Public art is a large component of the thriving Kansas City art scene. As an artist who works in three-dimensional media, I have always sought exposure to public art. Through a public art special topics class at UMKC, I was told of an internship opportunity in public art administration. From late February through early November 2017, I had the pleasure of working for the Art in the Loop Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Downtown Council of Kansas City.
Since its launch in 2004, Art in the Loop has strived to keep public art a vibrant presence in this city. The program encourages visitors, residents, and artists to interact with public space in meaningful ways through the annual commission of temporary art installations and performances in Downtown KC. While working as an arts intern, I witnessed the advocacy work of Art in the Loop, including the appeal to city leaders and business owners to take stronger notice of the arts and offer meaningful financial support to bring new art to the city. I experienced reactions of curiosity and appreciation toward these temporary public art pieces, by both visitors and residents. I have gained valuable insight into the complicated process of choosing and implementing public art, and how that process differs with temporary vs. permanent art. I was able to participate in implementation of indoor and outdoor art, in settings of stillness and frantic movement, across a wide range of media. When challenges arise, administrators work alongside artists to solve problems and uphold the integrity of both the artists’ work and its intended impact. Artists are encouraged to create work that expands their scope of practice. Most importantly, the foundation facilitates community engagement, and connections among artists, visitors, residents, workers, city leaders, financial supporters, and arts support organizations.
Each year, sites are chosen for selected projects, largely through partnerships with various city organizations. Supporters include KC Streetcar, City Market, KC Public Library, Missouri Arts Council, the City of Kansas City, Missouri, and Arts KC, as well as many corporate entities. It was a privilege to experience the selection process for the 2017 project, called “Cue!”. I noticed that proposals were accepted (or not), based on several factors, including their fit with the proposed site. Other considerations included safety, durability, risk of vandalism, plausibility of budget proposals, degree of potential polarization/family-friendliness, and aesthetic appeal. The foundation most values art that is informed by and exemplifies the chosen theme, and that strongly engages the public in imaginative ways. The artists selected for 2017 work in performance, street art, video, illustration, sculpture, fibers, photography, and writing; in fact, many of the works crossed multiple disciplines. The sites chosen for 2017 included KC Streetcar stop shelters, Smart City kiosks, City Market Park, and KC Central Library.
Art on the Line
Art selected for the KC Streetcar, streetcar stops, and kiosks was tailored to the busy atmosphere of the city, the quick movement of people on and off the streetcar, and the relatively short amount of time spent at streetcar stops. Artist Barry Anderson created a video installation called Totemic Persona, which appeared on Smart City kiosks along the streetcar route (Figure 1). This work illustrated two common tendencies found in public art: site-responsiveness and encouragement of community cohesion. The video was composed of an ever-moving collage of eyes collected from short video recordings of KC-area residents. It is meant to portray a multi-dimensional, collective portrait of the city. As workers and visitors moved along the route, they could catch intermittent 8-second clips of the video. The program curator, Jessica Borusky, encouraged Anderson to stretch the reach of the installation by including still images from the video, which were installed as partially-transparent vinyl prints on-board the streetcars and on the Metro Center northbound stop shelter (Figure 2). The still images served as works of interest independently, but also drew increased attention to the kiosks.
Sarah Wilkison created an installation that was site-responsive and achieved a sense of common experience for residents, especially runners, while also commemorating significant events in KC history. Run the Town: A Civic Trail was a 4-mile running trail, starting from a Trailhead located at the River Market West streetcar stop (Figure 3). This piece consisted of illustration, sculpture, and audience immersion simultaneously. Star collaborated with fellow artist Sonya Andrews to produce course signs with playfully historic digital illustrations that marked each turn on the trail (Figure 4). Prompted by the illustrations, participants could jog past buildings of interest and learn about historical happenings relevant to the River Market area and Downtown KC. Before the signs were in place, I was able to see the artist’s process of modification, as she negotiated installation details with KC Streetcar, public works officials, and printing companies. Wilkison increased the public impact of the installation by organizing several group runs, in partnership with local running clubs. In addition, she designed wooden finisher’s medals for course participants.
The activity surrounding the streetcar was cleverly embraced through a performance piece, choreographed and directed by artist Jon Michael Johnson, titled Cue!. This dance/motion performance took place on-board the KC Streetcar, and was designed to evolve and expand in response to the sounds of the streetcar and its riders, including bells, announcements, and laughter (Figure 5). Through the confluence of the movements of four separate dancers into one moving being, the audience was challenged to appreciate that, despite our differences, we all have common responses to the cues of everyday life. What I appreciated about this project, aside from it being strongly site-specific, was the unique way in which the artist chose to represent community connection via shared experience. It was rewarding to see the reactions of streetcar riders change from confusion to fascination, and ultimately to understanding, as the performance progressed.
In contrast to installations that embrace the movement surrounding the streetcar, emerging mural artist J. T. Daniels chose to create work that was focused on the pause in that activity: waiting at a stop for the streetcar to arrive. Daniels creates vibrant, engaging murals with layers of detail and multi-cultural references, including variations in face, dress, and language. For Art in the Loop, he proposed Wait Here, a digital re-creation of a painting, installed as a vinyl graphic image on the Power & Light southbound KC Streetcar stop shelter (Figure 6). Streetcar patrons were invited to compare the details they noticed within the intricate image: How many faces are there? How many words? What do the symbols mean? How do these people relate to each other? Daniels hoped the image would act as a catalyst to create connections between people who might not otherwise interact.
Wait Here encouraged the interruption of routine, a frequent intent among works of public art. Two other selected artists’ projects had a similar focus. The streetcar shelter near the KC Public Library Central Library exhibited a crosswalk sign with the silhouette of a clown in motion- an introduction to the part-installation, part-performance piece Silly Walkways, by artist Beth Byrd-Lonski. Inspired by the Monty Python Flying Circus skit “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” special “silly” signs directed the public around the corner to a unique crosswalk near the Library parking garage, where they were encouraged to lighten up and walk silly across the street. Several times over the summer, Byrd-Lonski appeared as clown Clarity Brown, to lead groups in silly walking (Figure 7). Clarity Brown and several clown friends demonstrated imaginative movement and encouraged passersby to join them. Through conversations with the artist, I was able to understand her motivations for creating this multi-faceted work. She wanted to “reclaim clown”, to counteract the common fearful reaction to clowns. Moreover, this reclamation involved reminding people that clowns are fun, friendly, and give us permission to break out of the mundane cadence of daily routine.
The other work along the streetcar route aimed at interruption of routine was Don’t Wait, Get Lost, installed and performed by Shelby Burchett. The artist shared with the selection committee her memories of yearning to touch interesting art as a child. As a result, she now creates tactile-oriented, often multi-sensorial, work. For Don’t Wait, Get Lost, she added a faux-fur bench cover, fuzzy pillows, and an Astroturf mat to the Union Station streetcar stop (Figure 8). She included a performative element by leading public interaction with these objects, as well as a large basin of squishy scented orbs. The objects offered the public a distraction from waiting. Burchett uses these interactions as a point of entry into conversations with people about art, and as an invitation to explore their curiosity. Unfortunately, I learned from this project that vandalism can be a significant challenge with public art. Shortly after the artist’s main performance near Union Station, all components within the streetcar shelter were stolen. More positively, there was an incredibly supportive response to Burchett’s performance, which led to an invitation to install her tactile work at the City Market solar eclipse party.
Collaborators Lauren Thompson and Jeff Evrard also faced challenges with the conception and installation of Then & Now: Faces of KC. The artists planned to create a photographic work with an altered-perception component, by adhering vertical sections of large photographic prints to fence pickets. The photographs would only be viewed as complete images when the viewer reached a specific angle while walking past the fence. From one direction, the viewer saw cultural icons from the city’s past, including women’s fashion pioneer Nelly Donnelly, former mayor Elijah Milton McGee, and “speakeasy” entrepreneur Tom Pendergast. After passing the fence, that viewer could turn back to view corresponding images of residents who are currently making their mark on city history, including Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer, owner of Rightfully Sewn; Mayor Sly James; and Ryan Maybee, restauranteur and part-owner of the Rieger Hotel. Challenges with this project included a change of site, coordination of multiple city and streetcar personnel, and trial-and-error in the execution of the intended optical effect. The artists originally chose an existing fence in the downtown area; however, it was always in the shade, wasn’t visible from the streetcar, and was in a low foot-traffic area. All involved parties worked to find an alternate site, opting for an undeveloped corner directly across from the River Market North streetcar stop (Figure 9). The artists adjusted the project to the new site, and adjusted their budget to include the purchase of two sections of fencing. This installation was ultimately successful for several reasons. First, the artists were able to modify their project to achieve a more impactful presentation. Next, the installation highlighted local historical figures. Finally, the comparison of past and present triggered viewers to consider how leadership roles have evolved over time in Kansas City.
Art at the Library
In contrast with art proposed for streetcar-related sites, public art within a library requires a quieter, more intimate approach. Performance-based art continued its strong presence at the KC Central Library, through works from artists Jeramy Zimmerman, Hema Sharma, and Annette Billings. Zimmerman engaged the public with a site-specific dance performance. Inscribed explored the cues we receive from literature which influence our societal beliefs and actions (Figure 10). Dancers moved from a reading table to pick out books from the shelves. The topic of each book then prompted individual reactions from each dancer as they moved through the open spaces of the library. It was interesting to witness how the performers utilized not only the spaces, but the specific purpose of those spaces, culminating in a shared audience experience when the dance became an all-inclusive, kinetic expression of stories. The Central Library also hosted two types of traditional Indian dance, performed by Hema Sharma with three accompanying dancers: dance painting, or chitra natyam, and Vrikshasan: Where Is Your Back?. These performances exemplified a type of public art intentionally designed to be socially challenging. Both dances cued the audience to contemplate endangered species preservation and environmental responsibility (Figure 11). In addition to the dance-oriented works, Annette Billings engaged the public through Places!, an inspirational reading of original prose and poetry (Figure 12). Billings thoughtfully draws from her own professional and personal experiences, as well as those of her broader community, to interpret life events and fears we all share. Some of the poems represented a form of memorial to lost loved ones, while others encouraged audience members to become catalysts of societal change toward acceptance, inclusion, and equality. It was striking to see how many people stopped to listen to the artist’s captivating style of prose, who then stayed after the performance to talk with Billings about their own, similar experiences, or to share which poems most resonated with them.
Art in the Park
City Market Park, in the River Market neighborhood, housed four of the 2017 installations. This site necessitated art that was appropriate for outdoor installation, durable enough to last through summer heat and wind, and accommodating to those using the park. City Market and city government personnel hoped for works that would enhance the experience of park users, in terms of respite, play, interaction, or education about the area. To this end, fiber artist Maria Ogedengbe created Fancy This, a sailboat with colorful sails of traditional batik-inspired design, placed intentionally to cue attention to the nearby Missouri River (Figure 13). This installation offered a mental break for some park users, and an invitation to imaginative play for others. It also became a popular backdrop for selfies, and one marriage proposal. I was able to learn from this artist, who dealt with a weather-related problem when the installation was hit by a microburst, causing the mast to dislodge from the boat and break in half. She quickly set a new mast, of stronger material, and buried it in the ground to help prevent more weather-related damage.
The tendency toward public art that could encourage either rest or playful interaction continued with Breathe, a large-scale Corten steel sculpture by Beth Nybeck. This work is a geometric representation of a human head, partially submerged in the ground near the center of the park, with perforations of varying size over its surface (Figure 14). The artist’s original intent was like that of Daniels’s Wait Here: to cue engagement during moments of pause, for reflection or relaxation, in a setting specifically designed for that purpose. I soon noticed that the sculpture also became an object of play. The artist commented that she enjoyed seeing people explore the surfaces of the work, notice the play of light through the perforations, climb around the facets, or sit to have lunch.
Similar to the intent of Fancy This, Monica Dixon’s Cloud Canopy created an inviting place for rest, or escape from busy-ness, within the park. Cloud Canopy consisted of multi-colored pieces of nylon and Repreve, a material made from recycled plastic bottles, strung within the trees on one side of the park. These fragments merged with passing clouds and swayed with the tree branches in the breeze, creating a serene experience for viewers (Figure 15). This piece was Dixon’s first large-scale, outdoor installation. She achieved deeper connections between her art and the public by leading a series of guided meditations, held weekly under the installation. Thus, she further extended the scope of her practice, akin to the cross-disciplinary work of Burchett’s Don’t Wait, Get Lost, Anderson’s Totemic Persona, Wilkison’s Run the Town, and Byrd-Lonski’s Silly Walkways.
Along with Run the Town: A Civic Trail and Then & Now: Faces of KC, Chris Dahlquist’s The History Vendor engaged the audience with city history in a fun, interactive way. The History Vendor represents another effective site-responsive work of public art, which commemorates aspects of city history, and spurs the public to reflect on the changing urban environment. Dahlquist modified three vintage vending machines to dispense cards that featured historic photographs of the City Market area along with interesting anecdotes about the people who once lived and worked in each setting. Park visitors were invited into a history scavenger hunt, with maps that directed them to vantage points for present-day comparison (Figure 16). Dahlquist also dealt with unexpected complications during the time her work was in place, including the need to make almost-daily trips to refill the machines, and removal an infestation of ants from within one of the machines.
During my internship, I was able to develop other skills valuable to the administrative aspects of public art. These include reviewing proposals, negotiating contracts, coordinating multiple bureaucratic entities, communicating with artists and art audiences, promotion of art events, and writing for art blogs and an annual program catalog. I also enjoyed meeting numerous people within the Kansas City arts community, which illuminated the enormous amount of support available to KC artists.
My experience with Art in the Loop has solidified by belief in the importance of public art, including commissions for temporary art. Public art is fun, educational, attracts visitors to the city, and enriches the daily lives of area residents. These works expand our scope of experience and inspire not only contemplation, but also action. I cannot overstate the value of my experience with the artist selection process, how and why proposals were modified, and factors that influenced the success or challenges of different works of art. These are considerations that might not have otherwise been part of my artistic process. Any local artist can take a cue from the 2017 Art in the Loop projects: to engage on a deeper level with city residents and visitors, and to interact with fellow Kansas City artists and arts supporters. Every artist’s practice can be enriched by taking advantage of the opportunities available through this foundation, be it a commission for art to be shown over a summer, or an administration internship. Here, artists can grow their body of work in new directions, face and overcome new challenges, and interact with new people and environments.
Art in the Loop releases a call for art proposals each year in January, offering stipends up to $5000. Annual internships are advertised starting in December and begin in late February. Watch for the announcement in April of the projects selected for the 2018 program, titled “KC Plays!”. For more information about Art in the Loop projects or internship opportunities, contact Ann Holliday, program director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.artintheloop.com.
Stacey Sharpe is an artist and graduate of the UMKC Department of Art and Art History, who completed an arts administration internship with Art in the Loop in November 2017. She currently lives and works in the Kansas City area.
Links to Artist Websites
Barry Anderson http://www.barryanderson.com
Annette Billings http://anetfullofhope.com/
Shelby Burchett www.goo-witching.com
Beth Byrd-Lonski byrdproductions.org
Chris Dahlquist www.chrisdahlquist.com
J.T. Daniels www.jtdanielsart.com
Monica Dixon monicajdixon.com
Jon Michael Johnson https://www.facebook.com/situinc/
Beth Nybeck www.bethnybeck.com
Maria Ogedengbe http://www.mariaurora.net
Hema Sharma www.nritya.org
Lauren Thompson/Jeff Evrard www.jeffevrardphotography.com
Jeramy Zimmerman www.catscratchtheatre.org