring break. With my extra time, although pescatarian, I took a 20-minute Lyft to the Kansas side to visit Jones BBQ, which had made more than $75,000 in bottled sauce sales since Queer Eye had folks falling in love with their character and story. Although Jones BBQ closed 40 minutes before I arrived, they were gracious and generous. “Little” herself took the time to chat with me. She and her sister, “Shorty,” have run the business for 40 years, and it looks like it will flourish for generations to come.

Entrepreneurship, like organized crime, is a major part of the Kansas City story. As Dawson White put it in their recent article, “Slay, Kansas City, slay: 7 ways the new ‘Queer Eye’ perfectly showed off our town”:

If it exists, Kansas City has put a twist on it.

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The arts and culture sector in Kansas City is no exception. As I experienced the city throughout the week I was there, I was continually impressed. Here are two examples.

The activation and curation of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 

Kansas City
Jamie Okuma, “Adaptation,” 2011. Shoes designed by Christian Louboutin. Photo: Nelson Atkins Museum.

Like many Bible Belt cities, nonprofit arts institutions in Kansas City center around the philanthropic legacies of folks who made their fortunes through enterprises: Joyce C. Hall (founder of Hallmark), Ewing Kauffman (Marion Labs), Henry and Richard Bloch (H&R Block). Another entrepreneur, William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915) was the flamboyant founder of The Kansas City Star. Through the sale of his estate following the death of his wife and daughter, the Nelson Trust purchased treasures from around the world at bargain rates during the Great Depression. Local school teacher Mary McAfee Atkins (1836-1911) was bequeathed $300K on the death of her real estate mogul husband — a tremendous fortune in those days. Through smart investing, that amount was more than doubled; she provided Kansas City with “approximately one-third of her million-dollar estate to purchase the land for a public art museum.” Together, the Nelson and Atkins legacies would produce the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

For a museum with such a typical history in the sense that it stems from philanthropic legacies, the current staff is activating it in innovative ways. For more than a decade, the Nelson-Atkins Museum has opened its doors to local resident groups, hosting Buddhist meditation and chant events at least twice each month inside Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Buddha) exhibit, which was originally purchased in 1931 and has been on public view since the museum opened in 1933. Every third Thursday of the month, the events are conducted by the Temple Buddhist Center of Kansas City. Similar events at the Amitabha Buddha are led by Rev. Ronn Pawo McLane of the Kansas City Buddhist Center who, every last Sunday through August 2019, also leads a weekly meditation inside Saya Woolfalk’s installation “Expedition to the ChimaCloud” — “an immersive, multimedia experience incorporating themes of cultural hybridization, technology, identity, ceremonial rituals, and science fiction” which can be experienced with an augmented-reality application called REFRAKT.

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Kansas City
Saya Woolfalk: Expedition to the ChimaCloud, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo:

When I visited the always-free Nelson-Atkins, it was during a lively Third Thursday event designed by staffers Catherina Mueller (Educator, Adult Programs) and Kreshaun McKinney (Manager, Audience Engagement). There was live music from The Phantastics and DJ Joe and Ice Kole, tarot card readings, a diaper drive with Uzazi Village, a concert ticket raffle in partnership with a local radio station, drop-in art-making activities, an ASL Art Walk, and a self-guided museum tour on the theme of “hybridity.” I found this event attended by Kansas City residents from across generations, ethnicities and gender expressions, all on one vibrant dance floor.

Curation of the Nelson-Atkins is also dynamic, with wall placards in each section conveying an unexpected level of eloquent awareness. The “context” card in the African Art section, for example, written by Nii Quarcoopome, the museum’s former curator of African art (and now co-curator of the Detroit Institute of Arts), reads like this:

Today, Africans live in independent nations. However these borders were arbitrarily set in the late 1800s by Europeans and do not convey the richness of Africa’s linguistic and cultural complexity.

At the entrance of the American Indian Art section, the context card written by Gaylord Torrence, the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art, informs museum-goers that:

…Viewing historical American Indian art in a museum differs from experiencing objects in their original cultural context. Many art forms were integrated into the activities of daily life. Others were intimately connected with ceremonial dance, song, narrative and ritual, intended to function as part of multi-sensory experiences. All were essentially created to communicate cultural values and religious traditions, many of which are outside the realm of most museum visitors.

Yet, the distinctive and extraordinary vision of Native artists remain accessible to to all. As works of art and beauty, emotional power and mystery, many transcend cultural boundaries, communicating directly as expressions of the human spirit.

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Kansas City
Japanese Art collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Exploring deeper into the American Indian Art section, I very much appreciated how contemporary works, such as Allan Houser’s 1987 untitled and Jamie Okuma’s 2011 Adaption — the latter is beaded heels by Christian Louboutin — were situated alongside historical artifacts. The (RE)CLAIM: Indigenous Artists Reflect on Identity exhibit is ongoing but showcases a different artist every six months.

According to the museum’s website:

The selection of artists in this exhibition is representative of a larger community of contemporary Native artists working to assert Native perspectives and challenge misconceptions.

The curation of each wing and exhibit in the Nelson-Atkins is a visceral experience: the architecture and interior designs are as distinct as they can be. Each artifact seems honored by the generosity and care of its presentation. Each room feels as if it could be in a different museum. The lack of consistency and insistency puts the focus on the art — where it should be.

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Kansas City makes space for diverse artists and artist-led initiatives, while launching gap-stops where support is lacking.

Students of the Kansas City Art Institute have ranged from Walt Disney to Nick Cave. That gives you an idea of the complexities, historically and contemporaneously, of the local arts scene. While many arts institutions have been, and remain, predominantly white-led, the local pushes toward equity, inclusivity and racial-social diversity are also noteworthy.

Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser’s “Sculpture (untitled).” Photo: Twitter @nelson_atkins.

In 2016, soon after the US presidential election, local Kansas City artists of color fed-up with local transgressions of cultural appropriation and systemic racism in the arts joined forces to form Artists of Color Alliance (AOCA). Together, AOCA has produced internal, private conversations and critical public events. Soon they’ll have a panel on “appropriate creation” led by Chico Sierra whose work, Appropriation nation, is currently at Kansas City Artist Coalition’s SNAP SPACE gallery.

As highlighted in the 160-page KC Studio Magazine, local artists are reinventing everything from nude modeling to working with salvaged fabric, from paper airplanes sent from inmates to choral celebrations of Stonewall. The magazine also features dance artist James “SugEasy” Singleton, producer the “Retro Rock Hip-Hop Culture Jam.”

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Other local organizations have been making space for artist-led progress in the sector as well. Here’s the mission statement of the Charlotte Street Foundation, a 20-year-old organization with a new 22,000-square-foot home:

…identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur, we bring complexity, sophistication, and the unexpected to the cultural landscape of Kansas City.

Written into the bylaws of the Kansas City Artists Coalition, established in 1976, is an edict that 60% of its board must be practicing artists. On the entrepreneurial side of the sector, KC StartUp Village and Foundation offer cultural entrepreneurs comprehensive services, educational opportunities and peer-led support.

Kansas, let’s note, does not currently have a functioning state arts council. In its absence, the Missouri Arts Council and Mid-America Arts Alliance, on the Missouri side, and the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (CAIC), based in Topeka, have been working to support artists, arts organizations and arts projects across the geographical, socioeconomic and governmental divides that challenge this part of the heartland.

Kansas City’s new airport will soon bring opportunities for local businesses, artists and entrepreneurs. Like Cincinnati, Oakland and Newark, the current airport already supports local artists through its SouveNEAR vending machines. And flights to this middle America city are mostly affordable. Half of their flight traffic is via Southwest Airlines. So I will end by suggesting you plan a trip to Kansas City as soon as possible. Queer Eye tourism for the win.