In 2018, accolades for the vitality of the arts in the Kansas City region have become commonplace. In September, “The Wall Street Journal” named our metropolitan area one of five cities that have “cultivated their own artistic identities.”
One reason for such frequent national recognition in recent years is the area’s friendliness to artists, an attitude epitomized by the Kansas City Artists Coalition under the leadership of Janet Simpson.
As KCAC’s executive director for three decades, Simpson led the charge to make KC an artist-friendly scene, advocating for artists, offering them professional development opportunities and building an ecosystem of informed supporters.
Earlier this fall, Simpson announced that she will be retiring in early 2019, exactly 30 years after she helped rescue the organization (founded in 1975) from an imminent shutdown approved by its board of directors. In 1989, Simpson and other members formed a new board, and at the end of the year she became executive director.
She has worked tirelessly. In her role as executive director, Simpson curated more than 500 exhibitions showcasing the work of 4,000 artists in KCAC’s three galleries. She has edited and published three books and numerous exhibition catalogs.
During Simpson’s tenure, KCAC received the prestigious Warhol Initiative Award from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the organization opened the Kansas City International Residency and produced three citywide Open Studios events with 650 participating artists, who received 100,000 studio visits and pocketed $350,000 in sales.
Simpson also steered the organization through some difficult times. In the 1990s, venerable artist-run organizations that had relied too heavily on federal funding folded, after political pressures caused federal arts funding to be cut dramatically.
Under Simpson, the Artists Coalition avoided that pitfall. “We never relied much on National Endowment for the Arts funding,” she said, “so we were left to our own devices, (which included) the annual auction, paid memberships, and long-term committed relationships with major supporters such as Mel Mallin and his family and Francis Family Foundation.”
Simpson kept the organization flexible and responsive to the tenor of the times. In 1990, she presided over “Take Care Kansas City,” an exhibition to raise awareness about AIDS. “The stigma needed to be tamped down,” she said. “We were able to contribute to healing in the city.”
In 2015 the Coalition featured the work of a young DACA artist, whose installations refer to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The artist had just finished his graduate degree. “It was edgy to have a young undocumented artist for a show, but it was a really compelling story,” Simpson said. “He makes such good work that is important socially. Viewers were crying.” Simpson points with pride to the fact that the artist is now an assistant professor at a state university.
“When we’re able to support somebody in this way, we’ve executed our mission.”
As for retirement, Simpson says, “I’ve developed a 15-point retirement plan. Just kidding, I am planning on letting retirement unfold organically. I have many ideas for where to put my time and energy, including travel, getting into the studio, writing and volunteering . . . stay tuned!”
The Kansas City arts community owes Simpson a great debt. She will be succeeded by KCAC Assistant Director Marissa Starke.
(James Martin served as interim director of KCAC from April to November, 1989, and returned to work for KCAC as managing editor of “Forum Magazine” from 1995 to 1996.)