Charting a new course, plug artist collaborative opens a gallery in former Agnes Avenue police building, where it joins a complex of artist studios

Kansas City artists Davin Watne (left) and Jorge Garcia Almodóvar converse in Almodóvar‘s studio at the new Agnes Arts studios at 1328 Agnes Avenue. (photo by Jim Barcus)

plug, formerly known as Plug Projects, is putting down roots in a burgeoning new arts scene after surviving the ravages of COVID-19.

The artist-driven curatorial collaboration moved last spring from the West Bottoms to a former police training facility at 1328 Agnes Ave., a couple of miles east of downtown. plug’s new white cube gallery hosted its first show over the summer, “Standard Bearer,” an exhibition of paintings by Guatemalan-born artist Cesar Lopez. The paintings reflect on the visual language of the flag as a signifier of collective identity, for nations or other groups.

The redeveloped building also includes artist studios, which create more potential for cross-pollination between the gallery and resident artists.

C.J. Charbonneau, an arts writer and curator who serves on plug’s board of directors and is a regular contributor to “KC Studio,” said she and her colleagues “couldn’t be more thrilled” with their new space. “It’s a smaller footprint than what we had before, but we didn’t have access to all the parking and common area we have now. We have outdoor space. We have the potential to expand later if we want to. We’re trying to get the word out that we’re here.”

plug’s move epitomizes the nomadic nature of artists and art venues. Time and time again, artists pitch their tents in gritty neighborhoods offering low rents. Many find success there, but their success often leads to gentrification and rent hikes, which force them to move again. The Crossroads Arts District comes to mind. In addition, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on artists and venues seeking space that is suitable, affordable and accessible.

COVID-19 forced plug to shut down its West Bottoms gallery in the spring of 2020. “Nobody knew when businesses could reopen, and fundraising looked like it would be next to impossible,” Charbonneau said. “We were having a lot of conversations about whether this was a viable project anymore.”

But plug, founded in 2011, had a mission to maintain.

“Artist-run and DIY collectives are rapidly disappearing from the Kansas City region,” plug states on its website. “Because of this, opportunities for artists to exhibit their work outside of restrictive commercial gallery venues are becoming increasingly scarce. By providing access to exhibition space, collaborative possibilities, and innovative programming for creatives, free of charge and independent of commercial considerations, plug seeks to contribute to the reinvigoration of the arts ecosystem both locally and regionally.”

Fortunately, its former West Bottoms landlord let plug out of the remainder of its lease, giving it time to chart a new course. It converted to a nonprofit organization and undertook a successful fundraising campaign, which garnered funds for new space and new programming.

Exterior shot of plug’s new white cube gallery at 1328 Agnes Avenue (photo by Paul Migliazzo)

Charbonneau heard about available space on Agnes Avenue from Davin Watne, an artist who set up his studio in the redeveloped building.

“plug has a really great reputation for showing contemporary art in Kansas City,” said Watne, who teaches art classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and runs the UMKC Gallery of Art. “Who better to move into that space? It’s not as large square footage-wise as what they had before, but it’s got a much higher ceiling. It’s a unique kind of space that they can have a lot of control over.”

Watne is an investor in the building, which was acquired in 2019 by Centerfield Asset Properties. The ownership group includes Paul Migliazzo, who first got into artist studio development with Kunstraum KC, which offered affordable studios in a renovated building at 15th and Oak streets for about 10 years. Migliazzo also developed artist studios in a renovated building at 32nd Street and Gillham Road.

“We thought it would be a really neat idea to not only provide a space that might help our tenants display their work, but also bring in artists from other communities.”

Paul Migliazzo, studios developer and building co-owner

“This is our first foray into having an actual gallery space,” Migliazzo said. “We didn’t have plans for a gallery until they (plug) expressed some interest. We thought it would be a really neat idea to not only provide a space that might help our tenants display their work, but also bring in artists from other communities. We’re excited about having them.”

The building also is home to Agnes Arts, where artists can lease studios and collaborate.

“Everything was done with a lot of feedback and input from Kansas City artists, including myself,” Watne said. “Artists want a community. They want to be able to go down to their space and see people they know, and have events that are coordinated, like open studio events. The space also includes a kitchen, a documentation wall, a room where they can meet with clients and a general hangout space.”

The pandemic pushed back the timetable for redeveloping the building, Migliazzo said. “Because there were so many questions about how we would be able to manage a shared space like that, we put the brakes on a lot of it and waited to see how we thought post-COVID activities would resume.”

Connecting with Agnes Arts is optional for artists who lease space in the building. “We’re putting Agnes Arts together as a collaboration or collective,” Migliazzo said. “It’s not intended to be a management entity. It’s just a place for artists to come together and share not only space, but resources and anything else that helps strengthen that artist community.”

Charbonneau said plug will benefit from the “communal aspect of having artists around us. I think that’s going to be a really great thing.”

Jorge Garcia Almodóvar, artist and owner of JGA Fine Art Services, moved his operations from the River Market area to the former police building in November 2020.

Almodóvar said he had enjoyed the energy and ambiance of the River Market neighborhood, but the pandemic changed everything.

“Things slowed down considerably, and I wasn’t sure where things were going to go in 2021. I needed to prepare myself. Part of the plan was to downsize, space-wise and business-wise.”

That led Almodóvar to the former police building. “I was the very first tenant. The building was still being worked on. That was taking a chance, but I knew Paul, and he has a really good track record. I knew there were some good plans in place.”

JGA provides services such as art shipping and installation. During “off hours,” Almodóvar uses his new space as an art studio. He said the rent is “fair,” the same per square foot as he paid in River Market. He is saving money by leasing half the amount of space he occupied in his previous location, 500 square feet vs. 1,000 square feet.

“I operate my business independently, but I enjoy and benefit from interactions with other artists who have leased studios in the building,” Almodóvar said. “It’s turned out to be a good experience. I’m looking forward to the growth of the space.”

Most of the 50,000-square-foot building has yet to be redeveloped, Migliazzo said. He wants to see affordable studio space for artists “dovetail into other artist-centric ideas. There’s nothing etched in stone as to how a lot of that space will be utilized. There’s no grand plan. We’re just trying to meet the demand of the market without extending ourselves too far.”

Watne hopes that rents collected from businesses that move into the building will help keep a lid on art studio rents.

“It’s a huge space,” Watne said. “It could handle something the size of a large architecture firm or a large engineering firm. We’re open to anything, but we haven’t gone out there and shaken the bushes yet. Our focus is on Agnes Arts and plug.”

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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