Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: Our Venerable Academies: Studios Among the Showrooms

Julian Stropes, a 2014 graduate in painting, at work in the Dodge Painting Building at the Kansas City Art Institute. (Photo by Tal Wilson)

Any city known for its thriving arts is bound to accommodate and benefit from higher learning in the arts, but few cities are blessed with two such fine academies as the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and the Kansas City Art Institute. From their long histories and standards of excellence to their future visions, the similarities between these Kansas City institutions extend well beyond their close locations, just over a few rock walls and across Brush Creek from one another. These are not mere institutions of higher learning, but true “academies” where applicants compete to learn from faculties of eminence. In local parlance, they have long been “The Art Institute” and “The Conservatory.”

These two learning centers are led by top-notch visionaries: KCAI President, Tony Jones, and Peter Witte, Dean of the Conservatory, each of whom recently shared time and thoughts with me.

By far our oldest arts organization, the Kansas City Art Institute was first conceived by The Sketch Club in 1885 as The Kansas City Art Association and School of Design. It encountered such misfortunes as The Great Depression and fire, and survived over and over through the generosity of the community. Even as students raised money for the Red Cross during World War I by selling their art, the first Beaux Arts Ball was held to support the Institute. And today’s largest KCAI fundraiser, The Art of the Car Concourse, has provided $1.1 million to the Scholarship Fund over ten years.

The KCAI has earned extremely high standing among its peer institutions, in part due to an exhaustive list of famous students including John Steuart Curry, Robert Rauschenberg and Nick Cave, and renowned faculty such as Thomas Hart Benton, Dale Eldred, Ken Ferguson and Frederic James.

The Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace boasts a history of intelligent, topical programming, while the school’s new KCAI Crossroads Gallery has expanded the school’s presence into the downtown arts scene. The institute also continues a long tradition of non-credit continuing education courses, (once attended by Walt Disney), to serve the community.

Similarly, the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance opens its doors to the community for more than 300 performances each year, most, free of charge, and another 100 at venues such as the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Folly Theater and various local high schools. In terms of outreach, The Conservatory provides community access to private lessons and continuing education, often partners with the major music and dance organizations, and fields a steady stream of requests for students to perform for private events.

A jazz combo featuring UMKC Conservatory students performs at the Green Lady Lounge. Pictured are Michael Panelas on guitar, Blair Bryant on bass and Zach Morrow on drums. (photo by James Allison)

The Kansas City Conservatory of Music, founded by John A. Cowan in 1906 and deeded to the city in 1916, became the first publicly owned and supported music conservatory (a term interchangeable today with “school”) in the country. Students are exposed to world-acclaimed faculty, such as John Thompson, Vinson Cole and Bobby Watson. Perhaps as a nod to its illustrious past, “Conservatory” was retained when it became a part of UMKC in 1963.

The Conservatory’s 75-year-old Women’s Committee has just finished a $1 million drive to support scholarships, while a hugely successful $48 million campaign drive — $7 million of which was contributed by the City of Kansas City, Mo., — has achieved matching grant status with the State of Missouri to build a new downtown campus nestled right in the midst of the Kauffman Center, Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera and near many jazz venues and other stages. In addition to doubling instructional space, an important goal is integration with the music and dance scene, much like KCAI has done with its fortunate placement between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. President Jones gleefully describes KCAI’s position as “a studio between two showrooms.”

Unfortunately, and right out of the gate, Missouri Governor, Eric Greitens, omitted from his 2017 budget the matching funds for the Conservatory campus — demonstrating yet again the vulnerability of the arts in the political arena.

The similarities between KCAI and the Conservatory are remarkable. Both institutions serve around 600 students and enforce high standards for admissions (through portfolio submission and audition). The student effect on both campuses is intentional and focused. Dean Witte assured me that rather than dabbling in search of their interest, on “Day One” these young people are immersed in their music and dance studies! Both offer the bachelor of fine arts degree, with UMKC also granting numerous masters, as well as DMA and Ph.D. degrees. Both are fully accredited and offer their students master classes with renowned professionals.

While the fundamental difference between these two institutions of higher education is somewhat blurred by each one’s estimable standing and long history, they are two entirely different machines to operate. The Conservatory is one school on one campus of the greater four-campus University of Missouri system; the Art Institute is a private single-campus school. The Institute’s annual budget of $30 million includes infrastructure and investments, while the Conservatory’s $10 million budget excludes facilities and reflects economies of scale achievable only by such a large university system. Our state taxes support UMKC, while the Art Institute has no direct governmental funding. Yet, while a year of study at KCAI, exclusive of room and board, costs around $37,000, at the Conservatory it is approximately $10,000 for in-state students.

If you’re looking for a first-rate fine arts or performing arts education, unpack your bags!  It doesn’t get much better than our own arts academies — studios among so many showrooms!

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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