Open Spaces KC: Surprises on Tap

Janelle Monae Headlines New Arts Festival Featuring Music, Theater and Art in Swope Park and Beyond

Dan Cameron treated the last few days in July like he was training for the Olympics. He found time for the gym. He tried to get to bed on time. He ate his veggies.

All of this in preparation for Open Spaces KC, a brand new cultural event that will take place over nine weeks in several usual and not-so-usual arts destinations in the city.

“There are going to be lots of surprises between now and Oct. 28,” the artistic director of Open Spaces said the other day. “I feel like I’m setting the stage for a big party, and Kansas City is bringing thousands of friends.”

Open Spaces started Aug. 25 and runs through Oct. 28. Its home base is planned in Swope Park, but it will spread out to different venues throughout the city, including 18th and Vine, downtown, the Crossroads, the Plaza and the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College, among others.

Open Spaces would be the second of two major cultural event start-ups in the Midwest this summer. The other is Cleveland’s Front International, which is running now through Sept. 30. Cleveland’s event is intended to happen every three years, while KC’s is planned as a biennial, or every-other-year, event.

Cameron certainly has the resume to make this happen. He is credited with helping revitalize post-Katrina New Orleans with the Prospect New Orleans triennial. He also served as chief curator of Orange County Museum of Art and relaunched the California Biennial into the International California-Pacific Triennial.

“I thought maybe Kansas City would be a blank slate, and it’s nothing like that at all,” Cameron said of starting Open Spaces. “It’s as rich. It’s as deep. And I think like any place with its own history, you can find a place, start digging, do some research and come up with gold.”

Monae and More

The big “get” for Open Spaces is Janelle Monae, the KCK native who has gone on to become a force in R&B and pop music, as well as a critically noticed actress in the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” and the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures.” Earlier this year she dropped “Dirty Computer,” which is already on several lists for best album of 2018. Later this year she’ll star alongside Steve Carell in “Welcome to Marwen,” directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away,” “Forrest Gump”).

Monae will perform during Open Spaces’ “The Weekend” in October, along with hip-hop legends and “Tonight” show band the Roots. In addition to big-time national acts, locals such as the Hermon Mehari Quartet and the Marcus Lewis Big Band are slated to perform.

And that’s just the music slate. Visual and theater artists from around the country are scheduled to exhibit and perform over the course of the event, some in collaboration with local venues and artists.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will show “Retinol,” an animated video piece by Los Angeles visual artist Jennifer Steinkamp, on the outside of the building at night. Jamaica native and sculptor Nari Ward has created a jazz-inspired installation for the Mutual Musicians’ Foundation.

Ward was one of the first artists Cameron invited to Open Spaces.

“He’s a big music fan and super-interested in Kansas City jazz history,” Cameron said. “He couldn’t believe it was possible that he could collaborate with the Mutual Musicians Foundation. He was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’”

Open Spaces intends to have the proverbial “something for everyone.” It should, with a budget of more than $1.6 million — and that’s just the amount of public-private dollars organizers cared to share with “KC Studio.”

“Open Spaces KC is not at liberty to disclose the overall event budget, due to confidential contract agreements with artists,” reps said in a statement. “However, $1.6 million has been raised through the public-private partnership in order to underwrite the event and help keep the price of tickets for exhibits and performances low and in many cases free. Additional sponsorship dollars and private funding are still continuing, as will revenue from the few ticketed experiences.”

Backed by everyone from Mayor Sly James to philanthropists and founder, Scott Francis, and Susan Gordon, Open Spaces now needs decent weather and one other thing:

“People,” said Clint Ashlock, artistic director for the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. “Hopefully, a lot of people hear about it, and then a lot of people take part in it. It’s hard for anything to succeed if people don’t show up for it.”

Ashlock has two performances cooking for Open Spaces. He’ll perform with the Marcus Lewis Big Band, one of the acts that plays before Monae’s concert at Starlight.

The second is the KCJO’s big band jazz reinterpretation of Mary Lou Williams’ “Zodiac Suite,” a set of 12 pieces based on the astrological signs.

Williams was in Kansas City for a time with her husband, John Overton Williams, and Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy. She played, composed and arranged music for the group. A street near 10th and Paseo is named after her.

Ashlock said Williams recorded “Zodiac Suite” twice in 1945, once as a trio and once in a chamber group.

“It went kind of poorly,” Ashlock said. “It didn’t have a whole lot of rehearsal, I guess, so she had to fill in a lot of parts on piano. From what I’ve read, she was real frustrated with it. The material is very ripe for the picking to do something creative with it.”

Even though Ashlock and Cameron discussed KCJO participating in some way with Open Spaces, Ashlock still had to submit a proposal for the event.

“We didn’t know for sure if we’d be able to fit in with Open Spaces, but they selected us to go ahead and go through with it. That’s when I started writing,” Ashlock said. “It’s really the first time that I can find that someone has done a creative, jazz-forward interpretation of it for big band.”

Actor, director, creator, producer and theater owner Heidi Van also had to navigate the selection process to get Fishtank Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Elegy for a Lady” on the Open Spaces docket. It was one of three productions she proposed, though she’s still not sure how she was able to crack the code of the selection process.

“Even from the beginning of applying, we would ask, ‘Is it this or is it this?’” she said. “And the answer really was, ‘Propose anything.’ So I did. I proposed three projects, and I was completely surprised that ‘Elegy for a Lady’ was selected, but it was a piece I’ve always wanted to do again.”

Van and Bob Paisley are the two actors in the one-act, which will be performed in Birdies, the lingerie shop on West 18th Street.

Miller’s play focuses on a man shopping for a gift for his mistress in a small boutique owned by a woman who gets him to open up about his relationships and his life.

Van and Paisley performed “Elegy” in 2013. Van said part of what drew her to the piece again was Marilyn Monroe, whom she portrayed in “Marilyn/God” at the Fishtank in 2016. She says “Elegy” is Miller trying to come to some sort of understanding of his relationship with Monroe.

At the same time, it’s intriguing to revisit the piece in the age of #MeToo. Van said when “Elegy” was selected, her wheels really started turning.

“How could we take away some of the dominance the man has when he enters the shop and asks so much of this person at her place of business?” she said. “We’ve really been working to shift their power dynamic. That’s what I like to call ‘theater math’ — how does A plus B equal C? Just like a piece of music, we’re going to play it this way because that’s where I think the notes are.”

Rediscovering What’s Around Us

New interpretations of old things also figure into Brent Jackson and Trey Hock’s “Blue River Road Investigators,” a multimedia examination of a section of roadway near Swope Park closed and abandoned since a section of it buckled in 2010.

“We had been exploring Blue River Road since we were in high school,” Jackson said. “But November or December is when we noticed the road had been closed in a portion and we started to get curious about what that meant and how that space was being used.”

Their curiosity led them to the create the fictitious agency “The Blue River Road Investigators.” They have a mobile office, business cards, a logo, investigation boards — the whole deal. Think Lemony Snicket’s young adult novels crossed with environmental artist Christo and NBC’s sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” and you might be in the neighborhood. Or not.

They even donned high-visibility vests with the word “ARTIST” emblazoned on the back as they investigated and explored the road.

“It never is disingenuous,” Hock said. “People ask when we’re down there, ‘What crew do you work on?’ And we say, ‘No, we’re artists.’”

During Open Spaces, the Blue River Road Investigators will have a headquarters at the Lakeside Nature Center and take visitors on guided tours of the abandoned “annex” section of the road.

There among the poached deer carcasses, abandoned loveseats and bullet casings, the BRRI will ask: What’s a road when it’s no longer open to automobile traffic? What does it do? People walk along it. They ride bikes on it. They drink beer, dance around bonfires, do illegal drugs. Some agencies even use it to release injured animals after they’ve healed.

“There’s sort of a happy anarchy,” Jackson said.

Both artists say they aren’t offering any sort of judgment on the road. If someone wants to clean it up, great. If someone wants to leave it as is, also great.

“I can look at an abandoned recliner or some roof shingles, and it’s very easy to go, ‘That’s terrible,’” Hock said. “But I think it’s a much more interesting, nuanced and compassionate question to ask, ‘What does this say? And what need is not being met that is forcing an individual into thinking this is the clearest choice to make?”

Blue River Road has become an “in-between space,” Hock said, like an alleyway or an empty lot. Curiosity is piqued while stewardship is dubious.

“We’re giving people permission to look,” Hock said.

That sense of rediscovering what’s all around us is something that powers the whole of Open Spaces, Cameron said. From a new use of Swope Park to a play inside an underwear store, and the blend of art from places near and far, Cameron hopes Open Spaces will help people reexamine the cultural riches of Kansas City.

“People have said all kinds of things to me — from ‘No one will go’ to ‘It’s the greatest idea that anyone’s ever had,’” Cameron said. “I’m hoping that Kansas City discovers all the different dimensions to itself.”

For a full schedule of performances and events, visit www.openspaceskc.com

About The Author: David Frese

David Frese

David Frese is a writer, photographer, artist and community advocate from rural Kansas who spent 21 years covering Kansas City’s arts and culture for “The Kansas City Star.” He is a graduate of Kansas State University.

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