On a Thursday night in April, when many Kansas Citians were staring at electronic screens, the Belger Arts Center was aglow with in-person enthusiasm.
The Belger hosted about 115 people who came at the invitation of Arts Alive KC, an organization that has revved up our town’s art vibe during the past two decades. The attendees enjoyed a cocktail buffet and viewed an exhibit titled “Keep it Real,” the first of a three-part series celebrating the 100th anniversary of Belger Cartage Service. The exhibit features decorative and historical objects that reflect the birth of the Machine Age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Following the visual portion of the evening, the Arts Alive guests headed to the Folly Theater for a concert featuring Joshua Redman, winner of the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.
The attendees included Cheryl Cotterman, a lifelong arts devotee who moved back to Kansas City recently.
“It’s a terrific organization,” Cotterman said. “The people are friendly and warm and inviting. The events are beautiful. It’s such a great way to get plugged back into Kansas City. I grew up here, and the renaissance of the city is amazing to me.”
Even Kansas Citians who have always lived here might be amazed by local art treasures they didn’t know existed. John Hoffman, founder of Arts Alive, said many area residents “don’t know how deep the arts are in the city, because they’re not willing to look under the surface.”
Hoffman, an avid art collector, said he brainstormed the idea for Arts Alive with his daughter, Lynn Hoffman Carlton. They envisioned an evening of visual art followed by performance art, frequently at venues off the beaten path.
“We have gone to roller derby, a burlesque house and a tattoo shop,” Hoffman said. “Out of 75 people who came to the tattoo parlor, only two had ever been to one before. The rest said they were too scared to go on their own, but they were willing to go as a group.”
And many were willing to go as a group to Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut St. “Most of the people who came tonight had never been to the Belger, and this is one of the great visual institutions in the city,” Hoffman said.
Mo Dickens, the Belger’s gallery assistant, said the Belger collection includes prints, paintings and sculpture, as well as objects such as coins, guns, toys and pocket watches. “I have worked at Belger Arts since 2004, and in that that time we have made loans of over 1,000 artworks to museums as far away as Spain and Scandinavia,” he said.
But the Belger and its art offerings reside off the radar of many Kansas Citians. “People traveling to the Midwest will Google ‘art in Kansas City’ and find us,” Dickens said. “Locals rarely do that. They tend to visit the places they are already familiar with. John Hoffman does a good job of finding out-of-the-way venues to stage an Arts Alive event.”
Cotterman learned about Arts Alive when she ran into John Hoffman and his wife, Sharon Hoffman, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The next day she attended her first Arts Alive events, which took place at Kemper Museum for Contemporary Art and the Warwick Theatre. She had a great time and knew she wanted to stay connected with the group.
“The thing that really strikes me, because I’ve been on the east coast for 30 years, is the vibrancy and commitment from the community to the arts in Kansas City,” Cotterman said. “John’s and Sharon’s passion is just infectious.”
Hoffman said about 1,800 persons belong to Arts Alive. “They receive our emails every month. We sell out. We max out at 125. Sometimes we can only take 80, depending on where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
The charge for participating in an Arts Alive evening is $40 per person. “We make art performances affordable,” said Betty James, president of the organization. “It’s like having a party with 100 of your friends — and combining a visual art experience with a performance opens people’s eyes to what art really is.”
Hoffman’s devotion to the arts dovetails with his business interests. As a founder of Urban Coeur Development (now Urban Coeur Properties) and a partner in UC-B Properties, he has spearheaded numerous urban core restoration and development projects. Current plans include an 89-unit apartment development at the southwest corner of Linwood and Troost, slated for completion by the fall of 2020.
And while highly acclaimed art venues can be found in Kansas City suburbs, Hoffman said the arts scene can’t stretch far enough to cover the four corners of our sprawling metro.
“People left the core to go to the suburbs,” he said. “For the arts to thrive, they have to come back.”
For more about Arts Alive and the organization’s upcoming events, visit www.artsalivekc.org.