Rising rents often lead artists into a peripatetic existence, and Don Wilkison is no exception. Wilkison, a Kansas City artist known by the pseudonym “Minister of Information,” was settling into a new studio at the end of June.
Located in a renovated building at 32nd Street and Gillham Road, it is the latest of several spaces Wilkison has labored in during the past year. He likes the fact that his new space costs less and lies closer to his home than the River Market area studio he had just vacated.
Wilkison has moved time and time again amid rising rents and buildings changing hands. He is among the artists who flourished in affordable studio space at the old Katz Drugstore building, at the corner of Main Street and Westport Road. But he and the other artists had to move out last year when the building owner decided to sell the aging edifice.
“It’s been getting worse and worse,” said Wilkison, who formerly made his living as a hydrologist. “Artists often have a hard time finding affordable spaces to work in, which is why you find them in marginalized spaces.”
Wilkison is quick to point out that artists are not the only ones getting squeezed. “It’s not just about us. There are so many people who can’t afford a place to live. As artists, we have to be careful about suggesting that our plight is worse than the plight of many other people. It’s not.”
And most artists will work in any space that’s available, said Wilkison, who has been busy designing silk screen posters for a Seattle sewer upgrade program. “We’re crazy, and if we don’t do this we’re even crazier. No matter where you are, you figure out how to make work.”
But a nomadic work life takes a toll.
“It takes time to move your stuff,” Wilkison said. “You need to be settled somewhat in order to produce work. You want to spend as much time making things or thinking about stuff as possible. The city and businesspeople always say they love the arts. They almost never use the word artists. Art is made by artists, and artists need a place to work.”
Paul Migliazzo gets that. He and his associates have been developing artist studio spaces in Kansas City for several years.
“The art community is always short of affordable studio space,” Migliazzo said. “In many cases you have professional artists, but in other cases you’ve got people working full time at other gigs who are trying to practice their craft. They don’t have a ton of disposable income to spend on studios.”
Migliazzo commends artists for turning blighted neighborhoods into destination spots, citing the Crossroads as an example. But, he said, artists in many cases become “victims of their own success,” as neighborhood renewal jacks up rents to a level that artists can’t afford.
“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “Not only do we provide affordable spaces, but what they offer helps revitalize areas that otherwise get neglected.”
Migliazzo launched his art studio development mission with KunstraumKC, which offered affordable studios in a renovated building at 15th and Oak streets for about 10 years. The artists had to move out last year when the building was sold.
Migliazzo then developed artist studios in the building at 32nd and Gillham, the space Wilkison recently moved into. The rents range from about $225 to $300 a month, including utilities, depending on the size.
Now Migliazzo is ramping up. Whereas the 32nd and Gillham building comprises 5,000 square feet, he now plans to redevelop a building at 1328 Agnes Ave. that boasts nearly 50,000 square feet. A former police training facility, the building sits about two miles east of downtown.
The Agnes Avenue structure will exceed the 32nd and Gillham building “in scale and vision,” Migliazzo said. “We bought this building for the sole purpose of creating an artist community, not only studios but also galleries and potentially art-centric businesses. We’re hoping to create a real collaborative that artists and artist-adjacent businesses would like to have as their home.”
Migliazzo said smaller spaces in the Agnes Avenue building could rent for as low as $150 a month, while large spaces might fetch up to $2,000 a month.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back the timetable somewhat, but Migliazzo said he’s shooting for first-phase occupancy in late summer or early fall.
“Our plan is to have the tenants of that building be the Agnes Avenue Art Project or whatever we end up calling that group,” he said.
Wilkison said he might move from 32nd and Gillham to the Agnes Avenue building when that project opens its doors to artists. “I’m going to wait and see what it ends up looking like. It’s a definite possibility.”
Meantime, Wilkison and like-minded folks are brainstorming a way to give artists greater control over their destiny. In 2019, he and some other veterans of the old Drugstore space formed a nonprofit corporation called dskc, which stands for DrugstoreKC.
“The Drugstore was a pretty amazing place,” he said. “Can we start a similar place like that?”
According to dskc’s Missouri articles of incorporation, the purpose of the nonprofit is to “promote, enhance, and encourage the visual and interdisciplinary arts, and to foster, promote, and enrich communities through cultural experiences and events.”
Wilkison wants to see the nonprofit group develop a plan for workspaces that artists can own or at least partly own. “We want a space for artists that they can afford to be in and doesn’t get sold out from under them. You need to own the means of your production.”
Wilkison learned at the end of June that the River Market building he had just moved out of had been put up for sale. That revelation made him even happier that he had moved and reconfirmed his commitment to change the artist-workspace paradigm.
“We’ve got to figure out a different way to do it. We need to figure out ways to provide spaces to artists long term that they can afford, and that they can stay in.”