Under Exhibition Program Director Ben Ahlvers, the Lawrence Arts Center Has Broadened its Scope and Upped its Game as a Contemporary Art Space

A batch of kittens found their way into the Lawrence Arts Center this fall, and Ben Ahlvers wasn’t sure what to think about it.

Ahlvers is exhibitions program director at Lawrence Arts Center. The kittens were an added feature to “Affectionate Indifference,” a recent group show of artists celebrating our feline companions.

“As soon as I opened the doors and it was wildly popular, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a gimmick, we shouldn’t have done this,’” Ahlvers said. “Then I got over it. Everything I do, I second guess it.”

The kitties’ value as art may be debatable, but their worth as a way of getting people in the door certainly is not. (It doesn’t hurt that the cats accompanying the artworks actually were up for adoption, part of the LAC’s partnership with the Lawrence Humane Society.)

Ask Ahlvers what he thinks his role at the center might be, and . . . well, it’s complicated.

“I struggle with it,” he said. “I’m not interested in being an evangelist for art. Yes, you should come see the art here even though you’d rather be watching basketball. But what about that passive person who’s dropping off or picking up a preschooler at the center? What’s my opportunity there?”

At one point in its history, the Lawrence Arts Center may have been considered little more than a community-based gallery surrounding a nonprofit performing arts center.

But the downtown space, just a block east of Lawrence’s iconic Massachusetts Street, is growing into more of a legit contemporary art space, drawing attention and artists from all over. And Ahlvers is at the center of it.

Jason Needham, a Kansas City-based artist who occasionally contributes illustrations to “KC Studio,” grew up near the Douglas County line northwest of Lawrence and studied at the University of Kansas. Needham said he’s noticed more back and forth between Kansas City and Lawrence in the last decade or so.

“At least from what I remember from when I was in school,” said Needham, whose “New Work” showed at LAC through Dec. 21. “And I think the arts center there in Lawrence strengthens that.”

Ahlvers, an Illinois native, arrived at Lawrence Arts Center after earning his Master of Fine Arts in ceramics from Ohio University. He had never even heard of Lawrence, Kansas. He learned of an artist-in-residency program there from a friend of a friend.

The opportunity was going to be pretty raw. He’d get a key to the building. He could carve out a space to work. There was no money in it.

“Teaching was how you were going to make your money,” he said. “If nobody enrolled, then I was stuck.”

Nonetheless, he was impressed. The sheer size of the building, with 40,000 square feet of space for galleries, studios and theaters, seemed weirdly huge for a town of Lawrence’s size, he said.

The sheer size of the building, with 40,000 square feet of gallery space, seemed weirdly huge for a town of Lawrence’s size, he said.

“I had no experience at nonprofits, but I was at least curious about it,” he said. “I thought I’d do this for a year, then hit the job circuit again and go teach somewhere.”

The gig lasted all of two weeks — he soon was offered the job of studio manager.

That was 2004. In late 2009, he was hired for his current position as exhibitions program director. He had watched how things worked at LAC for five years, and he had some ideas on how he believed he could improve it.

He also had an exhibitions calendar that was almost completely empty. He had three spaces to fill and almost no money.

“So I put together some bigger group shows,” he said. “Artists from Kansas City and artists from here — people that I knew, people that I was familiar with, people I had seen at various galleries.”

Ahlvers said he wouldn’t call his initial group shows acts of desperation, though he was newly responsible for filling a lot of gallery space.

“To go to one artist and say, ‘Do you want to have a show in this gallery space with five months’ notice?’ — that’s a steep order,” he said. “Certainly, some of it was plugging a hole. Some of it was getting to know different artists.”

Some of it is just the do-what-it-takes nature of a nonprofit arts organization.

Learning on the Fly

“There is a bit of flying by the seat of your pants,” he said. “You just do these things. You make things happen. Whether it’s a gallery or a performance or teaching and finding ways to pay for it all.”

He’s learned some difficult lessons. The first time he put out a request for proposals, he put a deadline on it. He was inundated. More than 125 at once, with only a small percentage of those coming locally. Sorting through them all became a full-time job.

He’s also had to learn how to deal with artists and manage everyone’s expectations. One of his first big shows was by Roger Shimomura, the now-retired KU art professor whose influential works can be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and others.

“That guy scared the hell out of me,” Ahlvers said. “I knew him a little bit, but this was a big show. Like 60 pieces or something.”

Shimomura wanted to lay out and hang everything himself. Ahlvers was organizing some of Shimomura’s objects from the internment camps, maybe 100 of those in all. At one point, Shimomura called Ahlvers in and said, “What do you think?”

“I said, ‘It seems really full. It could use a little more breathing room,’” Ahlvers said. “So he pulled a couple of paintings out. That took a little bit of the edge off for me. How would I feel as an artist and someone said, ‘We don’t need all of these things’?”

Ahlvers’ experience as an artist, however, is something he draws on heavily. Not every artist has agreed with his perspective, of course. Others, like Needham, have appreciated it.

When Needham applied for his LAC show, he really wanted this big ambitious production in the big gallery. He admits now he was probably in over his head.

“Ben approached me and said, ‘We’re going to give you a show, but it’s going to be in the little space,’” Needham said. “Momentarily, I felt a little twinge of disappointment, but in the big picture, I was completely relieved. I realized, in retrospect, I was biting off way more than I could chew by asking for that big space at this time.”

A Conduit for Artists

Ahlvers said he certainly doesn’t believe more is better. And while he doesn’t see himself as an evangelist for artists, he does see himself as a conduit. He likes helping artists get what’s in their head into a real space.

“I really like working with artists and finding the best way to communicate what they’re trying to say,” he said. “Whenever we get that proposal and it’s three paragraphs, that’s great. But when you do the follow-up and the studio visits and you start talking about what you can do, that’s the part that’s really exciting for me. We can get excited together about what’s going to happen.”

He gets especially enthused finding ways to show local artists alongside regional artists and national artists. Like others, he’s still trying to find the right avenue to attract artists’ attention. Are they looking online? Are they looking in print publications? Is it all word of mouth?

It’s a similar problem faced by Amy Kligman, executive artistic director at Charlotte Street Foundation. She’s been in Kansas City for more than a decade, and she thinks artists still perceive some kind of barrier between Kansas City and its outlying areas.

Charlotte Street, in partnership with the Spencer Museum of Art on the KU campus, offers Rocket Grants to artists within an 80-mile radius of Kansas City — which includes Lawrence as well as Topeka, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri.

“We’ll go out and have information sessions to make sure people in other communities know about the opportunities,” she said. “But even then, we kind of struggle to get numbers in those places. I wouldn’t say people in outlying areas have a better shot than most, but we look for geographical diversity. When people apply from outside of the Kansas City area, we get kind of excited about that.”

Kligman sees some state line hopping, though at about the same frequency she always has. She even had a show of her paintings and sculptural works at LAC several years ago. And Charlotte Street has seen a number of artists in its studio residency program come from Lawrence.

“Maybe people are becoming a little more fluid going from one community to the next,” she said.

Bruce Hartman, executive director at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, said two places perpetually draw him to Lawrence — the Spencer Museum of Art on campus and the Lawrence Arts Center.

“I’ve long enjoyed the exhibitions which the Arts Center organizes, as they tend to focus on area artists,” Hartman said via email. “Their current show of Jason Needham’s work is beautiful and their Albert Bloch exhibit in 2015 was a revelation. There’s always a remarkable energy and sense of purpose.”

The Lawrence Arts Center also has an advantage that other venues in the Sunflower State might not: It is located in an island of progressivism in an otherwise conservative state. At least on paper. Lawrence has a fair number of conservatives, much like Kansas has other pockets of progressives.

Raising Eyebrows

A few years ago, Ahlvers and the LAC featured a show of artworks inspired by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who had drawn flowers on Styrofoam coffee cups.

“I definitely got some feedback on that project — you can’t just put that up and walk away,” he said. “I thought this is totally relevant and worth having conversations about. It’s not about the prisoners at all.

“Could that project happen in other parts of the state? I don’t know.”

He also has heard from some who think the LAC should show fewer regional and national artists and more locals.

“Some of the shifts I made raised a few eyebrows, and I got a few letters how I was shunning people — ‘These local artists built this place, and now you’re shutting them out,’” he said. “I don’t believe that. I think there’s room for everything. I think having a local artist next to a non-local artist, they’re all on the same level playing field. I think there’s room for all.”

That philosophy goes beyond the artists on exhibit. It includes the parents bringing their kiddos in for preschool, the seniors coming to watch performances, and, yes, people coming in because they heard the LAC had kitties.

Ahlvers looks back and remembers that there was a time when people in Lawrence didn’t know exactly what that big building downtown was, exactly.

“There used to not even be a sign on the door,” he said. “People used to come in thinking this was where they were supposed to go pay their parking tickets.”

A lot of the day-to-day at the Lawrence Arts Center is trying to get people to take classes or buy tickets to performances. On a recent Friday afternoon, the laughter of preschoolers occasionally echoed off the walls. The role of visual art at LAC is still an amorphous part of an ambitious whole.

“For a long time, I wanted to be on the radar of the people who were really passionate about whatever art form,” he said. “I want them to think this is a place that is worth keeping an eye on.”

Other times, though, he thinks of his job another way.

“I think some days the hat that I want to be wearing is I just want to be in the background,” he said. “A lot of people are going to have one shot showing here, probably. So it’s a big deal.”

David Frese

David Frese is a writer, photographer, artist and community advocate from rural Kansas who spent 21 years covering Kansas City’s arts and culture for “The Kansas City Star.” He is a graduate of Kansas State University.

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