KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1982
KANSAS CITY: UNDERGOING A HEALING CRISIS IN THE ARTS
by Elisabeth Kirsch
It’s summertime, but the livin’ ain’t so easy – at least not for those involved in the arts in Kansas City. Several of the city’s largest cultural institutions, and many smaller ones, are in the throes of major upheavals that threaten to affect the image of the city and the quality of life of everyone here.
The Philharmonic, the Nelson Gallery, and the Starlight Theater, and the Kansas City Ballet have either undergone, are now undergoing, painful and fundamental changes. In the case of the Ballet and Philharmonic, the powers-that-be scrapped the old entities entirely, hoping to recreate more viable institutions. The new Kansas City Ballet’s first season fulfilled its supporters’ promises; although not playing to full houses yet, there is now a ballet company of the first rank in Kansas City.
Whether we will have a major symphony orchestra remains to be seen. Much has been written of the demise of the Philharmonic, but the reasons for its failure are not all clear. We can only trust that a new symphony, better managed and of a higher caliber, will be developed and nourished here soon.
After years of “family entertainment” shows and musicals that played to ever-dwindling numbers, Starlight is adding rock and country shows to its roster, the popularity of which will no doubt determine its survival (still in doubt, as this article goes to press).
And, as it approaches its 50th anniversary next year without a permanent director and other key personnel, the Nelson Gallery finds itself in the midst of a major shake-up that may finally, as one employee there recently noted, “bring it into the 20th century.”
As the large institutions shake in their foundations, many smaller arts groups watch nervously, worried that the city’s failure to be supportive of the mainstream art organizations bodes ominously for the art scene in general.
“I think we’re all in trouble now,” Craig Subler, director of the UMKC Gallery of ARt recently commented. “If a city this size lets an organization like the Philharmonic fall by the wayside, what does that mean for the smaller organizations?”
It is ironic that at a time when there is something of interest going on in the arts day and night, attendance at many arts events is decidedly lackluster. Besides the Philharmonic and Starlight, the Folly Theater is struggling to build its audience. The excellent Missouri Repertory Theater should be playing to full houses but is not. Except for openings, most of the art galleries are noticeably lacking in visitors – not to mention collectors – and admission to them costs nothing. The economy alone cannot be blamed for poor ticket sales, because the ballpark continues to pack them in. Quality is undoubtedly a factor in the success of arts programming but, as it has been duly noted, the Philharmonic never played better than in its last season.
There ire success stories of course. Cynthia Siebert’s Friends of Chamber Music Series has grown appreciably, and the Theater League is holding its own. But no city can be truly great if its major cultural organizations are not thriving.
One hopes the arts in this city are merely enduring necessary growing pains, reaching for greatness while struggling for survival. But more decisive leadership, too often lacking in the past, is clearly needed if our institutions are to survive, much less grow.
John Lottes, appointed by the Mayor to head the Philharmonic Task Force, has the distinction of directing one of the few art organization s in the city that landed squarely in the black this year. As president of the Kansas City Art Institute for the last twelve years, he has seen the total annual support for the Institute grow from $128,000 in 1970 to $1,250,000 this year, with 21% increase from the private sector in 1982. Yet Lottes remembers that in the 1960s the Institute was floundering so badly the Board of Directors considered selling it to the University of Missouri (a fate that had earlier befallen the Conservatory of Music).
Lottes, a former Minnesotan, considered leaving Kansas City earlier this year to accept a post as president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. he chose to remain in Kansas City. One of the deciding factors was the quality of KCAI, and his belief in the major role it plays in the city.
Lottes is aware that the support of arts activity in Kansas City is frequently compared, unfavorably, to that of Minneapolis. Although the two cities are of comparable size, he common prejudice is that Minneapolis has a decisive edge over Kansas City as far as public support of the arts. While it is true that Minneapolis has more “Fortune 500” companies than does Kansas City, Lottes feels that strong corporate backing for the arts is not the only reason Minneapolis has the more vital art scene.
“They do a fabulous job of getting the word ‘art’ in front of the public there,” he points out, a situation that has not developed in Kansas City. Nevertheless, he cautions, “We shouldn’t be asking ourselves why aren’t we like Minneapolis or Dallas; why can’t we be like Kansas City?” Lottes expects the Kansas City Arts Council, of which he is the new president, to become increasingly effective in its promotion of the overall arts scene. But, like many others, he thinks that state and federal support for the arts is going to dwindle and the alternate funding sources must be developed. Kansas City may not have the corporate wealth of a city like Minneapolis, he observes, but there is much personal wealth here. “I guess I’m simple minded; I believe there is enough money in this town to do things well if the right person is doing the programming.
“New audiences can be build here,” Lottes insists. He recounts the story of KCAI’s Renaissance Festival, begun in 1977 against considerable opposition. Its audience has grown each year, and last year the festival generated $155,000 in income for the Institute.
“I think we’re going to start seeing a second generation of wealthy people opening up in Kansas City,” Lottes says. “The leaders of our institutions have an obligation to ‘build’ these people, one by one – it doesn’t happen by accident. And it has to happen on the professional level and the trustee level,” he adds, crediting much of the success of the Art Institute to an active Board.
On the positive side, Lottes observes that “foundation giving is becoming more complex here. The Mid-Continent Clearinghouse for the Arts is starting to have some positive impact and the Hallmark Foundation is really prepared to help this city become an important city.”
Nevertheless, Lottes is aware that the general public, what he calls the “critical mass,” is missing in Kansas City, as is the individual leadership necessary to inspire it.
“I think one of the serious problems of the sixties and seventies was the question of elitism in the arts,” Lottes says. “I think the arts are elitist, but not in the sense that you have to have money to enjoy them; taste is elitist in the sense that it requires education.” Taste must be cultivated, Lottes explains, by the leaders in the community. “I lay the challenge to the people running the institutions,” Lottes concludes; “it is our job to get the people through our doors.”
In her three years as Associate Director of the Kansas City Arts Council, Elizabeth Kennedy has found that many people do not get involved in the arts here “because they’re never asked.” She thinks this is changing: “Arts groups are finally learning about PR and marketing – what anybody selling a bar of soap knows. The number of new professionals in Kansas City (at the Lyric, Nelson, Ballet and others) is amazing and more arts organizations are experiencing quite a changeover in their Boards and the expectations of the Board members.”
Active recruitment of corporate support must become a key goal of these boards, kennedy feels, if their arts groups are to survive. With a few noticeable exceptions (e.g. Hallmark) corporate support for the arts has never been generous in Kansas City, and the Arts Council would like to change that.
“A lot of business people think that ‘not-for-profit’ means geared to lose money,” Kennedy explains. “They choose to look at arts organizations as poorly managed businesses. They assume if you’re an artist you can’t balance your checkbook.”
To change these attitudes the Arts Council sponsored the first Business/Arts Awards this year. Thirty-six companies, large and small, were honored for outstanding service to the arts at a luncheon which should become an annual event. A three-month promotion with American Express (which turned over $2 to the arts every time a new card was issued here, and 10 cents whenever a card was used) also helped raise corporate consciousness.
To make the arts more visible to the community, the Council has received a major grant to coordinate a four-to-six months long arts festival sometime in 1983. A joint video project to produce local programs with the Art Institute and UMKC will also begin in September.
Kennedy feels that the various arts groups must learn to cooperate and plan more joint projects. Establishing a network among the arts groups and their assorted egos could be the council’s most significant accomplishment. “It took us a while to gain the trust of the arts groups,” Kennedy admits. “A few years ago you couldn’t bleed a mailing list from anyone in this town. Many of our fifty board members (all drawn from the arts) didn’t even know each other before our first meeting.”
That is changing. The council regularly schedules lunches for fundraisers and developers, and an internal calendar enables arts organizations to schedule performances cooperatively.
Kennedy is aware these are only the beginnings. In the meantime, the Council is compiling a demographic profile of arts groups in the city to be released this Fall. The profile may help determine why there is no “critical mass” in Kansas City, and what can be done about it.