Mattie Rhodes Center Celebrates its 25th Anniversary and History of Community Service

Gallery coordinator Kiki Serna (left), and Jenny Mendez, cultural arts director, stand at the entrance to the new Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center. With input from Mendez, the papel picado art piece above them was created by Maria Vasquez Boyd, who designed the images, and Luis Garcia, who created the digital image/format for the designs and worked with fabricator and installer Erick Beier from 3Axis.The mural in the background was designed by ITRA Icons (Isaac Tapia and Rodrigo Alvarez). (photo by Jim Barcus)

New cultural center on Jarboe will showcase a slate of exhibits in 2023

In March 2022, the Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center moved into its new building at 1701 Jarboe Street. The relocation unofficially marks the 25th anniversary (as of 2023) of their gallery presence on the West Side.

“We opened our gallery 24 years ago with the idea that we would be a venue for Hispanic or Latino artists to exhibit their work and support them in any way we can in our own space,” said Jenny Mendez, the center’s cultural arts director. “We created a place for community for families and many students through those years. But we have a new building, a new space that is truly ours and is truly a dream come true.”

“A lot of time and energy was spent creating this new space,” she added, “and I was very happy to be part of it — figuring out what the space could be, and how we could make it ours, for everyone — for our community, the artists, and our students.”

An artist herself, Mendez related how invaluable Mattie Rhodes was to her as a child, when she spent time making art there. She was inspired to seek a job at the center after she finished college.

Facade of the new Cultural Center featuring a mural of monarchs and flowers designed by Jessica Manco
and painted by Rodrigo Alvarez and Isaac Tapia. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Installation view of the recent “Our Lady” exhibition celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe
and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (photo by Jim Barcus)

Mattie Florence Rhodes (Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center)

In addition to celebrating the new center, the 25th anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the fascinating history of the organization and its founding.

Mattie Florence Rhodes was a teenager when she and nine other young women from the Central Presbyterian Church formed a group called the Little Gleaners to offer support to needy children. They were able to pay for a bed at Children’s Hospital by selling aprons and potholders that they made.

But just a short time later, in October of 1890, Mattie Rhodes unexpectedly died of typhoid fever at the age of 19. She left a bequest of $500 to the Little Gleaners, which became the Mattie Rhodes Memorial Foundation. By 1894, the group had grown to 17 women, who began operating the first free kindergarten in Kansas City — an idea suggested to them by Jane Addams, the prominent social worker, activist and (later) first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Another celebrated woman, Julia Marlowe, also lent her support to Mattie Rhodes.

Left: This papier-mâché Catrina calavera representing the four elements is a favorite element of the Center’s Día de los Muertos celebrations. (photo by Nan Chisholm)

The well-known American Shakespearean actress came to Kansas City to headline a benefit performance, which raised $600. In 1896, they stated their mission to provide “a home where the young children of working mothers may be cared and provided for, instructed and entertained, during the hours of the day when such mothers are at work.” From 1916 until 2019, the center, and later its art gallery, were in several buildings near 17th and Jefferson Streets.

Today Mattie Rhodes has grown into the only bilingual, bicultural, nationally accredited health care provider in the area. Their offices in Northeast Kansas City are the administrative headquarters and provide social services to their clients as well. Some of the programs involve help with substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence, while their website promotes resume-writing workshops and job fairs. Art classes, ceramics classes and summer art camp are available at the art center; the new cultural center will continue to organize art exhibitions but will be able to accommodate additional community-oriented activities.

In late fall, preparations were underway for the center’s biggest event of the year, “Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead). This is a holiday widely observed in Mexico, which may feel more celebratory than traditional Christian mourning. Numerous “ofrendas” are set up for the exhibition by members of the community, each one with its own unique flavor. An “ofrenda” is an altar, created by friends or family of the deceased, which contains not only photos of the departed, but items associated with them, such as favorite foods, flowers, keepsakes or anything to inspire one’s memories of them.

Children from Mattie Rhodes’ After School Art Program (with Primitivo Garcia students) at work in the art center making projects and art pieces for the center’s “Children’s Exhibit” in April (Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center)

Participants included volunteers and invitees, who created ofrendas incorporating brightly colored cut-out paper known as “papel picado,” painted ceramic skulls, a bottle of tequila and a Chiefs’ hat, among other items. Artist Kiki Serna, the gallery coordinator at Mattie Rhodes, often gives tours of the exhibitions to students. “One of my favorite things about the altar is that you could literally have no idea who this person is,” she said, “but within seconds of walking up to it, you start to build an image of who that person was, and from that you start to connect with it.”

Three exhibitions slated for 2023 reprise favorite themes regularly explored in past exhibitions. In March, the center will present “Mujer,” a group show that will “celebrate all women,” Mendez said, in conjunction with women’s history month. Related programming will include a seminar with a speaker, panel discussion, yoga instruction and a taco truck, all of which have proven popular in the past.

Opening in May is the center’s “Chicano” exhibit, which taps into the national interest in Chicano art, magnified by the recent gift of approximately 500 works from Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong fame) to the Riverside Museum in California, where they will be exhibited at “The Cheech” aka the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum.

In the fall, Mattie Rhodes will present “our biggest exhibit of the year,” Mendez said, “our 25th annual ‘Día de los Muertos’ exhibit and celebration.” While one of her primary goals is to give attention to local artists, she also wants to bring in artists from out of town to speak or exhibit here as well.

Mendez is looking forward to her next chapter at Mattie Rhodes. “I’ve been very fortunate,” she said, “to celebrate 26 years of my work at Mattie Rhodes Center as cultural arts director and having a beautiful new building to create new opportunities for artists, educators, students, families and our community.”

It’s amazing to think how much that $500 bequest has given to Kansas City.

For more information, 816.221.2349 or www.mattierhodes.org.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003. She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1995.

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