Haw Contemporary’s full-circle path to the Crossroads

“The Crossroads,” John O’Brien told The Kansas City Star in 2007, “is going to continue to develop whether I’m here or not.”

O’Brien, a pioneer of the downtown arts district, was explaining to the paper why he had decided to sell 1901 Baltimore, the building that housed the Dolphin, home to his beloved gallery and frame shop. The buyer of the property was R. Crosby Kemper Jr., founder of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which had been looking to set up an outpost in the area’s fast-growing arts scene. 

O’Brien took Kemper’s dough and headed down to the West Bottoms, where he reopened the Dolphin at 1600 Liberty, in a big, white, boxy space that felt as much like a museum as it did a gallery. 

“I felt we didn’t have a space in this city, other than museums, that lived up to the quality of the work being produced by our local artists,” O’Brien told me recently. “And I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. See if I could be a part of making something happen in the West Bottoms, sort of like what I’d been a part of in the Crossroads.” 

Prodding him down to the area was Bill Haw, owner of the Livestock Exchange Building and a good chunk of property on the southern edge of the West Bottoms. A few years after opening the new Dolphin, Haw’s son, Bill Haw, Jr., and his family moved back from Tokyo, where Haw had been working as a director for Amazon Japan. 

“When I came back in 2010 and walked into the Dolphin for the first time, I didn’t want to leave,” Haw says. “The space is just amazing. And John is kind of a pied-piper type, and I pretty quickly drank the Kool-Aid and got caught up in the magic of the place. I’d be, like, the last guy there drinking beer at 2 a.m. after the opening.” 

The Dolphin was, for all intents and purposes, the top gallery in town, a magnet for the most interesting artists in the city. So when, in 2013, O’Brien announced that he planned to close the Dolphin, “people in the visual arts were acting like it was the end of the world — which, it kind of was, in a way,” Haw says. 

Julián Zugazagoitia moved to Kansas City around the same time as Haw, to take over as director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and they’d become friends. Haw suggested to Zugazagoitia that the Nelson buy the Dolphin space and turn it into a museum annex for contemporary art. 

“And I told Bill that he should buy it instead,” Zugazagoitia says. 

“A few days later, I went into my dad’s office and said, ‘Listen to this dumb idea Julián had,’ and he was like, ‘I think that’s a great idea,’” Haw recalls. “I was like, ‘You’re all crazy.’” 

Haw continues: “I’d always been really into art and music — I played music all through college and collected art books and all that kind of stuff. But it seemed like such a nonstarter for a career. I always felt like, ‘I gotta make money and send kids to college.’ But being back in Kansas City, and starting to collect art, being around people like John and Julián, I guess I started to see how maybe it could work. And now, five years later, I can see that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” 

Haw bought the Dolphin building from O’Brien, and Haw Contemporary debuted in 2013. 

“I got a year of goodwill from arts supporters because people were just so happy I was keeping what John had done alive,” Haw says. “After that, it was about walking the line of respecting the good things about the Dolphin without just aping it, and putting our own stamp on it, and working really hard at it.” 

Haw continued to represent many of the artists in O’Brien’s stable (Wilbur Niewald, Marcie Miller Gross, Anne Lindberg), subtracted a few, and gradually began adding new ones. All the while, he endeavored to preserve and carry forward the Dolphin’s legacy of good times and stimulating art. 

“One of the great things about the Dolphin was that people felt like they owned a piece of that place,” Haw says. “Artists, collectors, art kids — I mean, a lot of art kids don’t feel comfortable coming to most galleries. But Dolphin had this loose vibe, and that non-exclusive thing is something we’ve really tried to continue here [with Haw Contemporary]. I like that juxtaposition, where we have the premier space in town, with what I think is the best group of artists in the Midwest, but the environment itself is very approachable and less off-putting than a lot of other galleries you walk into.” 

The success of Haw Contemporary, which now represents about 45 artists, led Haw to start thinking about expanding his gallery. But rather than plant his flag on an embryonic arts landscape — the Northeast, maybe, or Strawberry Hill — Haw this month will open a second location of his gallery amidst the $16 cocktails, luxury apartments, and banks that now populate the Crossroads. And the address is familiar: 1901 Baltimore, the same building O’Brien owned before moving to the very West Bottoms space Haw Contemporary currently occupies. 

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In early March, Haw — brown boots, blue jeans, clear-frame glasses, stylishly mussed hair; a youthful 53 — gave me a tour of the new gallery, which opens March 30 with a solo exhibition from Eric Sall. (Haw says he expects the Crossroads space will swap out new work every five or six weeks. When Sall’s work comes down, a new Archie Scott Gobber exhibition will move in.)

It was late afternoon on a First Friday, and 19th Street was beginning to stir: vendors and artists setting up tables on street corners, speakers blasting down the block at the arcade bar Up-Down. Jay Tomlinson, a principal at Helix Architecture + Design, strode past the north-facing windows and gave a knock and a wave. Suzie Aron, a prominent Crossroads real estate agent, stopped by to say hi and introduce Haw to one of her clients, a young man looking to open a sneaker shop around the corner. 

“I wasn’t here, really, when the Crossroads was in its infancy, artistically,” Haw said, in between descriptions of construction materials and light fixtures and layout plans. “But you get the sense that it has kind of morphed into this free-for-all down here…” 

He trailed off. Something resembling modesty, or perhaps good business instincts, prevented Haw from saying the full truth, which is that 1.) With the exception of a handful of galleries, much of the art found in the Crossroads these days is either decorative or not particularly interesting (or both), and 2.) This is probably not unrelated to the fact that there is a tremendous amount of money sloshing around down there right now.  

Haw’s move to the Crossroads would appear to be an attempt to capitalize on those two realities. Presuming Haw continues to show exciting work from the city’s most talented artists, his gallery will add considerable prestige to the Crossroads, an area that everyday feels less like an arts district and more like a trendy playground for people who work at Cerner. And by occupying a big, prime, visible piece of real estate in the Crossroads, he’ll be able to get his artists the attention of people who can afford to drop some real money. 

“I think Bill having a gallery there will give him proximity to more people that are committed collectors,” Zugazagoitia says. “And I think there are people in Kansas City who are just beginning to collect and explore what they like, and I think it [the new Haw space] is in a good position to give them their first point of entry into that world.” 

O’Brien agrees. 

“In my Dolphin days, there was maybe 10 collectors in town, but nowadays there’s much more room for new collectors to be developed,” he says. “And Bill is doing the right kinds of things to engage with them, like serving on corporate boards and meeting new people and all that.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Haw will soon be literally sharing an address with Farina, a new restaurant from the James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Smith, slated to open later this year. Since former American Century CEO Bill Lyons bought 1901 Baltimore from the Kemper late last year, it’s been divided into two spaces: a 5,500-square-foot area that will house Farina (in which Lyons is an investor) and a 2,000-square-foot gallery for Haw Contemporary. 

“I approached Bill because he has the leading gallery operation in the area, and a following not just with customers but also with the artists he represents, who are so loyal to him,” Lyons says. “And with [Farina], I think there’s some overlap in terms of customers there. I think inevitably you’ll peek in the door and see what’s going on in the gallery, and maybe vice versa.” 

Does success in the Crossroads require that Haw be more reactive to the whims of the rich? Will the art in the new space reflect these more upscale surroundings? 

“Of course: it’s going to be fancy people only,” Haw jokes. “Honestly, though, 80 percent of our sales come from inventory. With lots of galleries, the show is a main driver of revenue. But we have so much storage space down in the Bottoms — plus lately we’ve been selling more paintings just from Instagram posts — that the commercial viability of the show isn’t as important to us as it maybe is to other galleries.”

He goes on: “I think, both here in the Crossroads and in the Bottoms, the shows we put on are more about the artists getting it on their résumés and us having a fun opening. I think there have been shows in the Bottoms where I’ve spent more on beer for the opening than I’ve made selling art at the opening. But we make it up on the other end. So as far as I’m concerned, as long as everything works financially in the aggregate, then if the Friday opening is just Art Institute students drinking free beer, then good — great. That’s part of the culture we’re trying to create.”

O’Brien, whose business, Hammer Out Design, is now based in a huge industrial building in Independence, says it’s been a pleasure to observe the full-circle synergy of Haw’s new spaces in O’Brien’s old places. 

“Back in 2007, or whenever it was, I felt like I was stretching the rubber band by leaving the Crossroads and going to the Bottoms,” O’Brien says. “And I think Bill is doing the same thing with this. He could sit in the Bottoms in that nice, big space, and be very comfortable. But he’s stretching the rubber band in the other direction, bringing his eye to the Crossroads. You know, some people think art is all one thing. But it’s not. It’s different things.”  

Haw Contemporary (1901 Baltimore) opens this Friday, March 30, with Eric Sall’s Drawing Paintings, Painting Drawings, 6-9 p.m.

Categories: Art