The Art of Adaptation

The Charlotte Street Foundation Rises to the Challenge as COVID-19 Complicates the Move to its New Headquarters

This was not how Amy Kligman planned it. As executive and artistic director of the Charlotte Street Foundation, Kligman, under normal circumstances, this summer would be preparing for an incoming contingent of artists in residence. She’d be exponentially enthused about the inauguration of Charlotte Street’s brand-new building complex, eager to see how a vibrant and inventive group of painters, sculptors, writers, musicians and video makers would put it to use and make the place come alive.

But that was then. Now there is so much uncertainty. The arts world, under the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been stopped in its tracks and forced to improvise. For some artists and organizations, the ultimate goal is survival. For others, it’s renewal.

For Charlotte Street, the relative health of its operating infrastructure and balance sheet is helping it maintain, with cautionary alterations, its forward momentum as both an incubator and safety net for art and artists in the region.

After months in borrowed office space as construction proceeded on Charlotte Street’s headquarters, Kligman moved into the refashioned warehouse, quietly and tentatively, just a month or so behind schedule in the spring.

And some things remain true: As any leadership manual or expert would tell you, the measure of a person in charge is best taken not when everything is working well, but in a time of crisis.

When I first got in touch with Kligman about this article, it was early March. She was just back from a trip to New York, where she’d met with foundations and other Charlotte Street supporters. The New York metro area was well on its way to becoming the American epicenter of the pandemic, travel was already eerie and even Kansas Citians would soon (within days) realize that sheltering at home would be the safest and most urgent strategy to forestall spread of the disease.

A few days after arriving home, Kligman presided over the regular weekly construction meeting and walkthrough of the building, at 3333 Wyoming Street, on a light industrial and residential block north of Roanoke Park. Plaster dust covered everything. Laborers with kneepads troweled concrete floor finishes, and some on stilts mudded drywall joints. A few days after that, shortly after Kligman and I met again in person, sitting socially distant around her temporary off-site desk, she began working from home.

Her mid-April move-in date was delayed, grand-opening events were canceled and the foundation’s new front-burner task turned from completing the building to supporting artists.

“We’ve been developing the Rocket Relief grants,” she said at the time, “and putting a lot of our energy into grant making, as it is the community’s biggest need at this time.”

The new Rocket Relief grants resulted from a repurposing of $60,000 in Rocket Grants funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as well as injections from ArtsKC, the Theater League and private contributions.

Effective leadership requires empathy, and Kligman, a short woman with cascading dark tresses and a friendly spirit, possesses an outsized supply. Evidence abounded in this email soliloquy she sent to me in April:

“The building was designed with the express purpose of bringing members of the art community together — and here we are, nearing the finish line, with this knowledge that once it’s done, we’re going to have to hold our breath for awhile before it’s truly filled with life in the way we had imagined it. I try not to be sad about that because the situation we’re in is what it is, and the priority right now is for folks to be safe,
full stop.

“But one thing has become very clear to me through all of this — and that is the need for artists to have and be a critical part of community — it’s so real. It’s so real that in this moment of utter calamity, artists are out there inventing new ways to be together, inventing new ways to create and to share their inspiration and hope with others.

“They are doing this as they try to make baseline survival happen at the same time. They are doing this as every financial and emotional support system they have shuts down.

“So I’m just grateful that when things do start to shift and we can tiptoe back in to each other’s worlds again in a physical way, this amazing place — this amazing platform — will be here, waiting for artists to take and make their own. It’s something to look forward to. That moment when we can come out of our home studios at kitchen tables and dance rehearsals on Zoom and start reimagining what our community looks like in this post-isolation world, together.”

Exemplary Leadership

The Charlotte Street Foundation began in 1997, founded by businessman and art collector David Hughes, who wanted to honor the memory of a late artist friend, John Puscheck, and the community of artists that had grown together around him.

The foundation’s portfolio evolved and grew into a conglomeration of scattered locations, pop-up events and multi-faceted creative activities in vacant downtown office spaces and annexes here and there. It offered direct grants to fund creative work; it channeled funds and received capacity-building support from the Warhol Foundation, nearly $1.5 million to date.

The Warhol Foundation chose it more than a decade ago as a re-granting partner, one of 16 regional organizations already making a difference in their respective arts communities.

“The program,” said Warhol’s Rachel Bers, “has been running for 13 years, and one of the wonderful things that has come from it (aside from the 1,000-plus funded projects) is that it has seeded the field with new arts leaders — Amy is a perfect example of that.”

Kligman (née Dickey) joined Charlotte Street five years ago, first as program director and then stepping in as executive director. An artist herself, she also has drawn from her experience in the commercial world (10 years as a creative strategist at Hallmark Cards) and as a curator of art spaces and activities (cofounder of the artist-run Plug Projects gallery in the West Bottoms).

She grew up in a small, no-stoplight town in southern Indiana. Her mother encouraged her artistic inclinations even as her high school counselor told her that going to art school would ruin her family. Her father was a factory worker and shared in her mother’s serial entrepreneurial activities. Both of her parents died of heart attacks at age 50, two years apart and less than a decade ago, Kligman said.

After going to the Ringling College of Art & Design in Florida, she wound up in Cleveland, where she worked for American Greetings, Hallmark’s rival in the card business, and got involved in the city’s art scene. Eventually she met and married artist Misha Kligman. They moved to Kansas City after he landed a scholarship to the University of Kansas.

Early last year, Kligman, now 41, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Jasper, or Jaz, joining older brother Sam, who is now 6.

Her three-month maternity leave occurred several months after construction began on the building. Kligman credits the steady hand and grant-writing abilities of development director Margaret Perkins-McGinness for keeping everything on track. Kligman had lured Perkins-McGinness from the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas. She also credits her for spearheading a feasibility study for the new building and for landing an unexpected $5 million matching grant from an anonymous donor with which to launch the foundation’s
capital campaign.

“We thought we were at four to five million dollars max,” Kligman said, “but Margaret blew all that up.”

The drive to bring most of the programs under one roof led Kligman and company to this odd warehouse, whose utility at first was unclear. The array of three low-lying concrete block, metal and brick buildings was owned by Ryan Gale, Charlotte Street’s landlord at La Esquina gallery and event space off Southwest Boulevard.

To gather ideas, Kligman surveyed projects around the country that had similar programs of galleries and residencies, sometimes in makeshift facilities.

“This was the weirdest John Malkovichy building,” Kligman said, evoking the name of an actor who personifies strangeness, “but it was the fact that all the different spaces were so weird, so different from each other, you can kind of imagine all the ways artists might use it.

“Our real estate guy said nobody in their right mind would want this building. Ultimately, it was totally the building we wanted.”

David Hughes, who stepped away from the Charlotte Street operation seven years ago but still serves as an informal adviser, said that rising rents and other practical considerations made the consolidation a sensible move.

“The conceptualizing and execution of the centralized HQ search, design and construction — and funding — was laser focused and effective,” he said. “I have been blown away by how tight it all has been actually. Amy’s leadership of this process with staff, board, architects, consultants and others has been exemplary.”

Conceiving the New Campus

It helped that the foundation board was peopled by a wide variety of creative Kansas Citians and was headed at the time by an architect, Jon Taylor, who could guide others in envisioning the buildings’ transformation.

They commissioned DRAW Architecture to study the complex and see whether it would work for Charlotte Street’s multiple programs. Then they turned to Hufft Projects, an inventive, culturally experienced architectural firm housed just about a block away.

Hufft repurposed the campus into a flexible series of spaces for contemplative and collaborative pursuits including a public gallery, landscaped outdoor terraces, an art library, private studios for artists and writers, lounges, a dance rehearsal room and industrial-sized garage doors that open into a high-ceilinged black box theater.

For Kligman and her staff of five, building a $7 million headquarters was a first.

“I’ve never been afraid of big projects or things I don’t 100 percent understand,” she said. “It becomes a process of breaking it down piece by piece.”

For one thing, she learned that having an owner’s representative on the construction team would be key to ensuring that designers, builders, suppliers and Charlotte Street would be on the same page every step of the way.

During that construction meeting in early March, Kligman lamented the loss of a third-floor balcony on the north side of the main building. The small projection was deemed too unstable, and the architects proposed replacing it with a quality array of windows.

“I think a lot about the environments artists operate in,” Kligman said. “We often work with what’s there. Making do is par for the course. What’s exciting about this is we were able to say what is ideal, and we were able to do that.

“I think I was always expecting to pull back at some point, but we have been able to realize the best-case scenario.

“I attribute that to the work of the whole team. Everybody at Charlotte Street pulled their weight on this project. We know what a difference this will mean for the community. I think we’re all excited to be there, to see people coming and going and finding hilarious uses for parts of the building we hadn’t thought about.”

Earlier this year, Jean-Paul Wong, a long time board member and onetime chairman of the Kansas City Ballet, succeeded Jon Taylor as Charlotte Street’s chair.

With the new building, Wong said, “nothing about CSF’s mission or strategic plan will change significantly. Instead, we will capitalize on the new facility and its ability to bring even larger audiences to see the avant-garde art that is being presented by so many talented artists of all disciplines that are attracted to our community.”

Of Kligman, he said, “Amy is a natural leader, and her passion for the mission of CSF is what makes the organization thrive. Since the organization is so lean, Amy doesn’t have the pleasure of resting on her title, not even a little. She sleeps, eats and breathes Charlotte Street and not only leads her staff, but often acts as its key fundraiser, an arts advocate, a community arts leader and the organization’s key motivator. She is also the board’s babysitter. In my time on the board, Amy has been able to do all of this with a silent strength that makes you think that she had to have an army of supporters. She does not seek the spotlight.”

Deadlines being what they are, it was difficult to say exactly what would be transpiring at Charlotte Street’s new digs by this point in the summer.

Kligman said she expected that by July, Charlotte Street would have distributed at least $150,000 in the new Rocket Relief grants — $1,000 each to 150 artists in the region.

And then? The future of Charlotte Street’s residency program remained unclear. Maybe it would return in early 2021; maybe parts of the new space could be used by certain resident artists with social distancing in force.

Or maybe Kligman and her staff will have devised an all-new approach to enlivening the space into which they’ve put so much energy and hope. Kligman, as is her nature, remained optimistic. If nothing else, art and artists are flexible and highly responsive to contingencies and curveballs.

As Margaret Perkins-McGinness put it, “Adaptation is in Charlotte Street’s DNA.”

The upshot is that Charlotte Street’s new quarters will be fully engaged when the time is right.

“I’m excited about that,” Kligman said. “I’m ready to be surprised.”

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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