A Creative Transition

Artists and community engagement are revitalizing the West Bottoms.

Artist Theaster Gates, founder of Rebuild Foundation and Director of Arts and Public Life at University of Chicago, believes in creatively-driven solutions to community challenges. According to the organization’s website, “Rebuild Foundation catalyzes neighborhood revitalization through artistic practices, individual empowerment and community engagement.” The efforts of the Rebuild Foundation rest on the shoulders of those who promote creative efforts, utilizing space with arts and cultural programming, providing place for community conversation and a point of origin for action, empowering artists and change agents by investing in skill development.

These changes are already happening in the Stockyards and West Bottoms ­­- an area larger than Downtown Kansas City – much like it did in the Crossroads Arts District. “There are a lot of organizations supporting the growth of the arts here. We love Kansas City,” says Cambria Potter, director and curator of the 50/50 Project.

The 50/50 arts project is a two-year multi-use arts platform. Four young artists, with Charlotte Street Rocket Grant funding, as well as a successful Kickstarter campaign, in cooperation with property owners and the Kansas

City Design Center will be energizing an otherwise empty lot at the foot of the Kemper Arena property. Hanna Lodwick, 50/50 curator says of their mission, “Our whole purpose is to activate unused urban space.” Keep up with their exhibition schedule and progress here: 5050kc.com.

Another community arts initiative in the area is Plug Projects, located at 1613 Genessee. In addition to encouraging the development of arts dialogue through the exhibition of challenging work in the Stockyards District, the collective also shows Kansas City-based works to other regions, thereby contextualizing artists in a broader manner. The group explained, “PLUG Projects chose the Stockyard District because of the great neighbors and affordable rent. The owners have been very accommodating. They worked with us to turn what was pretty much a storage space into a great gallery space.” Critique night, a film series, and an art writing platform titled 8 1/2 x 11 are all manners in which this group has been supporting the development of artists in Kansas City since 2011. Open to the public Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with their third Friday opening in January featuring the work of Jillian Mayer. The show will be on view Jan.16 – Feb. 21.

Providing a home for Haw Contemporary and Bill Brady Galleries, the area has also been an important place for more traditional art commerce. Of his new foray into the business of creativity after acquiring the space formerly known to art lovers as the Dolphin, restructuring and renaming it, Bill Haw, Jr. says, “This (Haw Contemporary) is something

we really, really like having down here. This has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. Fifteen months ago I didn’t realize the ancillary benefits.” The Haw family, without a doubt, has a vested interest in the invigoration of the Stockyards District in particular with large landholdings as well as properties such as the restored Livestock Exchange building, which is filled with business tenants and includes an entire floor devoted to artist studios. Haw’s father, Bill Haw Sr., owns the Livestock Exchange Building and the 48 acres surrounding it in the Stockyards District. Some of his plans are to add residential development.

When entering into a conversation about supporting regional artists, perhaps former Director of Crystal Bridges Don Bacigalupi summarized it best during his 2014 TEDX appearance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: “Pay more attention to the artists that live and work among us. We can all learn a great deal from their inspiration, from their insights, from these important and compelling stories, because after all, they’re our story.”

The Hobbs Building 1427 W. 9th, a recognized anchor in the northern West Bottoms region, is a well-known place for housing art-making and creative growth. Adam Jones, West Bottoms property owner Adam Jones comments, “The Hobbs building has been financially redefined as an art and creative building, which is defined as ‘highest and best’ use and that doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t fake it. A great example of that is the Bauer building in the Crossroads. I believe we have a great opportunity to allow creativity to drive the future best use of that area.”

The Hobbs open studios take place bi-annually on the second weekend in April and October. In addition to the Hobbs, Jones has encouraged other creative business to use the nearby Foundation, a multi-purpose building where weddings and other events can take place, and The Ship, a 1930s cocktail lounge. There is also commerce with a vintage and antique collectible scene.

From where art activity reigns, creative commerce springs. A wide variety of restaurants and service-related business have settled nicely into the area. A visitor to the area can have an authentic Americana diner style meal at the Woodsweather Cafe across from the Hobbs at 1414 W. 9th, lunch at The Genessee Royale across from the Livestock Exchange at 1531 Genessee St., or have a meal with a global flair at Voltaire, located at 1617 Genessee St.

It seems the future of the West Bottoms & Stockyards districts is only limited by one’s imagination. Of urban design in general, and the responsibility involves all citizens, and the Kemper Arena conversation, Vincent Gauthier, director of planning at BNIM says, “Cities, as they evolve, almost always, the most valuable assets are in the urban core. Your core is where you have the most valuable property. I don’t think anyone has dedicated the resources to figure out what that site is.” Regarding Kemper Arena, Gauthier says, “There are good alternatives to demolition.” The city did not offer any comments about plans.

Vladimir Krstic, director, Kansas City Design Center led a two-year analysis (2010/11), two-book publication, scale-model, and proposal all designed by students for the greater West Bottoms and Stockyards district. This project included an analysis of the river bed changes throughout history and a proposed green thoroughfare utilizing the protected understructure of I-70, among the proposals. Krstic says, “Urban design is no longer about beautification, it is really about addressing infrastructure and aesthetic issues. We have a tremendous responsibility to solve problems.” Read the in-depth analysis and proposal at kcdesigncenter.org/publications

Photography by Mark Berndt

About The Author: Christel Highland

Christel Highland

Christel Highland resides and works in the Crossroads Arts District founded by her artistic mentor and friend, the great Jim Leedy. In addition to furthering her studio practice where she focuses on developing her natural material usage, she curates MLB Gallery, hosts a quarterly event, The Salon for the Arts, and enjoys advocating for the Arts through KC Studio Magazine.

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