Renovated and Reinvigorated: The Bunker Center for the Arts Hits its Stride

First Friday reception at the renovated Bunker Center for the Arts, summer 2021. (Bunker Center for the Arts)

Under director TJ Templeton, the seven-year-old artist-run studio and gallery space has become an East Crossroads arts hub

Every great metropolis has its art museums, galleries and arts districts, all magnets for tourists and locals that contribute to a city’s cultural prominence. If lucky, these same cities also house artist-run spaces where the unexpected and out of the ordinary are often staged, status quo be damned. Why is this important? Such spaces often help artists launch their careers; they support idiosyncratic viewpoints which might otherwise be censored; and offer people who are not members of the 1% an opportunity to afford some terrific art.

Over the years Kansas City has had its share of such alternative art centers. Almost all have struggled financially, and some have had the lifespan of a gnat. Currently, the Kansas City Artists Coalition, the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center and the Charlotte Street Foundation are gold star examples of what grit, community involvement and smart management can do to turn such start-ups into vital constituents of Kansas City’s art world.

Artist Tj Templeton, gallery director at Bunker Center for the Arts, works on a painting in his studio at the center. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Artist and gallery director Tj Templeton wanted to establish a comparable profile for the Bunker Center for the Arts, located in the East Crossroads at 1014 E. 19th St. The Bunker’s present status — an art space with at least 12 full-scale exhibits a year in various gallery spaces, 10 artist studios, an inventory of more than 400 artworks, a gift space and an online store — is the result of a slow but steady climb.

In a recent interview, Templeton explained how the Bunker developed: “Jim Adams, a Houston-based metal sculptor and investor, started the Bunker Center for the Arts as a property investment in 2015. Back when artists and galleries began getting gentrified out of the Crossroads-proper, the city made incentives for investors and developers to buy up properties on the periphery of the Crossroads for arts-related businesses. Thus, the Bunker Center was born as a successful example of that inventive program. He has served as the benefactor for this project from the very beginning, keeping it afloat with his own funds when revenue doesn’t cover costs. Originally, Jim worked with arts writer John Hastings and later with painter Travis Pratt. I came along in 2017.”

A gallery space at Bunker Center for the Arts, with works by Wes Casey (left), Bri Murphy (center), and Benjamin Parks (right) (Bunker Center for the Arts / photo by TJ Templeton)

Templeton graduated from Oak Park High School in 1989 and attended the Foundations program at the Kansas City Art Institute, leaving school after the first year. When he met Adams, he had just returned to Kansas City “after being gone for 12 years and managing and curating Spatium gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska.” His skill set, he says, made him “perfect” for becoming director at the Bunker.

“I have experience as a property manager. I’ve been a small business owner for 20 years — retail, new media, graphic design and web design. I’m also a freelance handyman with my own tools, and a gallerist and professional artist.”

“For me, it’s a constant process to find artists…I have one criterion: I need to find something I haven’t seen before.”

Tj Templeton, artist and gallery director, Bunker Center for the Arts
Painted by his crew, a mural on the side of the Bunker Center depicts longtime Bunker tenant and mural artist Jeremy Albert Bena, who passed away in November 2021. (Bunker Center for the Arts)

His first job as director was to rehab the Bunker’s dilapidated space.

“When I came on board, the building still had office cubicles in the ‘galleries,’ the floors were covered in torn, stained carpet that smelled of wet dog. There was no website. We were not on the Crossroads gallery map. We had almost no social media presence. We had tenants not paying rent. We didn’t even have a sign on the building.”

His first two years at the Bunker were mostly spent remodeling. “Now,” he says, “we are on the map literally and figuratively. Our First Fridays went from zero visitors to over 100 at peak season. We have a robust social media presence as well as an online store where we sell artworks to collectors all over the globe. We have daily foot traffic. Our numbers go up every quarter and don’t seem to be losing momentum.”

Templeton is also the curator for all the exhibits at the Bunker (there can be as many as four shows simultaneously), which he or the artists install.

“For me, it’s a constant process to find artists. I look at a lot of artists’ social media, Facebook groups, videos, and Instagram. I have one criterion: I need to find something I haven’t seen before.”

Another significant duty of Templeton’s is to oversee the studios of artists who rent workspaces at the Bunker. The recent death of a longtime tenant Jeremy Albert Bena, an artist who painted more than 100 murals throughout the Midwest, resulted in Templeton helping Bena’s crew of artists paint an entire wall on the side of the Bunker Center. Templeton is also working on an upcoming celebration of life event for Bena.

“The talent we bring into the studios adds an additional layer of good ideas and innovation to add to the Bunker Center’s progress,” Templeton says. “We’re here for the long haul.”

For more information on the Bunker Center for the Arts, call 712.541.5447 or visit www.bunkercenter.com.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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