An Affordable, Nurturing Destination for Artists

Artist Garry Noland has leased studio space at the Holsum building for about four years. He also runs the Holsum Gallery in the building.

Art and camaraderie flourish at Holsum Studios in the West Bottoms

It’s easy to overlook the old Holsum Food Products building in Kansas City’s historic West Bottoms. Where stockyards and slaughterhouses once reigned, ancient brick buildings stand cheek by jowl.

The venerable structure at 12th and Santa Fe streets boasts a storied history, including a stint as a haunted house frequented by Halloween revelers. In recent years it has joined the ranks of art studios that have sprouted in the district. Now known as Holsum Studios, it bubbles with the creative energy of 45 artists.

Among them is sculptor Susan White, whose studio overlooks trains and the 12th Street Bridge. “I love the West Bottoms and I love the building,” she said. “I love the authenticity of it. There’s a kind of rawness to it, and beauty and history. It’s inspirational. There are always people out along the train tracks photographing or doing a video.”

White said her rent for the studio is affordable, especially as she subleases part of the space to artist William Plummer.

The Holsum Studios offer artists privacy yet also camaraderie, White said. “There are artists on five floors of the building. It seems like age, gender and other social constructs become irrelevant. We also have a writer in the building. It’s really nice to have a person who’s different, who doesn’t work in visual art. We might have more than one. Everyone I’ve interacted with is very positive. We have open studios when we’re open to the public. People come through and it’s fun and interesting.”

Artist Cesar Lopez and his girlfriend, artist Samantha Haan, used their Plaza apartment for a studio before they leased a studio in the Holsum building.

“The spaces we utilized on the Plaza were really small,” Lopez said. “The Holsum has so much more space. We knew a lot of people in the building, and we liked all of them. There’s really great energy there. There was an opening, and we decided to move on it. We’re really happy with the affordability and what we can do as young artists.”

Lopez, a native of Guatemala who uses flags, maps and globes to make visual and culturally significant works, likes the West Bottoms vibe.

“We like how different it is, and we like how it’s got different parts to it,” he said. “There are galleries and restaurants, and the Hy-Vee Arena. And on the other side you’ve got a really cool place like The Ship (bar and grill). The West Bottoms is a hub during First Fridays for people who shop for antiques. And it’s interesting that they used to do food processing in the Holsum building and now it’s used by artists.”

The Holsum roster of artists also includes Noelle Choy. After earning degrees in sculpture, she snagged a teaching fellowship at the Kansas City Art Institute painting department last year.

“I loved my studio in Brooklyn, but I shared it with my studio mate, and it was very small,” Choy said. “We were paying almost as much for less than half of what we have now. I’ve moved a lot in the past few years, and it’s nice to finally have a good home base for my practice that is both huge and affordable. In Kansas City you can afford to have square footage at a reasonable price, and it makes things more possible.”

Choy likes bringing her dog to her Holsum studio. “I also like how it’s a building with a lot of different people making a lot of different work. It’s nice to know that there are other people around because I’ve always liked that. I like to talk to people when I work.”

Artists Cesar Lopez (left) and Susan White both have studios in the Holsum building.

A Nurturing Place

Artist Garry Noland, whose practice includes painting and sculpture, has leased studio space at the Holsum building for about four years. He said the building has played host to artists since at least 2015.

“Making artwork is usually not a viable income stream, so we have to keep expenses low,” said Noland, who also operates the Holsum Gallery in the building. “With gentrification and rents running up, developers moving in, it’s always challenging for artists to find a place to work. As a working artist and renter, (I find that) this building provides an affordable place to get work done.”

It’s also a nurturing place, Noland said. “There’s a community of people down here, of all different types. We’re all challenging each other to work and setting an example about how to get work done. It’s supportive here.”

The owner of the Holsum building is artist Joey Grimm. For the past several years he has been renovating the structure into art studios, including his. Grimm said he does not give on-the-record interviews to the media, but studio tenants had some things to say about him.

Artist Noelle Choy works on faux flames for a dog throne at her studio in the Holsum building.

“Joey has done such a great job of preserving the original architecture,” White said. “I’m sure he’s put up additional walls. But I think he’s been so careful about keeping the integrity of the building, like the beautiful beadboard ceiling in my studio. There are parts where there are holes and gaps in it, but it’s got such a beautiful integrity to it.”

White also praised Grimm for his “warm, helpful kind of attitude. He loves the building. The other day when my studio was cold, Joey came in, and the next day my heat was fixed.”

Choy said it’s “obvious that Joey’s not trying to just make a profit on the space. He’s actually trying to create accessible studio spaces. There’s room in the hallways where you can see he could have squeezed in another studio for a few hundred more dollars.”

Lopez said Grimm “understands what we’re doing. Our relationship with him is not like the typical landlord-tenant relationship. That’s honestly one of the biggest draws for the building, that someone’s not trying to gouge you for square footage. We know he can be an advocate and understands what our needs are, what our roles are.”

Meantime, developers continue to scout the West Bottoms as a site for more apartments, offices and shops. Gentrification has been rolling through this district for quite some time, and it will continue. That’s bound to impact rents in the neighborhood. Hopefully, Holsum Studios will stay on track as an affordable, nurturing destination for artists.

Holsum Studios will hold its annual Open Studios event from 5 to 9 p.m. April 14. 

All photos by Jim Barcus

This story also appears on Flatland as part of the ongoing content collaboration between KC Studio and Flatland: flatlandkc.org/arts-culture/an-affordable-nurturing-haven-for-artists-in-west-bottoms/

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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