James Martin, Kansas City’s new public art administrator, has accepted a big challenge amid high expectations.
Martin was hired in October for the position that had been vacant since April 2018. He came onboard as controversy raged over the city’s One Percent for Art program and its application to the $1.5 billion Kansas City International (KCI) Airport single-terminal project.
Kansas City’s charter mandates that the One Percent for Art program, which captures one percent of public construction costs to fund public art enhancements, is to be administered by the city’s Municipal Art Commission (MAC). But the commission’s impact on public art and design has declined recently, in large part due to the absence of a public art administrator on the city staff.
Enter James Martin, a Kansas City-based consultant, curator, educator and writer. Martin began his career in 1989 as interim executive director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition, after receiving a B.A. in art history from the University of Kansas. He then earned an M.A. in art history at Case Western Reserve University, where he trained at the Cleveland Museum of Art, graduating in 1993.
Martin has served on the curatorial staff at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and as a curator for Sprint, building and overseeing a contemporary art collection for the Sprint campus in Overland Park. From 2011 to 2015 he was curatorial consultant to the Center for the Healing Arts at Truman Medical Centers. Martin also has worked with public art clients such as the cities of Gladstone, Leawood, Merriam and Olathe.
“Kansas City has a longstanding and excellent public art program, and I feel very fortunate to be chosen to administer that,” Martin said. “It’s a thrill to be associated with something that has such a great history and such great potential moving forward.”
Public art sets a high bar for what a city is about, Martin said. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen Kansas City and the region identifying not just as a city of sports and barbecue. Art has come to the forefront to join those aspects of the city, as we put ourselves out there in the United States and the world. We now recognize that art is a necessity, because it’s a quality of life issue. We have to have outstanding creative endeavors to draw people and employers to the city and region.”
A 2015 report by Americans for the Arts found that arts and culture made a $244.2 million impact on the Kansas City economy, based on data collected from 91 of 165 eligible nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Jackson County.
Public art advocates say the new single terminal at KCI, which is expected to open in 2023, should convey that Kansas City is a vibrant, cutting-edge place to live and work.
Artist Miguel Rivera, associate professor and chair of printmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute, said he hopes Martin will work for inclusion of local artists in the KCI project and future public art projects.
“If we expose local art at our airport, people traveling through Kansas City will realize there are a lot of good artists in town,” Rivera said. “I hope that artists are told by James and the city that we can be included to submit proposals and have clear guidelines of what’s expected.”
Martin said he is eager to go to work on art and design issues swirling around KCI. “It’s part of my DNA to be a uniter, not a divider. I tend to listen pretty well. I take notes. I’m interested in creative solutions. I get inspired by the passion that people have. So from my perspective, they hired the right person for the job to bring people together.”
Martin said one of his goals is to open the door for more artists of color to participate in Kansas City public art projects.
Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, a well-known contemporary fabric artist and a founder of the African American Artists Collective, believes Martin is the right person for that job as well.
“I think he can do it,” she said. “He’s a smart man. He understands how to collaborate. We have brilliant African American artists in this community. If 29 percent of the Kansas City population is African American, then there has got to be representation of the African American community and the contributions of the African American community.”
MAC member David Dowell said the commission recommended Martin’s appointment.
“Outside of the airport, the new administrator has much to do,” Dowell said. The items on Dowell’s list include managing existing public art projects and appropriating city general obligation bonds for public art.
Martin seems to relish the busy days ahead. “Apart from the commissioning of new projects, a number of works created by the One Percent for Art program are now in need of conservation,” he said. “I am working with city staff to identify potential funding sources. If funding can be identified, a plan would be shared with the Municipal Art Commission.”
Martin said someone asked him if his new job and all the responsibilities it involves would be exhausting.
His answer? “No, it’s energizing. I have to figure out a way to turn my brain off at night so I can sleep.”
Editor’s note: KC Studio congratulates James Martin on his new post, although we are sorry to see him go as one of the magazine’s most thoughtful and discerning contributing writers on the visual arts.