Open Spaces: Kansas City’s First Arts Biennial Starts in Swope Park

80 Artists to Present Projects and Performances City Wide

Kansas City’s arts scene is anticipating a big shot of steroids from this summer’s debut of “Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience.”

Scheduled for Aug. 25 through Oct. 28, Open Spaces is designed to galvanize appreciation for contemporary art and Kansas City’s stature in the art world. It will emanate from Swope Park to areas such as Crossroads Arts District, Freight House District, Jazz District and area museums. Offerings will include both visual and performing art.

The event is a collaborative effort between the City of Kansas City and a group of private donors that includes Open Spaces Founder Scott Francis, a longtime Kansas City artist, art patron and philanthropist.

Open Spaces will “attract a national-international group of artists to Kansas City to do site-specific work here and also promote local artists,” Francis said.

Mayor Sly James said he wants the city’s already vibrant arts scene to become “much more visible, and hopefully more profitable for the artist, so that the artist will stay here and more artists will come. It’s about putting our arts community on display to as many people as we possibly can.”

Open Spaces is coming into focus under the watchful eye of Dan Cameron, a star of the contemporary art world who is serving as artistic director. Cameron founded Prospect New Orleans, the largest biennial of contemporary art in the United States. One of the stated goals of Prospect New Orleans is to build a “contemporary art tourism infrastructure upon a signature event that galvanizes local art creation and entrepreneurial activity.”

“I want there to be great art, art that people find moving and powerful and maybe even amazing,” Cameron said. “But I want that art to come across as accessible, as something that people can find. They won’t have to go to a museum, they won’t have to necessarily pay an admission. It’s going to pop up in their neighborhood.”

Cameron said artists participating in Open Spaces will include:

  • Alexandre Arrechea, a Cuban-born artist whose work involves concepts of power and its network of hierarchies, surveillance, control, prohibitions and subjection.
  • Nick Cave, the Kansas City Art Institute alum and renowned textile artist known for his embellished “Soundsuit” sculptures, also worn in performances. Born in Fulton, Mo., Cave is currently based in Chicago, where he is director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Locally, his work is in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; at the Kemper Museum, Cave’s work was part of the 2015 “Piece by Piece” exhibition drawn from the collection of Bill and Christy Gautreaux.
  • Ebony G. Patterson, an assistant professor of painting at the University of Kentucky School of Art and Visual Studies. Patterson’s mixed media paintings, drawings and collages revolve around questions of identity and the body.
  • Jennifer Steinkamp, an installation artist who works with video and new media in order to explore ideas about architectural space, motion and perception.
  • Nari Ward, a Jamaican-born artist whose work often consists of objects found in his New York City neighborhood.

(The last three artists will be familiar to many in the KC audience from exhibits at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art: Patterson (2014), Steinkamp (2003) and Ward (2010).

“By bringing together national and international artists with Kansas City artists, one of the things I hope to do is contextualize the best of what Kansas City has to offer artistically,” Cameron said. “Kansas City artists who are there will find an audience that’s super-plugged-in to what contemporary art is about.”

Open Spaces co-founder Susan Gordon said the event will draw cultural tourists to Kansas City from around the world. “We think there will be museum groups, gallery groups and collectors who will come here. This will help make Kansas City more recognized as an art center.”

From three-day festival to eight-week extravaganza

Open Spaces is a collaboration between Kansas City’s Office of Culture and Creative Services and a private arts initiative led by Francis.

The concept has been percolating for years. An arts festival was recommended by a 2013 mayoral task force on the arts. In October 2016 the City Council voted to fund what then was envisioned as a three-day arts festival in Swope Park.

“We have an amazing arts community relative to a lot of places in this country,” James said. “We take a great deal of pride in it. I want Kansas City to be recognized, not only for its engineering, finance and health industries, but also for its art. The arts generate a ton of economic impact on the city and employ a lot of people.”

Francis said his vision for Open Spaces dates back to 2002, when he visited Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition that has occurred every five years in Kassel, Germany, since 1955. Francis said Documenta encompasses sites throughout Kassel, and that part of the motivation behind the exhibition was to revitalize the city in the post-World War II era.

Documenta’s impact on Kassel struck a chord with Francis, who played a role in Crossroads Arts District development early on.

“I saw an arts event like this as not only bringing contemporary art to the city, but also helping to revitalize areas that had been neglected and put those areas in a new light, and create vitality,” Francis said.

Francis shared his vision with arts funders and arts professionals, but he said nothing jelled until last spring, when Cameron was called in to consult with the mayor’s office.

“We essentially married the two projects under the term ‘Open Spaces,’ which is a name I had thought of,” Francis said.

Epicenter: Swope Park

Centering Open Spaces in Swope Park, home to venues such as Starlight Theatre and the Kansas City Zoo, is a crucial component of the event. Swope Park has suffered its share of image problems, including suburbanites’ fears of urban core crime. But the park has seen a renaissance in recent years, driven by renovations of older offerings and the addition of new ones.

Francis views the park as still somewhat neglected and underutilized by the city as a whole, and he wants Open Spaces to help revitalize it.

Cameron said he wants to see a “thriving, dynamic performing arts platform in which people start to experience Swope Park as a gathering place. It’s this big, sprawling space, this jewel. Centering Open Spaces in Swope Park is an act of reclaiming it as a space for people to enjoy and wander around freely, and take in through the medium of an exhibition.”

James said the image problem faced by Swope Park in the past “is exactly why we want to do it in a place like Swope Park. It has faced those challenges. It’s often looked at as being in the wrong part of town for some people. It’s an opportunity to draw people across their comfort lines, whatever those comfort lines may be, into a place that offers some pretty interesting venues.”

Visual art, especially sculptures, also will be on display outside of Swope Park, on street corners and in museums. “You can see the exhibition a little bit at a time,” Cameron said.

Open Spaces will feature commissioned and selected works by local, national and international artists of all disciplines. According to project manager Lea Petrie, local artists play an important role in this project. They will share the stage with national artists, which will expand audiences for local artists. In addition, participation by national and international audiences provide for an expanded arts experience to our local community.

The event will include sculptors, painters, photographers, ceramists and fiber artists, along with makers of video, installation and virtual reality-assisted digital art. Open Spaces also will feature musicians, dancers, poets, educators, filmmakers, theater artists and spoken-word artists.

“More than half and probably close to two-thirds of the performing artists will be from the Kansas City area,” Cameron said.

James said he’d like Open Spaces to resemble First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District, but covering a much wider area. “If we can have those types of crowds, that’s going to make people feel good about this city, and hopefully attract people from other places.”

In November, Cameron was busy making arrangements for out-of-town artists to get to Kansas City as quickly as possible, to enable them to start working on their exhibits. “That’s super important,” Cameron said, due to the time it would take artists to develop a concept and execute it.

“In addition to that I’m going to dozens and dozens of Kansas City artist studios to narrow in on the artists whom I feel would be the best ones,” Cameron said. “I’m working with a lot of music groups and theater groups, trying to plan how that dimension of Open Spaces is going to unfold.”

Open Spaces will emphasize creative partnerships. Kansas City and regional artists who are not officially part of Open Spaces, as well as presenting organizations that are booked up during the time frame of the event, will benefit from a cross-marketing campaign.

In an era of increasing fragmentation in arts and entertainment, who will be the audience for Open Spaces?

Scott foresees local, regional and national audiences, “and maybe to some extent an international audience. We’re working with people who have contacts throughout the country with museum groups, in places like New York, Los Angeles, Aspen and Houston. They will organize museum groups and other groups of people who are very interested in the arts to come to Kansas City.”

Gordon said the Open Spaces organizers are “looking for everyone” audience-wise. “There will be some music that will attract millennials and some art projects that will attract people who are collectors and want to see some of the top contemporary artists in their city up close. We’re hoping by its location that we’ll bring art to a part of the city that hasn’t had art institutions or a lot of focus on art, certainly not contemporary art.”

According to Cameron, “almost everything we’re doing will be accessible to anybody. We’re steering away from esoteric and jargon-heavy sorts of art experiences in favor of things that people can enjoy, and they don’t need a text to help them break it down.”

James stands squarely behind the something for everybody approach for Open Spaces. “I envision anybody in this city or anybody who wants to come to this city to be the audience. I don’t want it to be exclusive. I want it to be in places where anybody who wants to partake can go, whether it’s kids on the east side or the Muslim community or the Latino community, people from north of the river, south of the river, wherever the hell you’re from. Everybody can experience this on some level, and they get to choose the level.”

Big plans, big budget

Open Spaces is an approximately $3.5 million endeavor. About $2 million of that is coming from private donors.

“We’re making progress with that,” Scott said. “We’re going to individuals, to foundations, to people we know who are interested in the arts and have been supporters in the past. Anybody who’s done fundraising of this sort knows it takes time, effort, patience and perseverance.”

City Hall’s commitment was about $500,000 at press time, but James said he was confident that the city will kick in more. James said O’Neill Marketing & Event Management is seeking corporate sponsorships, adding that he also will “probably make a phone call or two” to support that effort.

The city will manage expenditures necessary for Swope Park improvements, public transportation, signage, personnel and similar needs.

Philanthropic, corporate and private donations will be designated for artists’ fees, production, art shipping, artist travel and lodging, and other areas directly related to Open Spaces’ artistic content.

The premiere version of Open Spaces is envisioned as the first of more to come.

“The concept of Open Spaces is to be somewhat malleable and something that can evolve over time,” Scott said. “Nothing is set in stone per se. We expect other ideas to evolve from it, and unexpected things to happen. That’s part of what I find so intriguing about this. I think we’ll have surprises from this that will be positive, and creative solutions or creative outcomes that we can’t even foresee right now.”

James said, “If we do this and pull it off the first time, then the second time, if I am any judge of what normally happens in Kansas City, people will say ‘I want in.’ And this will expand.”

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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