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SPREADING OUR WINGS: ‘Open Spaces’ charts international course for KC arts

If you haven’t heard of Open Spaces yet, chances are you’ll be getting an earful in the coming weeks. This sprawling, nine-week celebration of the visual and performing arts, which runs from August 25th to October 28th, will be dominating the city’s cultural scene this Fall with dozens of exhibits around Town (showing the work of artists from all parts of the globe); live indoor and outdoor performances by leading popular, classical and avant-garde performers; and a gigantic list of already scheduled presentations by new and established arts groups in the area.

Janelle Monáe / Photo courtesy of Open Spaces

Also in the mix is a weekend at Starlight Theatre featuring artists such as Janelle Monáe, The Roots, Vijay Iyer and the Colombian dance company Sankofa Danzafro (from October 12th through the 14th), and performances throughout the city by international ensembles such as Eighth Blackbird, Bang on Can All-Stars (with the Kansas City Chorale) and ETHEL. In addition are poetry readings, mixed-media programs, concerts of chamber music and jazz, and a variety of activities for children and young people.

The goal of this still-expanding arts “festival,” said internationally renowned curator Dan Cameron, is no less than to draw attention to Kansas City as a national and international arts destination. Organizers are thinking big, really big. Open Spaces is designed as “a signature event that focuses on culture and on artistic creation in different genres,” Dan said. It strives not just to inspire civic pride and ownership but to bring artists and audiences from around the globe. And Dan is the man: the arts entrepreneur has helped launch dozens of successful biennials and exhibitions, from New York to Madrid, from New Orleans to Beijing.

Open Spaces is our moment to open Kansas City up to the world,” said Mayor Sly James in an enthusiastic statement on the website www.openspaceskc.com. “We have the talent, vision, and support to do it. It’s time to show the world what Kansas City has to offer. We are America’s ‘Creative Crossroads’—the beating heart of innovation and artistic expression. Our community has deep roots in the arts, giving birth to modern jazz, providing a home to literary giants and world-class museums and performing arts venues. The city and its philanthropic community have supported development of major arts institutions and citywide beautification through public art, fountains and memorials. It’s on the foundation of that rich cultural heritage that we bring the next chapter of Kansas City’s artistic development. And it starts with Open Spaces.”

Sankofa Danzafro / Photo by Sergio González Alvarez

If Open Spaces begins to sound a bit like a cross between a biennial (such as that in Venice) and a performing-arts “festival,” that’s because it is actually intended to be both, sort of. And while it hasn’t officially been announced as a biennial, that is certainly a long-term goal, and it’s one of the reasons why the New York-based Dan Cameron was brought into a planning field that already included the City’s Office of Cultural and Creative Services (Megan Crigger, director) and a circle of private philanthropists and foundations led by Scott Francis and Susan Gordon.

The private-public partnership that evolved—essentially two ideas fused into one giant “party”—was ultimately conceived to “use the city as a sort of big tapestry,” Dan said, “where art takes root in certain places and flourishes.” One of those spaces is The Village in Swope Park, a main hub being constructed to host exhibitions, performances, and special events each weekend through the festival.

The City’s initial plan, growing from a Task Force for the Arts formed in 2013, was to focus on a single live performing-arts weekend. At the same time, Scott and colleagues were thinking in terms of a vast visual arts project, which had been inspired partly by Scott’s attendance at the now-legendary documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany in 2002—often cited as one of the defining moments in the history of contemporary art. Begun in 1955 and held every five years, documenta has become a go-to experience for artists and art-lovers, and over the years it has helped put a quaint, formerly sleepy town (sound familiar?) on the international map. “It’s been a huge success for Kassel in so many ways,” Scott said, “and has really led to the rebirth of the city as a major cultural center.”

Path-forging string quartet ETHEL / Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien

Think back, for a moment, at what Kansas City looked like in 2002: Enormous investments were being made toward developing the Crossroads District, Union Station had just been renovated to its former magnificence, and in May of that year architect Moshe Safdie was selected to design what would become the Kauffman Center. Soon afterward, the City and private concerns began building the Sprint Center and the Kansas City Power & Light District, and eventually the National World War I Museum and Memorial reopened in resplendent glory. People moved downtown in droves, high-end condos became commonplace, and suddenly a formerly ragtag, even scary central Kansas City was “cool” again.

It was a fertile period, Scott said, to start imagining ways that the arts could become both a “revitalizing agent” and a means of drawing attention to the City. “That’s when it really hit me: Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something for Kansas City in this vein,” Scott said, waxing on his experience at documenta 11 (which was the first in this event’s history to be curated by a non-white, non-“Western” director, Nigerian art historian Okwui Enwezor). “A citywide signature arts festival, to showcase the ‘state of the arts,’ to make a cultural statement.”

And Scott added, with a laugh: “I’ve been talking to people off and on about different aspects of this, and it was only 15 years before it finally got traction.” It was Dan’s task to try to merge the City’s plans and Scott’s efforts into an all-encompassing vision. And while the initial publicity for Open Spaces might appear to focus on The Exhibition (showing work of more than 100 visual artists in known and less-known venues), organizers have worked hard recently to inject life into the performing-arts aspect with The Village (a wide variety of events at Swope Park Band Stand), The Weekend (the Starlight Theatre concert), and The Expanded Field (collaborations with new and existing visual and performing-arts groups).

“What I’d like to see is Open Spaces become a kind of ‘armature,’ where it evolves and you can build on top of it,” Scott said, “featuring things that have local roots, but also things with national and international perspectives that can marry those different elements. We need a signature event for the City.” Considering that Kansas City has invested over a billion dollars in arts infrastructure over the last 20 years, it’s time to tap into that. “The City has evolved,” said Scott, who together with the Francis Family Foundation has been a prime motivator of this evolution. “This is an effort to change the perception, to let the world know how much we’ve invested in the arts, and the kind of sophistication that we have built.”

The Roots / Courtesy of Open Spaces

Just how do the performing arts fit into all this? Dan was careful to note that Open Spaces by no means wants to tread on the activities of existing performing arts organizations. A substantial number of those, in fact, are listed in the Open Spaces program guide under the category of The Expanded Field. (Thus in a very real sense, nearly everything going on in KC arts through October 28th is part of Open Spaces.) At the same time, he has noticed there might be “a very considerable untapped audience in Kansas City specifically for the avant garde.

Open Spaces has therefore gone out of its way to include contributions from cutting-edge and “globally focused” area groups such as newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Ensemble Ibérica, The People’s Liberation Big Band of KC and Fishtank Theatre. Dan conceded that the tension between “old and new” that exists in concert music and to some extent among theater companies (whose mix of historical works and “the new” is not so much to their detriment as it is a part of their raison d’être) stands in marked contrast to the perspective from the art world, where “the new” forms the essence of what most people pay attention to.

“For better or worse, what is considered the ‘art market,’ and much of museum practice, is predicated on what’s being made today—or if not today, at least things in current memory, things that have been going on since people today have been alive. So basically, anything from the last 75 years is fair game, and that represents 95 percent of art as we know it, as presented in arts institutions.”

Eighth Blackbird / Courtesy of Open Spaces

In contrast, he said, performing arts in general have taken a more cautious approach to the avant garde, “under the belief that people’s tolerance level for dissonance, for experimentation, for the post-modern in general, is very limited. That you can only try to do so much of it, and if you do more you’ll threaten your subscriber base.” But Dan believes the interest is out there, despite box-office jitters. “There’s a sense of caution about whether there is an audience out there for the music of today, for example. I’m basically saying: Well, let’s take a gamble!”

To be sure, analogies between visual art and the performing arts are complex and can be misleading: Live performance often involves a fresh reinterpretation of classics, in which each restaging of Madama Butterfly is in a sense a completely new opera. Art museums can do little to “change” a classic Caravaggio other than shift the light around (or place it in the context of other works).

Part of Dan’s point, though, is that the music and theater and opera of past centuries is already well-covered in Kansas City. (And to be fair, local performing-arts groups do attempt to engage the new along with the old.) One of the goals of Open Spaces is to further inspire newish performance ensembles, while at the same time to challenge established institutions to think about their seasons in innovative ways. “There’s now a generation of concertgoers and theatergoers who naturally embrace experimentation as part of their way of living and thinking,” Dan said. His hope is that Open Spaces becomes a home for these audiences, who indeed might not be engaged in what is already going on in Town.

KC Ballet’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ / Photo by Kenny Johnson

“It could be that they’re called a ‘creative demographic,’ or it could just be young people who are looking for a place to have a home, where they don’t feel like they have to go to New York or Chicago to get the wilder, more free-form, more demanding types of expression.” Dan believes that even among a more traditional KC public there may be “an untapped audience that Open Spaces will be able to pull out and nurture, by saying that everything that we’re presenting to you is new. … And if it is coming from the past, it’s probably an overlooked part of the past.”

One of the points of intersection between the traditional and the new might come in the series of “Salons” to be held each Thursday afternoon at the new 21c Museum Hotel. The lineup of panel discussions will range in topic from visual artists to composer Virgil Thomson, from Mary Lou Williams to Septime Weber’s Wizard of Oz, being presented by the Kansas City Ballet.

Scott underscored an ongoing desire for Open Spaces to align with activities already going on in Kansas City, in fact, adding that the speed with which this year’s festival was put together precluded much involvement from groups whose seasons were already in place. “Eventually we want to have all of the major organizations participating. We do have some in this ‘iteration,’ but we hope for even more in coming iterations of Open Spaces. I think it would be so great to have everyone participation and planning … so that they could all be a part of it.”

—Paul Horsley

For a full list of Open Spaces events and information about ticketed events, go to www.openspaceskc.org.

Photo of Bang on a Can All-Stars on top page by Peter Serling. 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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