KCI Design and Public Art Controversies Stir Up Turbulence

Kansas City’s Municipal Art Commission Moves to Reassert its Authority Over Public Art, the Design of Structures Built by the City and Stewardship of the City’s One Percent for Art Program

After years of debate, Kansas City International Airport is being transformed into a single-terminal facility designed to meet modern-day security needs and clear the way for more shops and restaurants.

But like the roar of a jet engine, controversy continues to reverberate from the $1.5 billion project slated for completion in 2023. The ruckus concerns the role of Kansas City’s Municipal Art Commission (MAC) in matters of public art, the design of structures built by the city, and stewardship of the city’s One Percent for Art program.

Kansas City’s One Percent for Art program is one of hundreds of such initiatives around the nation. In our town, the program has funded iconic public art works such as the Bartle Hall “Sky Stations” and “The Moons” video screens in front of the Sprint Center. According to the city ordinance that created the program, one percent of public construction costs are to be set aside for public art enhancements.

Based on the $565 million vertical construction cost of the new terminal and a new garage, the one percent formula calls for about $5.65 million to fund public art at the reconfigured airport. That figure represents the biggest art budget in the 28-year history of Kansas City’s program.

The city charter mandates that the One Percent for Art program will be administered by MAC, an appointed panel of volunteers.

“Through the One Percent for Art Program, the mission of the Municipal Art Commission is to serve as a catalyst for artistic growth and aesthetic excellence in our communities,” the charter states.

The process of choosing public art also is supposed to involve a selection panel that includes artists, architects, community representatives, tenants of the facilities and other experts.

In addition, MAC’s mandated responsibilities include “the design of buildings, bridges, fences and other structures built by the city; and privately-owned signs, skywalks or other structures that extend over public property.”

Marc Wilson, former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (photo by Mark McDonald)

But while the mandates are explicit, a cloud of confusion has descended on the program. MAC has gotten off track in recent years, to the consternation of public art and design advocates such as Marc Wilson, former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“There are disturbing questions in terms of accountability to the public over how this is being run,” said Wilson, who was among those who pushed for adoption of the One Percent for Art program. “The city statutes give authority to approve the design to the Art Commission. Why were they not brought in? What’s going on? It doesn’t smell right.”

Wilson added that the situation is not necessarily “nefarious,” but “there’s a question of continuity of understanding on the Art Commission side.”

MAC members say they have been left out of the loop. “The process has been obfuscated,” said MAC member David Dowell, principal of the el dorado architectural firm. “People should be alarmed. The airport is momentous. This is our big moment. And if we don’t insist on getting the right impact for public art on this project, when are we going to have it?”

Architect Kathy Achelpohl, Municipal Art Commission chair (Dan Videtich Photography)

MAC Chairperson Kathy Achelpohl said the city’s aviation department had been managing the public art process at KCI, despite the mandate of the city charter that MAC be in charge.

“We’ve been asking about the airport project for some time, and how to integrate with it,” said Achelpohl, an architect with PGAV Architects. “But we were sort of rebuffed. We’re trying to get control of this.”

Achelpohl added that the aviation department more recently has been “very open to working with us, once they discovered who we are.”

Interviews with multiple sources indicate that a lack of proactive art and architecture advocacy at City Hall recently had caused a breakdown in communications between MAC and the aviation department.

Kansas City Director of Aviation Patrick Klein said there’s no conflict or tug-of-war between the aviation department and MAC. “I think their frustration is they would have liked to have started meeting with us early, and we just didn’t have knowledge of that. We all want to have world-class art in the terminal.”

Architect David Dowell, Municipal Art Commission member (photo by Mike Sinclair)

Dowell stated that Klein was not at fault for the communication holdup. He said Klein “has been open, honest and forthright since MAC started having direct communications with him.”

What About That Garage?

In addition to the public art brouhaha, controversy also has erupted over plans for a seven-story, 6,300-space parking garage to be built in close proximity to the new terminal.

“It looks like a disaster,” Wilson said. “It looks like a giant telephone switching station sticking up out of a pasture.”

Dowell said the “overwhelming impact of the garage as the first impression upon approach is telling everybody ‘that’s the most important thing to us.’ It does not communicate an inspiring image or impression of Kansas City. It’s not good enough and not thoughtful enough, if we believe we are a place of high culture and sophistication in terms of public art and design.”

Kansas City Director of Aviation Patrick Klein

Klein said a garage standing near the new single terminal has been featured on design drawings for years. “It went through all the public hearings,” he said.

Furthermore, Klein said, “the biggest thing we heard when we went out and met with citizens was that customer convenience and walking distance was a big deal. They wanted to be able to park as close as possible to the terminal.”

Klein said the garage also will be a crucial funding source. “Parking generates $55 million a year for us. We currently make more from the parking than we get from airlines.”

Some critics say ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are reducing the need for such a big garage, but Klein said studies do not show that happening at KCI. If parking in the new garage does drop significantly, then the airport’s rental car facility could move into the garage, he said.

A Longstanding Commitment to Public Art Loses its Footing

To put it in proper perspective, the design and public art controversies swirling around KCI must be seen through the lens of Kansas City art history.

“Kansas City has always been a visionary leader in the arts, and the city’s public art program is integral to that legacy,” said Porter Arneill, who served as the city’s public art administrator from 2002 to 2015.

Porter Arneill, former Kansas City Public Art Administrator

Arneill said the city’s Municipal Art Commission was established in 1926, and Kansas City became one of the first U.S. cities to formalize a civic public art policy in 1970.

Arneill, who currently serves as director of communications and creative resources for the city of Lawrence, said Kansas City’s pioneering public art spirit can be seen throughout the city. “Christo and Jeanne Claude created ‘Wrapped Walkways’ in Loose Park in 1977. Imagine the Nelson-Atkins without the Shuttlecocks. ‘Sky Stations’ literally put Kansas City on the map in 1994.”

Kansas City’s One Percent for Art program was launched in 1991, when Heidi Bilardo was the city’s public art administrator.

“If you don’t put in the mechanisms to capture and secure the funding, things don’t happen,” said Bilardo, who pushed for Kansas City to commit to One Percent for Art. “This program is so near and dear to my heart. It’s like one of my children.”

But despite Kansas City’s reputation as an art town, the city’s mechanisms for public art and design have gotten out of whack.

“For reasons I don’t understand and with a history I’m unfamiliar with, MAC drifted over the years to a place of irrelevance,” Dowell said. “I sincerely hope we have set a path to correct the situation, and that we will take full advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Heidi Bilardo, former Kansas City Public Art Administrator (photo by Kendall Bilardo)

Ready for Takeoff?

At press time, KCI’s public art engine was attempting to shift out of neutral.

In August, James Freed was hired to fill the position of city architect. Freed replaced Eric Bosch, who retired at the end of June.

In late September the city was preparing to hire a public art administrator, a post that has been vacant since April 2018. The public art administrator serves as the staff representative and liaison for MAC, and many of those interviewed for this story said keeping this post vacant for so long had hindered MAC’s effectiveness.

The aviation department has hired arts consultant and designer Holly Hayden to work on certain aspects of the KCI public art process, such as facilitating meetings between MAC and the aviation department, Klein said. The position is temporary and is being funded by the aviation department.

In September, MAC proposed that the City Council pass a resolution to fund a public art curatorial consultant to lead and implement the city’s vision for public art at KCI.

In a Sept. 4 letter to Mayor Quinton Lucas accompanying the proposal, Achelpohl said “the KCI public art project is being led by the aviation department without the expertise of a public art professional. Unfortunately, the project has not followed the City Charter related to engaging MAC in decisions, and conflicts with best practices for executing a high-quality public art program. Without the necessary expertise, the project lacks design integration of public art into the City’s largest building project in its history. Without the KCI Public Art Curatorial Consultant to guide the city’s most significant investment in public art, the Commission believes our world-class public art reputation and ambitions are at risk.”

The proposed budget for the position, including the consultant’s fee, printing and travel expenses, would not exceed 10 percent of the KCI public art budget, or $565,000.

Artist Linda Lighton (photo by JIm Barcus)

Sculptor Linda Lighton, a longtime advocate for public art in Kansas City, said she doesn’t like the idea of using One Percent for Art funds to pay for the curatorial consultant. “I’d rather see the artists get that money. If you have to raid the (One Percent for Art) fund, OK, but I wish the city would ante up and know that it has worth. I feel like these people are kind of asleep at the wheel.”

The KCI public art curatorial consultant would work under contract with the aviation department, but Klein expressed concerns about using One Percent for Art funds to pay for that position. “Public policy-wise, it is a change to how we spend our art dollars. As I’ve spoken with artists throughout the city, there is some worry that those dollars are supposed to be spent with artists, not curatorial services. I agree that curatorial overview should be done; the question is how do we do it.”

The curatorial consultant proposal came before the City Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee on Sept. 25. The proposal was put on hold for 30 days, without discussion.

Much at Stake

All the players and interested observers agree that the next steps will help shape Kansas City’s future, for good or bad.

“What is at issue here is what this airport is going to say about Kansas City,” Wilson said. “Never before has this city had an opportunity to spend so much money to market itself as with this airport. How Kansas City is thought of outside Kansas City enormously affects job opportunities and the willingness of people to move here to take a job. If the design conveys the impression that Kansas City is the land of mediocrity, we will lose an opportunity that will not come back again in 50 years.”

Top: Aerial view rendering of the new Kansas City International Airport (courtesy SOM and Edgemoor Architecture & Real Estate)

For an update of airport art developments, see Julius Karash, “New Twist Emerges in KCI Public Art Debate” in Flatland:  www.flatlandkc.org/arts-culture/new-twist-emerges-in-kci-public-art-debate. The story marks the beginning of a new collaboration between KC Studio and Flatland.

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.

  1. Hosam says:

    Why don’t you let SOM do their job. They were hired to design the terminal public and organization and architect with no real experience in airport design keep interfering and this continue to impact the design negatively. Let the professionals do their work.

  2. Louanne Hein says:

    Have your looked at the box of a building?! Streaming lights and sunsets and airborne planes don’t make the structure any better looking. What am I going to see when I drive up to the airport? A parking garage (for the convenience as expressed by KC residents).

  3. Karen says:

    Since Kansas City has decided they need a new airport why don’t we think beyond what most airports already have? I agree, art is good. However I think what might be of value is to install libraries in the airports around the country. Often when I travel I am stuck, sometimes for hours, not a fan of hanging out in a bar, a library would be nice. We need to be more forward thinking than bickering over public art.

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