Mid-America Arts Alliance is one of those organizations that is not easily definable. They are multidisciplinary, multidivisional, multidirectional and multiregional, but however the agency is classified, their fundamental goal is “More Art for More People.”
A nonprofit regional arts organization, Mid-America Arts Alliance’s many programs include the arts and humanities traveling exhibition programs, ExhibitsUSA and NEH on the Road; professional development for arts professionals and artists; and funding support through grants to artists and arts organizations to enable them to realize their own vision for the arts in their community, says Chief Executive Officer Mary Kennedy.
“We are truly a multidisciplinary organization aimed at more art for more people and that means access, affordability and education. We bridge gaps and connect people in the exhibitions and performances,” she says. “Many of those who benefit from Mid-America Arts Alliance programming come from smaller communities and often rural ones. The organizations that bring in our exhibitions are smaller and provide a lot of services to the community. Our programs are responsive to their unique needs.” Mid-America Alliance serves the six-state region of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Kennedy has been with Mid-America Arts Alliance for 24 years. She first served as curator of exhibitions for ExhibitsUSA and then took the helm 11 years ago. The organization also has Todd Stein serving as Chief Operating Officer. “It’s inside-outside. Todd supervises the staff and the financial information. I deal primarily with the external relationships, including our 42-member board as well as our funders and partners. I am also in communications with the governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services …”
The newly-renovated Mid-America Arts Alliance building may be a new discovery for the Kansas City community, as evidenced during the last several First Fridays, when attendance topped 3,000 guests. What Kansas Citians may not know is the vast reach of the organization. “We handle a six-state region and some aspects are even national. Our activity takes us a lot of different places geographically and with the renovations, we can bring all those resources to a Kansas City audience. Many people still see us just as LIVE! in the Crossroads on First Fridays. That is the tip of the iceberg: we actually reach more than a million people annually,” Kennedy says.
That more-than-a-million figure might stun more than a few people. “We may be a small nonprofit organization, but that means we can be nimble and responsive. We are able to do special projects. One example is a community-based mural project that teams a muralist and a design team to express the highs and lows of the community,” Kennedy says. “We just completed one in East Waco and it was a wonderful experience that spoke to the revitalization of East Waco.”
This September, the ExhibitsUSA exhibition that goes up in the new display and work space called the Culture Lab is Our People, Our Land, Our Images. It’s a view of indigenous peoples through the eyes of indigenous photographers. The works will come from places such as Peru, Iraq, New Zealand and North America, and will be on display in the Culture Lab for eight weeks. The Culture Lab is open to the public every Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and on First Fridays. For the First Friday in September, Oklahoma’s Perpetual Motion Dance group will be in the parking lot, and October’s First Friday features Kansas City’s Blue Orleans band.
“We call it the Culture Lab because it is meant to be a place for experimentation. They are works in progress. While we now have the space to share the exhibitions before they go on the road, it’s also a benefit for us. We have never had a place to hang our own exhibitions and modify the educational components if needed. When we can base changes on viewer response, it is a laboratory for improvement and it’s where Kansas City gets to see what we do.” The Culture Lab is a climate-controlled environment and can be regulated much as a museum is, but Kennedy expects it to be another avenue, another access for individuals to have arts experiences. “A lot of people talk about access, but we really live it with our three-pronged approach. We want people to see a safe environment so if they don’t understand a piece of art, we have people here to make the experience richer and offer explanations.”
The next 12 years could usher in amazing growth if Kennedy has her say. “The goal in 12 years is to reach 3 million people a year. We aren’t an organization that rests on its laurels. The staff is strong and the building is a place for them to do their job well. We are constantly evolving too. What do the communities we serve want in programming and what do artists need to be successful? We have to transition programs to keep them relevant to what we do as a regional arts organization.”
Another current project includes the development of a film and media program. “Forty-one years ago, we were founded on the visual and performing art disciplines. We can keep these components, but we see the media arts as such a critical piece, especially with younger people. They want to participate and not just be the recipient of the arts so we have to determine how to manifest that … as the world is changing, so are we.”
Kennedy takes these goals personally. “I got started in the arts because someone else made them accessible to me. I was a kid who didn’t have access and someone reached out. Now I have had a career in the arts. And yes, we claim success on a regular basis. However, there is no end point to this. We are always looking at how to make the next arts experience even better. What keeps people engaged and engaged often does not come from a single-dimensioned organization.”