Hulya Kupcuoglu: Janet Simpson “Kansas City is a very vibrant arts city”

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Thornton Alejandro Open Studio

‘Kansas City Artists Coalition’ is in the Missouri state of the USA. KCAC is not just a space where exhibitions are held but also hosts “artist residencies”, competitions or various programs that support the artists in their magnificent building dating back to the 1910’s. We asked our question such as, What is the Artist Coalition? How is the art environment of Kansas City? to Janet Simpson, the general director of KCAC.

H.K.: You have a past of many years, In what kind of an environment was KCAC established in?

J.S.: KCAC was formed in 1975. It was very volatile time in the United States. We had pulled out of Viet Nam, our President had resigned in scandal, and his predecessor, President Ford, was the target of two assassination attempts. This made environment was very unsettled, everything was being rethought. The “powers that be” were viewed as corrupt and incompetent. Ideas from the sixties had taken hold; ideas that were quite radical and that would transform American life. The Civil Rights Movement, student activism, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, free love and the impulse for self-determination; all of it was effecting what we wanted for our lives and careers. Naturally, artists wanted control of their artistic expression. By the mid-seventies, an artist movement was sweeping across the United States. There had been artist organizations for decades like the Salmagundi Art Club, which was founded in 1871, but the time was right for artists to do more. Individuals joined together to challenge the status quo. Artists’ organizations were formed and spaces were opened across America. Artists Space opened in New York City, Name opened in Chicago, F-Space Gallery opened in Orange County, California, Self-Help Graphics opened in East Los Angeles, Kearny Street Workshop opened in San Francisco, Artpark opened in Lewistown, New York, And/Or opened in Seattle, and the Washington Project for the Arts opened in Washington, DC to name a few. And for the first time there was some financial support from the US government through the new National Endowment for the Arts.

 Janet Simpson

H.K.: Do Artists Coalitions exist in every state in the USA?

J.S.: The Kansas City Artists Coalition is a not-for-profit (NFP) corporation. NFPs are not affiliated with the government. There is no mandate for them to existence.

NFPs like the KCAC are started by individuals, but they must incorporate to become tax-exempt and be eligible to receive donations. There are strict guidelines for how they operate, i.e. they must have a Board of Directors. There are roughly 300 artist-centered NFPs in the US and, yes, there are usually one or more in every state.

H.K.: What kind of tasks does KCAC undertake?

J.S.: KCAC currently has two projects. The exhibition series; The Kansas City Artists Coalition’s exhibitions explore the diversity of expression that shape contemporary culture, art, and ideas. KCAC is a space for innovative and experimental art, which does not readily lend itself to commercial venues. KCAC also aggressively supports and embraces local and regional artists’ work.

The international artists residency: The mission of the Kansas City International Residency at the Artists Coalition is to bring artists from around the world together in order to build friendships and improve intercultural understanding. The residency seeks dedicated artists who create visual artwork (of any medium) of exceptional quality, and whose work and career are at a level to benefit from an international exchange with peers. The program is especially geared toward artists from abroad who have never before worked in the United States. This program will provide time and space for at least four weeks of residency (and up to three months of residency).

Alicia Candiani & Adriana Moracci

H.K.: What kind of a process was experienced since the 70’s?

J.S.: The Artists Coalition’s goal was to create a strong voice for the concerns of artists. In the seventies, Kansas City offered artists few opportunities and local artists were not taken very seriously. The two local galleries mainly showed the art of artists living elsewhere.  There was no “art scene” and nowhere for artists to gather to share work and ideas.  The Artists Coalition became the voice for local artists and provided a sense of place and community for artists and art lovers. It began by lobbying for professional venues for local artists and mounting exhibitions in empty commercial spaces. Artists started KCAC because they needed it and although much has changed in the forty years since the KCAC was founded, our mission to support artists’ work is still needed.

H.K.: What were the main purposes when KCAC was established and what is the point that has been reached?

J.S.: On March 5, 1975 a large group of artists gathered in the studio of local artists Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak to address “How the Artist Can Benefit From Centralization.” Overwhelmingly the group felt a self-initiated organization was the only alternative to isolation, elitism, apathy, and ignorance. The ultimate result of that meeting was the formation of the Kansas City Artist Coalition. KCAC has done many things over its long history but it is always about artists, art, and audience. The key to KCAC’s longevity is being flexible, doing what works and moving on as needed. For the first 10 years, KCAC did not have a space. The main activities were meetings, a newsletter, and putting together shows for other spaces. KCAC got its first gallery 1983, from then on the primary activity has been the exhibition series.  KCAC’s newsletter evolved into a magazine called Forum. It was published as a print magazine until 2000 when it was transitioned online to KCAC’s e-mail blasts and website: The website also replaced the printed the Artists Directory. There are still print catalogs produced but more and more they are being done digitally. When opportunity arose KCAC acquired space for the residency. That was in 2011, it is now KCAC’s second big activity.

Bai Ming

H.K.: There is no “artist coalition” in Turkey. There are foundations, associations or artist initiatives. For example, our artists’ association was very popular in the 90’s and so were the artist initiatives at the beginning of the 2000’s… However, then, they were out of fashion or everything came to the point it should be? Are there also such cases in the US?

J.S.: Over the years I have seen many NFPs start and many end. The reasons vary greatly, sometimes the organizers could not raise the funds necessary to sustain the organization, but I think the biggest reason it that mission is too small or too specific and people lose interest. It can be very difficult. Artists are KCAC’s core constituency but developing and keeping a audience for artist’ work is also necessary. The “big picture and long view” are important. Artists often want to be part of an exclusive, elite group; so working for the common good is not very interesting to them. I am often reminded of the Groucho Marx joke: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” However, I prefer the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Many things have to come together for an artist run space to work. There has to be “fire in the belly” of a core group of individuals that strongly believe in the mission. The mission has to address a need that additional people can also support and it needs to be broad enough to allow for change and growth of the organization. Being able to change is good, knowing when is change is essential.

H.K.: Can you explain the “first Friday” phenomenon in Kansas City?

J.S.: First Fridays were started by gallery owners who wanted to create a critical mass of audience. Galleries choose to move close to one another and agreed to host the opening receptions of their exhibitions on the first Friday of every month. Before long it caught on and people came to the event to see art, friends, and maybe have a little free wine. Eventually street vendors and restaurants and bars joined in. Now after several years, it is a “scene” where you go to see and be seen. Thousands of people pour into the gallery district on every first Friday.

Phooko Niko Studio

H.K.: I know that Kansas City hosts great museums, galleries and artworks. What is your evaluation of the contemporary art scene in general?

J.S.: Kansas City is a very vibrant arts city. There are over 3,000 visual artists who make Kansas City their home. There is much excitement here and the base of good artists is growing. Artists have access to good museums, exhibition space, grants, and inexpensive studio space.

Kansas City is fortunate to have many leaders and philanthropists who want a richly diverse cultural life and support it with advocacy and funding. Collectors of art are also increasing but it is a slower process. Critical dialogue is also somewhat lacking. Kansas City does not have an art critic at the newspaper, however, we do have several interesting art bloggers. Kansas City is in a very good place and the current city leaders support the arts. I hope it continues to move forward.

H.K.: KCAC Artist Residency is shown among the best artist residencies in the US. What kind of a process did you go through within the framework of this program?

J.S.: It’s pretty simple, when space became available across the hall from our galleries the Board of Directors and I looked into it. We decided it would make a great residency This is something that had been on my mind for a while. It was determined that while challenging it was a direction KCAC wanted to go. We did focus groups of artists and patrons and developed a plan to move forward. The space usage and events were determined at that time. KCAC strives for a balance between the artists’ studio time, and interaction with the local community. A local architect designed the space and volunteers and contractors built it out.

A board member, Miguel Rivera, who teaches at the local Art Institute arranged a partnership with KCAC to bring our first artist, Alicia Candiani. When possible, we partner with organizations in the city to help broaden the experience for our community and the visiting artists. KCAC is also a member of Res Artis, Alliance of Artists Communities, and the TransCultural Exchange. These organizations have been helpful in developing the residency.

 Hulya Kupcuoglu Exhibition

H.K.: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?

J.S.: To me, art is essentially about communication – it’s a way of engaging intellectually in a language that is direct and powerful, but at the same time poetic and mysterious. Working with artists is a joy; it can be maddening too, but in the end, it is exciting and gratifying to work in an environment where something so valuable is being nurtured. The residency has added a new dimension to the work of KCAC it is always fascinating to see the many approaches to art making and learn about different cultures. It is a great pleasure to host talented and dedicated artists like you, Hulya, who make the residency so highly rated.

Zehra Cobanli  & Jun Kaneko

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