Editor’s Letter, September/October 2019

KC Studio editor Alice Thorson, photo by Mark Berndt.

Let’s not blow this.

Kansas City prides itself on being an art town, so city government needs to get its act together if the art to be commissioned for the new airport will be something we can be proud of.

The money is there, thanks to Kansas City’s one percent for art ordinance, which sets aside for art one percent of the public costs of civic construction and puts Kansas City’s Municipal Art Commission in charge of overseeing the one percent for art program. (The airport art budget stands at about $5.6 million, based on the costs of the parking garage and terminal structures.)

What isn’t there is a seasoned public art administrator to run the program, a vacancy the Art Commission seeks to solve by hiring a public art curatorial consultant for the new KCI terminal.

That could happen if the City Council grants the Art Commission’s request to authorize the use of One Percent for Art funds to hire a public art curatorial consultant for the airport art project only.

Better than nothing, but it’s a big change from the full-time public art administrator position on the city payroll that put the program in good hands for almost 30 years.

It began with the hiring of Heidi Iverson Bilardo in 1991, and continued until the recent past with Bilardo’s successors, Blair Sands and Porter Arneill, who collectively oversaw the installation of nearly four dozen one-percent for art projects, from the Bartle Hall “Sky Stations” to “The Moons” video screens in front of the Sprint Center to Janet Zweig’s boxcar idyll atop the Block 110 Garage at 12th and Walnut.

Clearly, Kansas City knows how to do public art. And thanks to the leadership of these three locally-based professionals, the city has a process in place to ensure that no nepotism, conflicts of interest or “my good friend’ art is involved, that the commissioned art is of high quality, and that the selected artists know how to get the job done.

That process should be followed no matter who runs the airport art project.

It begins with the convening of a selection panel of local arts professionals, artists, architects, project planners, community representatives and tenants of the facility, who come up with a general scheme for the project — number of artworks, possible locations and size and impact recommendations.

Working with the public art administrator, the panel drafts a request for qualifications and issues an open call for artists. The responses are reviewed by the panel and usually from six to eight artists are asked to submit proposals. From those the project artist or artists is chosen.

What else does the public art administrator do? To ensure a high caliber of respondents he or she alerts the best public artists in the country about the project and encourages them to answer the RFQ. The public art administrator also works to attract a diversity of respondents, and, especially for big budget projects, makes sure that artists from Kansas City are considered and commissioned.

It’s a big job, requiring knowledge of art and the KC art community, a flair for logistics — remember those helicopters that were needed to place the Bartle Hall artworks on the pylons? — a deep respect for artists, and the ability to work with the dozens of individuals in charge of various aspects of the building project. And that’s not all.

The city’s commitment to the program is essential, according to Art Commission member David Dowell. “I think the City of Kansas City, Missouri needs to take a constructively critical look at how it values culture and engages artists in shaping the public realm and our collective experience,” Dowell said in a recent email. “The 1% program ambles on, but there isn’t the critical staff or infrastructure support to maintain or build upon a world class public art collection.”

Teamwork is another piece of the puzzle.

According to Bilardo, “The success of the program is the team aspect to the process, all ‘players’ must absolutely do their part: city representatives, many, many department staff, community designees and arts professionals on the panel, and advocacy on the part of the Municipal Art Commission and others. The Public Art Administrator sweetens the pot to make sure everyone gets along and gets going! “

Just as important is imagination. The airport art budget is the biggest in the history of Kansas City’s one-percent for art program. The work it commissions will introduce Kansas City to travelers from around the world.

It must be big, bold and visionary.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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