Art of the City
By Gary Singh
SOMETIMES one has to go outside the usual stomping ground to look for inspiration. In this latest case, the backdrop was Kansas City, Mo., a place you wouldn't normally expect to see a thriving live/work arts district with dozens of galleries that attract thousands of people every first Friday of the month. The Crossroads Arts District in K.C. is exactly that and last week I infiltrated the scene, found the muse and expunged the usual ornery ennui from my psyche.
This is not to downplay San Jose's First Friday gallery scene at all, but since K.C.'s is 10 times bigger, maybe it can serve as an inspiration for what San Jose's could someday become. The time is ripe for such thinking, since S.J. is currently in the midst of a new general plan, and the next presenter in its Great Cities Speaker Series, Ann Markusen, who talks Monday, Sept. 15, at 6pm at the S.J. Rep, will be speaking about how "artists and designers are underrepresented in San Jose for the size of its workforce." Markusen will focus on how "savvy cities around the world are investing strategically in artist live/work and studio buildings, artist's centers, designated arts districts, smaller scale and neighborhood artistic spaces, festivals, grants and technical assistance programs to shore up and diversify their arts and cultural talent pool." She'll also be part of an "Artist Town Hall" public meeting Saturday, Sept. 13, at City Hall, 10am–3pm, discussing "how to make San Jose a more artist-friendly place."
I found myself pondering these same ideas while navigating Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District last week. Every first Friday, the mile-wide neighborhood turns into a mini Mardi Gras infused with thousands of folks from all slices of the economic spectrum, everyone from skateboarders to affluent art collectors. What used to be a run-down, blighted neighborhood littered with empty buildings and abandoned warehouses 20 years ago grew over the years into a Midwestern SoHO, so to speak. The First Friday events erupted in their current form about eight years ago and became the icing on the cake.
Eventually, as one would expect, property values began to increase and as soon as the artists started getting priced out of the neighborhood, a bunch of local grassroots organizers lobbied to support an economic development plan to prevent SoHO-style gentrification. So now landlords, developers or working artists who want to buy their own buildings can apply for property tax abatements. You even see real estate brokers with titles like "Artist and Urban Real Estate Specialist."
Last Friday night, the neighborhood was jammed. Thousands of folks descended upon the area, its restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. The Pitch, Kansas City's alternative weekly newspaper, whose offices are conveniently located right smack in the middle of all this, includes an eight-page pullout every single week, titled "The Crossroads Art Map and Monthly Exhibition Guide."
Kelly Kuhn, owner and director of the Blue Gallery on Southwest Boulevard, is already gearing up for her 100th consecutive First Friday this December and says she's seen firsthand how the event has matured.
"For the first one, it was mostly students, totally fun and a lot of energy," she told me. "The clientele has really evolved since then. The neighborhood has really grown over eight years. It's more diverse, age-wise and on an economic level. It's grown into a more friendly event where anything can happen."
Depending on who you talk to, the explosion of development in the Crossroads helped spearhead subsequent urban reincarnation in other parts of downtown Kansas City that had long since fallen by the wayside.
"The surge of First Fridays built community confidence that people would come back downtown if there was something to do," said Paul Tyler of the Kansas City Arts Council. "People thought if we can get people here for First Fridays, we can get more people downtown for other things. It gave the city more confidence to redevelop the rest of downtown."