No Flyover Town: Kansas City Joins Google Arts & Culture

We’re the First City in North America to Get its Own Dedicated Page on the Far-Reaching Website and App

Since 2011, the mission of Google Arts & Culture has been to make the world’s cultural information accessible online. And, this spring, Kansas City became the first city in North America to get its own dedicated page on the far-reaching website and app.

Suddenly, the Heart of America has a significantly higher profile in the digital ether.

“It’s a big deal, because Kansas City is one of those great undiscovered gems,” says Sean O’Harrow, executive director of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, one of 15 local institutions partnered with Google Arts & Culture to spread not only Kansas City’s great works of creativity, but also its rich ethos.

So move over, Hamburg, Germany; Leon, France; and Milan, Italy; all of which have received the special Google Arts & Culture treatment. Now anyone with a smartphone can virtually experience what most Kansas Citians literally know but may be too modest to attest: “This ain’t no flyover town.”

“One thing I’ve realized is that Kansas City, to its benefit and to its detriment, is not super well-known in the outside world,” O’Harrow says. “And so if we can make this project exciting and interesting and engaging for people, then we’ve done our jobs. It raises the profile of Kansas City. People are going to realize, ‘Wow, there are that many museums? There are that many cultural institutions? There’s art that good?’ They might say, ‘I’d love to go there one day.’

“This is also an opportunity to get over our Midwestern disease of humility. The cure is to have someone else promote us. Then we can go, ‘Oh, gosh, it wasn’t us. It was these other (Google) people promoting us.’”

Why Kansas City?

Sometimes it’s good to be in the middle.

“When we were brainstorming and looking at the map, it made sense to start with the center of America,” says Simon Delacroix, program manager of Google Arts & Culture in North America. “We knew that there were world-class museums in Kansas City. And every time we came, we were welcomed by more institutions and got in touch with more. We kept being impressed by the diversity, the depth and breadth of content that could become the platform.”

A year before launch, Delacroix’s Google team and its Kansas City cultural partners began digitizing museum collections (ultimately publishing more than 2,000 images and videos from all 15 partners), repurposing Google’s 360-degree Street View camera into a Museum View camera to capture exquisite detail in fine art and assigning veteran Kansas City journalists to write about the intersecting histories of local art, food, music, sports and politics. The remarkable result is a cohesive collection of multimedia narratives and other quirky elements that inform and entertain, while connecting the past to the present.

“We really wanted to be showcasing a city that had all facets,” Delacroix says. “That’s why I think Kansas City was the right choice. The project became so powerful, because we were really weaving together all the different parts of the story.

“I know that some Kansas Citians want to keep the city for themselves. But it is a city to be shared more widely, because it has some treasures to be shared.”

Many of those treasures can be found at the Black Archives of Mid-America Kansas City, which supplied many historical photographs and documents to Google Arts & Culture.

“We want people to know about us,” says Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives. “We’ve heard far too often, ‘I didn’t know there was a Black Archives’ or ‘I’ve never been in this building.’ And we hope that this Google platform gets rid of some of that. I love that you can be in Melbourne, Australia, and you can still find out about the Black Archives.”

The platform’s array of imagery and information culled from the Black Archives reflects the African American experience in Kansas City through such avenues as jazz and blues, art, business, baseball, church and school. An early 20th-century photo of Kansas City restaurateur Henry Perry is accompanied by his business card, which proclaims him the Barbecue King. Perry was an influence on such subsequently celebrated Kansas City meat-smokers as Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and Gates Bar-B-Q.

“We show that he was the seed and give credit where it’s due,” Williams said of Perry. “And that’s what the Black Archives is all about.”

A Global Stage

Paul Schofer concedes that he has yet to make it all the way through Kansas City’s abundant offerings on Google Arts & Culture, which can take hours to digest. But the president and chief executive officer of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts has a good reason.

“I’ve been so focused on the Kauffman Center,” Schofer says. “But we are absolutely thrilled to be a part of this. It puts the Kauffman Center, Kansas City and the local arts community on a global stage.”

One of the first things that a surveyor of Kansas City on Google Arts & Culture may encounter is an exterior photo of the iconic Kauffman Center.

“I just have this vision of somebody on the other side of the world clicking and seeing the center for the first time,” Schofer says. “And then maybe they connect the dots and say, ‘Hey, this is classified as one of the world’s 15 most beautiful concert halls — and only two are in the United States.’ And ours is one of the projects of Moshe Safdie, winner of the gold medal of architecture — and the Google camera shot it spectacularly. Everybody’s blown away by the images of the building from every angle, inside and out.”

Although Schofer considers Kansas City’s presence on Google Arts & Culture to hugely increase the city’s international appeal, “the hope and dream is that it creates more connections outside of the community and builds a greater appreciation for the arts in Kansas City and the culture that we have here,” he says. “Bottom line, it just gives the community pride, which is a wonderful thing.”

Of course, Schofer’s primary mission at the Kauffman Center is to put butts in seats — whether for Willie Nelson or Alice Cooper, “Miranda Sings” or “Snarky Puppy,” the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City or the Kansas City Ballet. And every bit of Google Arts & Culture-guided attention is welcome, including from “hometowners.”

“People who live here, maybe they haven’t made it here yet,” Schofer says. “But when the Kauffman Center is the first picture that you see when you click online, you might go, ‘OK, wait a second. I knew this was downtown. I need to go there, because this is something that the world is now seeing significance in.’”

The potential increase of local cultural awareness for Kansas City’s major arts players could have a wider effect, too, Schofer suggested.

“This new platform is raising the bar for everyone,” he says. “We want success, not just for the larger players, but also for other arts and cultural organizations of all shapes and sizes. I want the little mom-and-pop theater to be wildly successful, because that means great things for the broader community in the long run.”

Story and Experience

Kemper Museum executive director O’Harrow is eager to explore the future of contemporary art online. In July, he’ll visit Google Arts & Culture’s Paris headquarters for what promises to be an enlightening give-and-take.

“I’m meeting with them, not only to understand the technology that’s coming out now, but the stuff they’re working on for the future,” O’Harrow says. “I’ll also give them feedback from a museum’s point of view on things that we think would be useful for artists and audiences alike. We will be working with their beta technologies and their development team to see if we can introduce new ideas to them, to push them. Because contemporary artists, like science fiction writers, are good at envisioning futures without a lot of limitations.

“Right now, it’s a storytelling platform, and I think eventually it’s going to be an experiences platform, because they’re going to bring in more dimensions.”

Such as? The possibilities are virtually endless, O’Harrow says.
“I’d like to have presentations online that go far beyond what you can see in reality,” he says. “Is there a way of experiencing an artist’s presentation that is so multidimensional or so transcends dimension that it allows you to have an experience that you wouldn’t get otherwise?

“Is there a way of making a certain work of art come alive? Perhaps it’s an x-ray of the artwork, but it’s only visible on your handheld device when you’re in front of it. Or you could be looking at the portrait of a lady, and online she’s alive and talking to you or responding to you or interacting with you.

“Artists are already talking about that future, because artists are the visionaries of our society. We don’t want them rooted in 100 percent reality. They can dream.”

Check it out at artsandculture.google.com/project/kansascity

Newsflash: KC Studio is now a partner with Google Arts & Culture. Watch for our presence on the platform this fall.

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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