Julius A. Karash on Business and the Arts: Kansas City Spirit Takes Flight in KCI Public Art Selections

Rendering of “The Air Up There” by Kansas City Art Institute alum Nick Cave. The work was selected for the check-in hall ceiling at the new KCI. (Build KCI)

Art infused with local connections will greet passengers and visitors at the reconfigured Kansas City International Airport, which is scheduled for completion in March 2023. 

Two of the artists selected for the first nine projects at the new single terminal, Nick Cave and John Balistreri, earned Bachelor of Fine Art degrees from the Kansas City Art Institute. The latest round of selectees are artists who live in the Kansas City area or, if they live elsewhere, have significant ties to Kansas City.  

“I seldom apply for public art projects, because I teach, and I don’t always have enough time to do large projects,” said Balistreri, a professor of art and head of the ceramic art program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “But when this prospectus came, I looked at it. I think of Kansas City as my second home. Along with the two years I spent at the Art Institute, I have gallery representation there. The arts scene is fantastic.” 

Cave, whose art has been shown throughout the world, said he was honored to be selected. “I loved the Kansas City Art Institute,” said Cave, a Fulton, Mo., native who currently lives in Chicago. “It created this amazing foundation for me that has led me to be in this position I am in today, as an artist who is working globally. I’m interested in the idea of giving back to Kansas City.” 

The work being created by Balistreri, titled “Wings,” will consist of four ceramic representations of airplane wings. The wings will feature imagery such as a dark blue line that represents the Missouri River as it passes through Kansas City, as well as the eastern bluebird (state bird of Missouri) and honeybee (state insect of Kansas). 

“The airport is our welcome mat. We want to ensure that people coming to Kansas City understand that art is very important here, and our artists are very important.”

James Martin, Kansas City Public Art Administrator

Cave’s work, “The Air Up There,” will be a kinetic sculpture made from thousands of colorful wind spinners delivering positive tenets and local icons. Representations of Kansas City jazz and Kansas City sports will be part of the mix. 

“There will be iconic identity markers as well as smiley faces, equality signs, and symbols that bring us together and create harmony, love and compassion,” Cave said. 

The $1.5 billion airport project, currently under construction, will convert KCI to a single-terminal facility. Based on the $565 million vertical construction cost, which includes a new parking garage, the city’s One Percent for Art program calls for about $5.65 million to fund public art at the reconfigured airport, constituting the largest public art project in Kansas City history.  

Artists were selected by multiple panels to ensure diversity and inclusivity. James Martin, the city’s public art administrator, said in June that of the nine artists or artist teams who had been selected at that point, “there’s a very high percentage of artists of color and a very high percentage of women artists.” 

While the artists were chosen by selection panels, the art pieces were submitted for approval by the city’s Municipal Art Commission. Nine of 28 total artist contracts also required City Council approval. Plans call for all the artwork to be installed by December 2022. 

Martin said the reconfigured airport should highlight works by artists with Kansas City connections. “The airport is our welcome mat. We want to ensure that people coming to Kansas City understand that art is very important here, and our artists are very important.” 

Holly Hayden serves as a consulting artist for KCI public art on behalf of Paslay Management Group (PMG), which is based in Fort Worth, Tex. PMG represents the interests of the Kansas City Aviation Department regarding the airport project.  

“As a Kansas City-based artist and designer, I think it’s really important that our local arts community is represented in projects of this scale and importance,” Hayden said. “Even if travelers don’t go into the community and only switch gates here, they’ll get a little taste of the arts community in Kansas City.” 

Hayden said public art via the One Percent for Art program may seem like an unfamiliar arena to many Kansas City-based artists. “There’s a lot of city process that goes into this. I know when artists look at this and see all the paperwork they need to fill out, it’s a little bit overwhelming. But we have a great team of people, including city staff and our executive team, who can help artists walk through this process. That’s why we’re here.” 

Cave and Balistreri were selected out of the first two calls for artists rounds, which were open to artists throughout the world. 

Rendering of “Wings,” a large-scale ceramic piece by Kansas City Art Institute alum John Balistreri. The work will be installed in the check-in hall, north end, at the new KCI. (Build KCI)

The third round was limited to artists who either live in 21 Kansas City area counties or can otherwise demonstrate significant ties to Kansas City. The application deadline for the third round was June 18. Nineteen artists were selected, out of 188 applications. Those selected were notified in August, and they were approved by the Municipal Art Commission on Sept. 3.  

They are:  
Debbie Barrett-Jones, Shawnee 
Laura Berman, Kansas City 
Mona Cliff, Lawrence 
Santiago Cucullu, visiting assistant professor of painting at Kansas City Art Institute 
JT Daniels, Kansas City 
Israel Alejandro Garcia Garcia, Kansas City 
Rachelle Gardner-Roe, Mission 
John Hans, Greenwood, Mo.
Rachel Hubbard Kline, Kansas City 
Kwanza Humphrey, Shawnee 
Molly Kaderka, Somerville, Mass. Kaderka earned a BFA in painting and art history from Kansas City Art Institute. 
Kathy Liao, Kansas City 
John Louder, Warrensburg, Mo. 
Sean Nash, Overland Park 
Stephen Proski, Kansas City 
Hasna Sal, Johnson County, Kan. 
Kati Toivanen, Kansas City 
Bernadette Esperanza Torres, Kansas City 
Hong Zhang, Lawrence 

Sample of artists selected, including (clockwise): John Louder, JT Daniels, Stephen Proski, Hasna Sal, Kati Toivanen, Mona Cliff

Works by the 19 artists approved Sept. 3 are slated for installation in departure lounges located in Concourses A and B, at a commissioned budget of $20,000 each. The wall-based artwork will be located on the porcelain tile walls at the north and south ends of the gate lounges. Artists’ proposals ranged in medium and could be traditionally framed artworks; drawings; paintings; photography; textiles; mosaic or tile wall hangings; mixed-media or assemblage; digital art displays; artwork utilizing electricity or digital components; and relief or wall-mounted sculptural works. View renderings of the artworks here. 

According to a Sept. 3 news release from buildkci.com, “Having national eyes on local portfolios was an important part of the selection process, removing the perception of bias and keeping the process equitable. Local artists received national exposure in the selection process and will receive major exposure once the terminal is operational.” 

Ties to Kansas City 

The Kansas City connections of third-round applicants came up for discussion at the June 16 meeting of the City Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee. 

Council members Melissa Robinson and Katheryn Shields said the third-round selections should be weighted toward artists who live in the 21 specified Kansas City area counties, as opposed to artists who are linked to Kansas City in other ways. 

Speaking to Martin, who gave a presentation at the meeting, Shields said, “We’re not telling you who to pick, but we hope that our local arts community greatly benefits from this.” 

Martin said a more specific definition of artists’ Kansas City connections would likely be taken up by the Art at KCI Executive Committee, which provides oversight to the selection process, among other tasks. The committee consists of Martin, Hayden and others, including representatives of the city aviation department, Municipal Art Commission, and companies that are engaged in the airport project. 

“I want to make sure that we stay true to the intent, in making sure that our local artists have access,” Martin said. 

But on July 12, Martin told me that “Upon reviewing the call for artists and past consideration of this topic by the executive committee, staff determined that it was not advisable to make this change (to focusing on artists who live in the KC area).” 

Martin noted that the City Council members’ direction on this issue came June 16, while the call for artists deadline was June 18. “If this change had been made so close to the deadline, in effect it would have changed the ground rules for the procurement after the fact,” Martin said. “In addition, the executive committee had already debated this possibility before the call for artists was distributed, and they decided in favor of the broader eligibility.” 

This writer agrees that it would have been unfair to make this kind of change so close to the call for artists deadline. One can debate whether or not artists who live here should receive greater consideration than non-resident artists who have “significant ties” to Kansas City. But if city officials want that to be the case, that stipulation should be made clear in calls for artists. This is something that should be considered for future Kansas City One Percent for Art projects.  

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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