‘Open Spaces’ is about access and visibility to KC arts, but it’s also going to be awesome

KANSAS CITY, MO — Years in the making, Open Spaces: Kansas City’s Arts Experience launches on Saturday, kicking off more than two months of carefully coordinated visual and performing arts events all over the city. Open Spaces is a product of Mayor Sly James’ 2011 task force for the arts, which led to the development a city-wide cultural plan called the KCMO Arts Convergence in 2013. Through community convenings, extensive research, one-on-one interviews and an online survey, the task force developed 10 goals and strategies for identifying needs and opportunities within the creative economy in Kansas City, including a flagship festival — Open Spaces — and the 2015 formation of an Office for Cultural and Creative Services (OCCS) within city government.

“A lot of what we do is convening different organizations around a particular goal,” said OCCS director of creative services Megan Crigger in an interview last April. “But there’s also the policy piece. Organizations, especially non-profits or individual artists, don’t necessarily have the time or capacity to be at every city council meeting, understanding what the regulatory issues are, and how they impact the arts and culture. So I think [OCCS] gives eyes on the inside, if you will, to understand what’s happening on a city-wide level, that can either help or hinder the arts community.”

A major goal of Open Spaces is to bring more visibility to the vibrant arts and culture sector which already exists in Kansas City, due in large part to a robust network philanthropic agencies elevating the arts through capital campaigns (which led to magnificent facilities like the Kauffman Center and the Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity). However the resources have perhaps not reached marginalized communities and neighborhoods beyond downtown in Kansas City, which Time called the 5th most economically segregated city in the U.S.

“That’s top of mind.” said Crigger. “Open Spaces is a way to say that we believe arts can be transformative around community issues. While this is, we believe, of national significance by pairing visual and performing arts at equal stature, it’s also about what these organizations are doing that are responding to place, and some of these social issues. That, to me, is what’s really unique and is probably the most challenging. Because it’s beyond just presenting works of art. It’s rooted in where we live.”

Unlike similar sized city-wide arts festivals across the country, Open Spaces presents work from more than 200 artists that is specifically curated to center around Kansas City.

To that end, the festival’s broken into three presentational platforms: the Exhibition, the Village, and the Weekend.

“Lots of cities have festivals,” said Crigger. “This one is very unique to Kansas City in that it is about Kansas City. So for example in the Exhibition, we’re planning on 40 visual artists — local, national and international. Everyone is invited to research and understand a place [in Kansas City] and then make proposals that are specific to the history and the character of that neighborhood, that place, that park.”

Entrance to Swope Park, Kansas CIty, MO. By Flickr user The DLC (Creative Commons)

Home base for the festival is Swope Park, an 1,805-acre city gem dividing the city’s east and west sides. The location is intentional, not just for its convenient location and beautiful Starlight Theatre, where the headliners include The Roots, the Vijay Iyer Quartet and Janelle Monáe, who grew up in KC, will play as part of the Weekend’s performances on Oct. 12-14. The park, racially segregated until 1954, has historical notoriety, and to this day the east and west sides remain largely segregated.

On weekends through Oct. 28, visitors can take in live music, dance, spoken word and artisan goods and wares in the Village, or peruse Swope Park’s public art installations and open galleries throughout the city (for which Open Spaces courted 40 artists including Nick Cave, Joyce J. Scott and Alexandre Arreachea).

Open Spaces is completely free, with the majority of the activities happening in Swope Park, a place that meets Kansas Citians literally and metaphorically in the middle. But for those wishing to venture a little further, a marketing initiative called the Expanded Field highlights events taking place all over the city through the festival.

It’s all part of a bigger strategy to engage Kansas Citians beyond Open Spaces’ 62 days in the cultural creative economy and create additional points of access, whether that be through educating existing arts organizations about services the city provides to small businesses, or partnering with schools or public transit authorities to reduce barriers to access and participation.

“How do we get into those neighborhoods that already have arts going on, or think that there aren’t any arts, but there are, and get them connected,” said Consuelo Cruz, OCCS arts marketing coordinator. “Because those are the grassroots that we don’t want to escape our radar.”

Open Spaces: Kansas City’s Arts Experience runs Aug. 25 – Oct. 28. The opening night celebration takes place at 8:00 p.m., at the Municipal Auditorium. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit openspacesKC.com

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.