Arts News | Upper Level Gallery specializes in street art

Muralist Jason Harrington, also known as Rif Raf Giraffe and his wife Ami Ayars Harrington, exhibition director, inside their Upper Level Gallery at 504 East 18th St. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Upper Level Gallery is a small gem with colossal ideas located in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City. The only KC gallery to specialize in street art, it brings a unique twist to the Crossroads arts scene.

Previously known as the Plenum Space Gallery, the space originally opened in 2008 to contribute to the Crossroads Arts District’s First Fridays event and to activate the upstairs foyer space for the artist tenants who lived and worked in the building. After some dramatic history, the gallery was re-founded and re-opened in early 2021 by Ami Ayars Harrington, who has been exhibition director since 2012.

On Oct. 6, 2018, the corner of the building at 18th and Locust collapsed, seemingly bringing an end to the Plenum Space Gallery. While no one was injured, it took two years to pull the building back into operation due to legal and construction delays. When Ayars and the other tenants got the all-clear to begin inhabiting the building again in late 2020, she made plans to reopen the space and rename it “Upper Level Gallery.” The building changed ownership to Abbott Properties, and because the space is part of the property tax abatement for the area, it has maintained its grassroots identity.

Along the way, Ayars met Kansas City muralist Jason Harrington (also known as Rif Raf Giraffe), who moved into the building after having spent a decade in Chicago. “Long story short, we really hit it off and just about a year later in 2015 we got married,” Ayars said, “And it has pretty much been a dual effort ever since!”

Ayars and Harrington have been supportive of the gallery, mural projects in their buildings and the SpraySeeMO Mural Festival, which they jointly founded in 2017. With goals to propel Kansas City into a mural destination that promotes creative expression and exploration on a massive scale, the SpraySeeMO Mural Festival holds a similar mission as the Upper Level Gallery, which is to bring exceptional street artists to Kansas City from around the country so that people in town can experience their work without needing to travel elsewhere.

Harrington traveled to larger cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago to bring those artists to Kansas City and promote a dialogue and exchange of ideas, techniques and inspiration. “And over the last decade, Jason and I have been traveling around the country and beyond,” Ayars said, “participating in mural festivals, gallery shows, and other painting excursions/endeavors, meeting a vast array of incredibly talented world-class street artists along the way.” While the festival has been on hiatus since 2021, Ayars and Harrington are solidifying plans to partner with ArtsKC and other arts organizations and supporters to revivify the event in Fall 2024.

The Upper Level Gallery not only seeks to expose Kansas City audiences to muralists from around the world, but it also supports and promotes the many talented artists in Kansas City. They typically present one exhibition per month, coinciding with the Crossroads’ First Fridays, from February through November or December. The exhibitions range from solo to group exhibitions. A recent exhibition, “Knocking the Dust Off,” by Jesse “Chue” Hernandez, focused on the early and influential member of Kansas City’s graffiti and street art scene, calling his style “graffiti inspired pop art.”

The Upper Level Gallery is located at 504 E 18th St. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 5 to 10 p.m. First Fridays. For more information, upper-level-gallery-kc.square.site.

Ashley Lindeman

Ashley Lindeman is an art historian, educator, and arts writer. She recently earned her Ph.D. from Florida State University, and she works full time as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Johnson County Community College.

Leave a Reply