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The pandemic was especially hard on Kansas City’s creative community, which operates on lean resources even in the best of times.
When performances were canceled and exhibits shut down, many artists turned to arts nonprofits for guidance and even survival. Meanwhile, those nonprofits worried about their own sustainability.
One such nonprofit is the Charlotte Street Foundation, which recognized the unique needs of artists long before the appearance of COVID-19.
“Our organization is focused on supporting individual artists, who are a group that often operates in a state of risk,” Executive Artistic Director Amy Kligman said.
Because many artists function at the whims of the gig economy — sans benefits or much in the way of job security — Charlotte Street offers relief such as grants and rent-free studio or rehearsal space for 12 to 24 months.
The goal has always been to enable artists to spend more time creating, displaying and selling their work. But pandemic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders made everything twice as difficult.
“For almost two years, all of our grant funds — which are typically distributed in merit- and project-based programs — were deferred to a new emergency fund called Rocket Relief, which provided around $385,000 in total grants to artists over the pandemic,” Kligman said.
The funding was a lifeline for some artists. One relief grantee used it to pay the mortgage after losing a job to the pandemic, Kligman said.
“It gave me a lot of hope to think folks were finding ways forward, despite all that was going on, and often by doing things that supported others in the community,” she said.
Pandemic prompts re-examination of creative success, social justice
Though arts groups were quick to redesign shows and exhibits with a virtual audience in mind, last year’s holiday season played out with stages and seats mostly empty.
“There is no doubt that the pandemic’s onslaught of challenges and setbacks from almost every direction was nothing short of brutal and relentless,” said Paul Schofer, president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the venue for many of Kansas City’s largest arts groups.
Schofer said the challenges forced his team to become more resilient and creative, with online performances, social media campaigns and even home-delivered meals from the Kauffman Center’s chef, Laura Comer.
“From my perspective it actually allowed us to redefine success in new and creative ways, reaching new audiences and forging new partnerships,” he said.
One inescapable pandemic lesson is that “there is no replacement for live performing arts experiences at this iconic venue,” Schofer said. And the Kauffman Center, like other theaters and venues, now has a packed schedule of new and rescheduled productions, with masks encouraged and vaccination cards or proof of negative COVID-19 tests required.
But many artists and arts groups are emerging into public view with different priorities, practices and mindsets than before the pandemic.
Dana Knapp, CEO of ArtsKC, thinks people became more creatively active in response to both the isolation and inspiration caused by the shutdowns.
“We have long known within our industry that arts and culture and creative expression are at the core of connectedness, wellness and the sense of community and identity,” she said.
Since its founding in 1999, ArtsKC has furnished artists and organizations with support in the form of grants and investments in projects that keep the Kansas City arts scene alive and accessible.
“We are seeing, as we move forward, a heightened awareness,” Knapp said, “and more interest from other sectors to reach out and ask how we can work together.”
Many area arts groups, large and small, saw drops in revenue during the pandemic as donors focused on basic services and ticket sales plummeted. Grants from foundations and loans from the federal government helped keep many groups afloat, and they leaned on one another.
“The arts industry is very close knit in our community and clearly demonstrated this in their strong support of each other over the last 18 months,” Schofer said. “For the Kauffman Center, our strategy for pulling through this challenging period of time was in large part based on staying closely connected with our patrons in new and creative ways while our stages were dark.”
Knapp also thinks the pandemic created more urgency to use creative expression as a catalyst for social justice, making the networks crafted by artists in Kansas City — and nationwide — that much more significant.
“How can we leverage the importance of our industry to maintain the momentum related to equity?” she asked. “How do we ensure we advance social justice issues around anti-racism and inclusion?”
The importance of public conversation, both virtual and face-to-face
Promoting unity and inclusion has been a goal for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. It was founded in 1984 to celebrate the work of Ailey, a Black dancer and activist, and uses dance to teach life skills to youths and erase racial and cultural barriers.
“Our organization was built on the foundation of racial equity,” CEO Melanie Miller said. “But how do we promote it in Kansas City?”
Part of the answer, she explained, has to do with public conversation.
In July 2020 — in the midst of the pandemic and weeks after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — KCFAA conceived a program called Courageous Conversations. Participants are encouraged to discuss awareness and growth in relation to race.
“We’ve looked at racism in Kansas City through a historical lens,” Miller said. “We’ve worked with members of the media to dispel stereotypical portrayals of people of color. It’s all about making things better.”
Like most other nonprofits, KCFAA had to adapt to the distinctive challenges brought on by COVID-19.
Its classes and summer AileyCamp for youths went virtual. Mid-pandemic, the organization launched virtual classes like Take 5 with Ty — a series of videos from Chief Artistic Officer Tyrone Aiken — that encouraged the community to tune in together and get moving.
KCFAA also offers a free hip-hop class on First Fridays.
“This summer, we moved it outdoors,” Miller said. “Our offices are on 18th and Vine, so when the streets get closed off, we’re out there right in front of the studio.”
‘The arts are just ingrained in Kansas City’
For one arts group, the pandemic had an unexpected upside.
Band of Angels collects unused musical instruments and distributes them to students in more than 60 school districts. Studies show that participation in band and orchestra programs improves self-discipline and leads to higher levels of creativity.
“The kids learn how to practice, but it’s not just about the ability to play the notes on the page,” Development Director Neil Robertson said. “There’s a social aspect involved. Grades go up, self-pride goes up.”
But many students are shut out from these opportunities because their families can’t afford instruments.
“There are plenty of times at the beginning of the school year in which an instrument salesperson has to have a difficult talk with parents,” Robertson said.
Many schools were closed in 2020. But people at home were looking around.
“People cleaned out their closets,” Robertson said. “We got more instruments in the first 12 months than ever before.”
Band of Angels holds several fundraising events each year, including Art That Blows, which features an auction of sculptures designed by artists using out-of-commission instruments.
In 2020, organizers took the event online, raising money for a scholarship program that sends kids to music camps around the country.
“The arts are just ingrained in Kansas City,” Robertson said.
That proved to be the case even in the worst of times. And, even with COVID cases still at high levels, many arts groups are looking ahead with optimism.
Schofer said audiences at the Kauffman Center continue to grow, and a few performances have been at or near capacity.
“We have every expectation that this growth and a return to ‘normal’ operations will continue throughout 2022 as patrons become more comfortable with the overall environment,” he said.