KC: A Masterpiece in the Making

Kansas City skyline from the World War I Museum (photo: Lauren Warnecke)
Kansas City skyline from the Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Museum (photo: Lauren Warnecke)

KANSAS CITY, MO: It’s so exciting to see a city ticking upward.

Kansas City Ballet (KCB) is at a truly fascinating moment in its history – with Devon Carney at the helm beginning in 2013 and a totally amazing new building: the Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. KCB is using its big, beautiful, brand spankin’ new space to support the once rep company’s creation of full length ballets, starting with a brand new Nutcracker to replace its 1981 version.

But the ballet isn’t the only thing in Kansas City undergoing a renaissance.

As a number of industries left downtown for the massive suburban sprawl on both sides of the state line and train activity continued to slow down, the once booming “Paris of the Plains” saw a mass exodus. But while the recent economic crisis left most cities with lots of empty storefronts and half-built or vacant condo buildings, Kansas City somehow avoided the blow, and in the past ten years has enjoyed considerable growth and vitality. People are actually moving back into condos, working and playing in regions of the city once deemed “ghost towns” after 5pm. This is thanks, in large part, to the Kauffman family, who have bought, endowed, or otherwise funded large portions of the city and are mostly responsible for the revitalization of its once barren downtown districts.


Kauffman 1
The cochlear shape of the Kauffman Center provides idyllic acoustics inside, while its glass-paned entrance gives a wow-factor outside to the changing KC skyline.

One such project was the $400 Million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, an architectural wonder in its own right, providing a vital upgrade to performance spaces for the city’s three main performing arts institutions: KCB, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Left out of the equation at the Kauffman Center is the equally well-established Kansas City Repertory Theatre, whose Spencer Theatre on campus at the University of Missouri – Kansas City also recently underwent a beefy $5.67 Million upgrade.


The magnificent lobby inside the Kauffman Center.

A seemingly utopian mecca of arts and culture balanced with affordability and good old Midwestern hospitality surely isn’t without its problems, but I couldn’t find many during my stay. In conversations with my hosts, restaurant servers, hotel staff and even an optimistic ex-realtor turned Uber driver, Kansas Citians are excited about the future of a city that is waking up after several decades of economic hibernation. It’s tempting to compare KC to other mid-size cities with vibrant, but small-ish, dance scenes, but honestly Kansas City is like nothing else, thanks in large part to the support of the Kauffman family, who also bear the name of the Royals’ stadium and own its baseball team, in addition to the brand new magnificent performing arts center and gaggle of other buildings and projects throughout the downtown districts they have supported.

Through a smart collaboration with Visit KC, the city’s main hub for tourism and leisure, visitors of the gorgeous museum campus including Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as numerous other local attractions (not the least of which are the working Union Station and neighboring National World War I Museum), are encouraged to take part in KC’s burgeoning performing arts scene. Yet, while the Crossroads District a short walk from the Kauffman Center is teeming with a cool, off-beat visual arts vibe, I don’t get the sense that Kansas City is pushing its citizens to embrace anything beyond traditional performing arts productions. With such an eager community and so little competition (St. Louis is probably the closest big metro area, 250 miles away on the other side of the state), I wonder: can Kansas City embrace the avant garde, the edgy, the fringe, the truly weird sides of art? Will KCB continue to play it safe with Nutcracker and Swan Lake, or can Devon Carney bring a ballet like Neumeier’s Sylvia to the Kauffman Center? I’m confident Carney’s fantastic dancers can handle it… can Kansas City? My guess is yes.

It remains to be seen if KC will push past convention with its performing arts menu, as it has in visual arts, music, and dining. The city and its citizens seem primed to receive whatever comes out of this thriving metropolis – and KC provides an exciting example to us all of what can happen to artists and arts advocates living in the right city at the right time. Indeed, the Kauffman family and a number of additional benefactors (to the tune of $9 Billion) are aggressively making Kansas City about much more than barbecue.

Oh, but, you should know that the barbecue is great too.

During my time in Kansas City I visited a vast amount of what the city has to offer, and couldn’t even get to everything on my list.

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t actually explore all of Kansas City in three days – I’m not even sure you could do it in a week – but you’ll get a chance to give it a try for the 2017 Dance USA conference. I guess the bottom line, here, is:

Don’t knock Kansas City ’til you’ve tried it.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.

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