A Room of Their Own

Three Arts Groups Find a Home at the New Pendleton Artsblock, Courtesy of the Charlotte Street Foundation and Brinshore Development

For three local arts organizations, the new year also means a new address — 2300 Independence Avenue in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast Neighborhood.

It’s no coincidence. The African American Artists Collective, Kansas City Public Theatre and Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography have all been awarded Charlotte Street Start Up Residencies on the ground floor of the new Pendleton ArtsBlock.

Along with a shared community events space, each gets a rent-free base of operations for at least one year.

“It’s a unique strategy to coalesce economic development with mixed income housing needs,” says Todd Lieberman, head of the Kansas City offices of Brinshore Development, the company behind Pendleton ArtsBlock. “We’re building in something that provides more activity than housing alone would.”

In fact, one-third of the ArtsBlock’s 38 apartments have been set aside for artists, with the rest allotted to an equal mix of public housing and market rate tenants.

While there’s nothing currently like it in the metro, Brinshore has tackled something similar before — in the Dorchester neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Amy Kligman, executive/artistic director of Charlotte Street, visited it with Lieberman in 2016 and came back convinced that the model could work here as well.

“We know artists have good ideas,” Kligman says. “We just have to give them a runway to get started.”

Other partners in the project, the Arts Asylum and Mattie Rhodes Center, developed educational elements and programming to address specific neighborhood needs.

In early October, a panel with strong connections to the Northeast selected the three groups whose residencies begin in 2020.

KC Public Theatre

“There’s a vibrant energy on Independence Avenue,” Elizabeth Bowman says with a smile. “It’s such a walkable neighborhood.”

Elizabeth and her husband, Nathan, founders of Kansas City Public Theatre, have been living near the Avenue for over a year now. “There are a lot of artists around here,” she notes. “And beautiful parks.”

The couple is already eyeing those tree-lined greenspaces as possible places to perform.

In less than two years, they’ve had considerable success putting live theater in front of new audiences. Much of it is non-traditional and immersive, reflecting their own millennial backgrounds. As Elizabeth proudly points out, “Our crowds are very diverse and mostly under 40.”

“I think the fact that it’s always free definitely affects our aesthetic,” Nathan adds. “We never start a show until we’ve raised enough funds to do it. And we always pay our actors.”

Both Bowmans see the ArtsBlock as a great addition to Pendleton Heights. But Nathan insists, “We want KCPublic to do more than just bring people into the area. We want to be ‘of’ the neighborhood. We want to be a neighborhood center.”

Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography

Rising from the ashes of the SCP that preceded it, the four-year-old KCSCP has been picking up steam. A year ago, the group was gifted a spartan space in Union Hill to mount their own exhibitions. Last summer, a collaborative venture with Free Film: USA at Charlotte Street’s Black Box on Troost garnered positive buzz.

It also sparked an impromptu idea. To send aspiring photographers off with donated cameras, rolls of film and an assignment to spend one week documenting their surroundings. The result is “6-7-1-35” (6 artists, 7 days, 1 roll of 35mm film) — a working title for the first exhibition in their new ArtsBlock gallery. KCSCP President Angie Jennings hopes to engage the district’s international populations and make the most of the group’s Independence Avenue storefront.

For example, she says their sidewalk sandwich board “might not even have the word ‘gallery’ on it. Maybe something more like ‘come on in.’ I want it to be a place where people who just want to talk about photography, or learn more about it, will feel welcome.”

Each Start Up Resident recently handed Brinshore their wish list for the final phases of construction. Jennings told them her highest priority is a hanging system for the walls. And dedicated space for a darkroom.

“We’re excited. This was literally the first grant we’ve applied for. We really want Charlotte Street to be proud of what we do with such a great opportunity.”

African American Artists Collective

Poets, painters, musicians, dancers, actors . . . all can be found under the AAAC umbrella. Though the members have been meeting monthly for years, the collective has never had a formal home. And the group’s president, Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, thinks it’s long overdue.

“Artists are in the service business,” she says emphatically. “Developers are starting to see what artists can bring to the table and how they can connect people. I think it’s a smart move.”

A fabric artist and curator herself, Ruffin knows the value of cross-disciplinary contact. “When I hear Eddie Moore playing music,” she says, “I want to try different colors, new things.”

Other members of the collective agree. Tyrone Aiken from the Friends of Alvin Ailey found both a muralist and a cartoonist within the ranks. Filmmaker/photographer Jason Piggie recently teamed with writer Michael Patton on a book project.

“As artists, we tend to get in our zone, do our work in a little bubble,” Piggie explains. “Being around different disciplines definitely spurs you.”

Pianist Eddie Moore has considered moving to the Northeast himself. He sees the residency as a golden opportunity to teach more kids about jazz and expose them to all kinds of arts. “Look down the road 10 years,” he says. “How proud we’ll be when the young ones come up and start making really good stuff.”

Today though, the Pendleton ArtsBlock is still a brand-new adventure.

Amy Kligman calls it “a test.” One that she’s optimistic about.

“Much like Charlotte Street drew on similar support from donors and business owners during its Urban Culture Project days,” she says, “this program is a way to continue that spirit and shift ownership of the space directly to the artists we serve.”

About The Author: Randy Mason

Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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