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WHAT CRISIS? Kansas City bucks national odds with ever-new, ever-fresh arts groups

If there really is a crisis in the performing arts in America, somebody forgot to send Kansas City the memo. In the past decade, our city has seen the formation of dozens of small non-profit organizations, from theater companies to chamber ensembles, dance groups to jazz orchestras, choruses to opera companies. And there’s no reason to believe this momentum is going to slow.

Trilla Ray-Carter

“Kansas City is Unique with a capital U,” said Trilla Ray-Carter, whose Kansas City Baroque Consortium presents its third season this summer. “There’s an artistic mood, an environment, a consciousness that’s been established,” she said. Not just through supportive city and state leadership but by generous foundations, corporations, and individuals. “In other cities, most ‘small dreamers’ are intimidated by what it would take,” said Trilla, who moved from Los Angeles (where she could have made a living performing with one of that city’s early-music ensembles) to form her own group here. “But here there is support and encouragement and recognition: ‘Give it a try, see if you can make it work!’ And I think that’s what makes Kansas City quite remarkable.”

These organizations are not vain flights of fancy. The formation of a 501(c)3 is such a rigorous activity that it requires artists to engage in a thorough soul-searching. Despite this, about once a month some new group steps up and announces it’s open for business. This spring and summer, for example, you’ll see presentations by recently formed groups such as the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Kansas City Public Theatre, the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, NAVO Arts, the Midwest Chamber Ensemble, Choral Spectrum, and no fewer than two opera companies (Opera180 and Landlocked Opera).

Pablo Sanhueza is flanked by musicians of the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra / Photo by Cynthia Ammerman

Why Kansas City? “One of the reasons why you have a lot of great new small arts organizations is that you have some really creative, imaginative people here,” said Don Dagenais, a senior counsel at Lathop Gage who has served on multiple boards and provided pro bono services to at least two dozen local groups wading through the complexities of 501(c)3 forms. “And they think the best way to express themselves is to go out and do it on their own.”

Don is meticulous in schooling groups in the types of things that potential donors are looking at: Hone your goals, have a business plan, and make sure you’re filling a niche that isn’t already filled. “You’re not going to get people to serve on your Board unless you have a practical grasp on what you want to do,” he said. “People don’t want to waste their time on pipe dreams.”

Still, he is continually amazed at how many of these groups thrive. “Artists are entrepreneurs, and … they come up with things that they can do, and do well.” He pointed to the Owen/Cox Dance Group, the family effort of choreographer Jennifer Owen and composer Brad Cox that seemed like a long shot in 2007. “They were just two enthusiastic young people who wanted to do quality work,” Don said. “And they’ve built audiences and they’ve raised money … and they’ve now become, if not an icon, a major part of the arts scene in Kansas City. And they do wonderful work.”

Kansas City Public Theatre’s ‘Medea’

Some of the new groups do indeed continue to find unfilled niches. When Jackson Thomas formed KC VITAs in 2015, he knew that KC was oversaturated with choirs. “So we narrowed and defined our mission,” he said, “to give the limelight to young and developing composers.” The choir was astonished when its first concert drew 400 people, and it has survived not only because of artistic excellent but also because it has “continued to improve the way the board works,” Jackson said, “to show we’re being good stewards with donations.” Apparently, the word is getting out: These days KC VITAs finds itself inundated with hundreds of submissions from composers around the world. “We have had to kind of prove ourselves, show that we are serious, that we are not just a drop in the pan.”

For Michael Patch, the trickiest part of forming Choral Spectrum was not that it was an LGBTQIA-friendly choir but that it needed lots of singers and a solid fiscal plan. Distinct from Heartland Men’s Chorus and the KC Women’s Chorus in that it performs SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) music, the choir has grown to 25 singers in a year, but even that has been a challenge.

Choral Spectrum / Photo by Heidi Gilmore

“It’s not just, ‘As long as I have a canvas or a paint brush, I can do my art,’ ” Michael said. “It’s getting an entire ensemble to commit and sing the music and perform it to an audience. It’s just a very scary thing … to build something from scratch.” Essential to the group’s mission is identifying the target audience. “It’s about finding the community, and finding a way to be part of the community,” Michael said, “and being as one with the community.”

In theater, some of the new groups find they can thrive on the edges of “established” theater, often with free shows in unconventional spaces. “You can go to the Nelson for free, and you can go to a library for free, but good luck going to a theater for free,” said Nathan Bowman, who together with his wife, Elizabeth Bettendorf Bowman, formed Kansas City Public Theatre in 2018. In addition to staged performances, the group has been presenting a monthly “Theatre Lab” at Uptown Arts Bar. Providing theater free of charge is critical to the group’s mission, according to Nathan. “If we really believe that there is a transformative power, … a communal good to performing live theater, then we need to take down those barriers so that people from all socio-economic backgrounds can have access to it.”

Opera180 performed Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! earlier this season

Offbeat spaces are also a hallmark of Opera180, whose founders, Nate Wheatley and Sadie DeSantis, believe that opera has strayed from its origins as an intimate art. Last year the company offered a mixed-rep performance called “Bon Operatit” at the tiny SqueezeBox Theatre, and it is now working on an abridged and stripped-down La Bohème to be performed at Weinberger Fine Art. Nate wants to see opera performed “at arm’s length,” he said: almost literally, considering the tiny venues the company intends to use. “What we’re offering is an experience in intimacy and access.”

Occasionally a group pops up that appears to be new but is actually a rebranding and/or a revitalization of an existing non-profit. Kansas City Contemporary Dance, the dance company formerly known as Kacico but now boasting new artistic direction and new dancers, prides itself not just for its emphasis on women dancers and choreographers (with programs such as the upcoming “Through Her Eyes”), but also on its presence as a hundred-percent local “product.” Led by Leigh Murray, KCCD rehearses year-round and thus has no need to fly guest artists in from larger cities, something few smaller local companies can say. “We are composed entirely of Kansas City residents,” said company member Caroline Morales, “people who live and work and raise their families here.”

Kansas City Contemporary Dance

Sometimes, too, non-profits are formed from existing institutions that simply wish to grow or evolve. Chilean-born percussionist Pablo Sanhueza and his KC Latin Jazz All-Stars have been playing monthly gigs at the Blue Room since 2003, but it was not until last year that he and Executive Director Cynthia Ammerman formed a 501(c)3 to further the cultural outreach and educational mission of the ensemble. Pablo has devoted his life’s work to performing and teaching Latin jazz, and as a non-profit the new Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra (KCLJO) can “formalize the work it’s doing for the public good on a broader scale,” Cynthia said.

Once an organization grows to the point at which it can apply for foundation or government grants (usually after the third year of successful operation) it can move into the next sphere. ArtsKC and the Missouri Arts Council are often the first groups that help new local non-profits establish legitimacy: After a group has been granted even small amounts from those bodies, it can begin approaching larger foundations, private and corporate donors, and eventually such agencies as the “big kahuna,” the National Endowment for the Arts. When successful, these grants lend a legitimacy that can begin a snowball effect, according to Don: especially within Kansas City’s curious and generally well-informed funding community.

“I know many examples where private donors will say, ‘Well, I wasn’t so sure about this outfit, but I see now they’ve got a Missouri Arts Council grant and they’ve even got an NEA grant, so they must be pretty good.’ So they start giving them money, and can that unleash … lots of private donations.”

Naturally not all of these startups will get past year three or four: The ones that do survive will generally be the most artistically viable and meticulously thought-out. “You can’t have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas,” as the late Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling used to say. In the end, artists need to follow their passions, and it is in all of our interests to encourage and support as many of these ventures as the local economy can support.

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

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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