Local creative arts are getting creative
Pandemic pivots flaunt thinking outside the black box
Relying heavily on live performance and interactive experiences, our local arts community was unsure how they would stay afloat when the city went on lockdown in March. However, the pandemic has demonstrated the resilience and creativity of the arts in Kansas City. These organizations have not only adapted but are thriving with COVID safety precautions in place. They have supported the community and each other while reminding people of the importance of the arts during this chapter our city is living.
1800 Wyandotte St #204, Kansas City, MO 64108 | rightfullysewn.org
Jennifer Lapka, the founder and president of Rightfully Sewn, read about the international shortage of PPE in January. As an organization dedicated to training seamstresses and bringing life back to the Kansas City garment industry, Lapka knew Rightfully Sewn had the resources and the skill to do something. After the team began working remotely on March 13, all other operations were put on hold, and full effort went toward sewing masks.
Rightfully Sewn raised $20,000 through donations from foundations and individuals through social media. It was important to Lapka that her employees continued to receive income through the pandemic, and this money allowed them to continue paying employees and double their staff from six to thirteen seamstresses, hiring those who had lost their jobs from other manufacturers.
The team cut and sewed 40,000 masks that they donated to hospitals, social protest groups, and nonprofits throughout the city, donating masks to over 30 entities. The pandemic has shown the importance of domestic manufacturing and valuing seamstresses.
“How can we help the consumer understand the value of the price of an American-made good?” asks Lapka. “Because it directly affects our community. These seamstresses are based here in Kansas City, they’re paid here, their children go to school here, they reinvest that in the community.”
KC Young Audiences
3732 Main St, Kansas City, MO 64111 | kcya.org
The importance of investing in the community has been demonstrated by arts organizations across the metro area. Kansas City Young Audiences (KCYA) was founded in 1961 to provide arts education in schools across the city. When schools shut down in March, the first thing KCYA wanted to do was find a way to support teaching artists booked for the spring who were no longer getting to earn their anticipated income, with many being independent contractors who are full-time artists and rely on interactive performance.
The organization hosted Band Together, a virtual telethon featuring teaching artists who performed and raised over $30,000 that was then distributed to its teaching artists. They also shifted their focus on how to best move to a virtual platform, using donations to send proper technological equipment to instructors and convert spaces in their Main St. brick and mortar to allow instructors to record workshops in the space and teach some classes socially distanced.
Martin English, KCYA executive director, has seen the resilience of the organization through the pandemic. “I think the creativity and the innovation that we’re seeing from our teaching artists from our staff, that’s been really inspiring for me, and we’re small enough that we’re nimble. We can change and I think we’re gonna come out the other end of this for sure.”
Kansas Academy of Theatrical Arts
3144 Woodview Ridge Dr, Kansas City, KS 66103 | katayoutharts.org
Another organization dedicated to providing arts for students in the KCK metro area, the Kansas Academy of Theatrical Arts was founded by Mama Judi Jones just over 30 years ago. Over the summer, Jones used grants to pay a staff of six students, ages 14-19, who worked virtually to create collaborative projects. Their efforts produced a coloring book and a journal, both of which were published in physical form. They also filmed a socially distanced performance of “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” a poem by Charles Finn, in face masks covering their mouths and their eyes.
Jones spoke on how the pandemic has been secondary to vital issues such as suicide and depression, both of which existed long before the pandemic and will continue to exist long after. “We will continue doing exactly what we do. Finding every platform, every space that’s safe, whether it’s online, whether it’s six feet apart at a staging studio… we’re going to keep planting in the lives of young people, resilience, character, accepting one another. Because resilience and character count in the long run. We’re planting in them something that will take them through [this], and everything else in their lives.”
KC Latin Jazz Orchestra
Grandview Park Presbyterian Church/La Paz House | kansascitylatinjazzorchestra.com
With the arts community connected across the world, KC Latin Jazz Orchestra anticipated the arrival of the pandemic. The band was touring South America in February prior to the city being shut down. “We immediately knew that we were going to have to come up with a new strategy. Not just to get ready for when the pandemic was over, but for the permanent changes that this pandemic was going to create in society, especially in the music scene,” says Pablo Sanhueza, the artistic director and bandleader.
Sanhueza knew that the band, an international quality orchestra with musicians from the area, would do what it always had: focus on community. No longer performing at clubs and venues into the early morning hours, the band would play at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church at 10 a.m. (with COVID safety precautions in place) on Saturday mornings to raise money for a local food basket. They also formed La Paz Youth Orchestra, a project created to provide a means for youth musicians to continue training despite traditional academic settings being eliminated with the virus. Sanhueza sees the possibility of racial and wealth gaps widening due to the pandemic, with the arts only being for the privileged few. He is hopeful this time will help to unite the city to build a stronger local community.
KC Arts Coalition
3200 Gillham Rd, Kansas City, MO 64109 | kansascityartistscoalition.org
Founded in 1976, KC Arts Coalition has held on to its founding foundation of being “an artist-centered, artist-run alternative space.” Though the non-profit’s physical space closed with the shutdown of the city in March, they remained committed to the same programming they had planned before the pandemic but adapted it to a virtual platform. Marissa Starke, executive director of the Coalition, spoke on how COVID has forced them to embrace the virtual world.
Though the gallery has reopened with safety restrictions, Starke feels virtual programming is here to stay, as it opens doors in who sees the art and how far of an audience it can reach. This has resulted in an uptick in interest from wider circles of museums and collectors. She is also excited to see the artwork that will be created because of the pandemic. “I think what comes out of this will be what we look back on in history, that this was work created during some of the darkest times in our lived experience. I think we’re gonna see this whole experience reflected in both the visual and performing arts in a way that will be life-altering. [It’s] shaped everyone’s life, whether you’re an artist or consumer. This is our time to talk about the process and how this pandemic has affected us. And I think artists do that most effectively.”
KC Clay Guild
200 W 74th St, Kansas City, MO 64114 | kcclayguild.org
The KC Clay Guild is a nonprofit ceramic arts center, with a small staff and many instructors being independent contractors or volunteers who worked at the space as a secondary hobby. Because of this, Louis Reilly, the studio coordinator, was confident they would make it through their temporary closure. Prior to the pandemic, most of their volunteers were elder populations, more at risk of contracting the virus. Though they initially struggled to find new volunteers upon reopening, the pandemic has brought younger people into the organization. Even with the nonprofit limiting the number of people allowed in the building, the guild has seen full classes and has hit a cap on the programming they can offer. They have made up on lost income from when they were closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
Reilly knows COVID restrictions will be in place for the foreseeable future, but he is hopeful of what the space will continue to offer. “Especially using the potter’s wheel, there’s a certain degree of concentration that’s required in that,” says Reilly. “When you’re focusing so hard on something, it has a meditative effect. It’s a place where you can kind of come and push away some of that other noise.”
Kansas City Symphony
1703 Wyandotte St Ste 200, Kansas City, MO 64108 | kcsymphony.org
With large gatherings no longer being an option, organizations that perform live in front of thousands at the Kauffman Center had to adapt. When the Kansas City Symphony’s 2019-2020 season was cut short in March, they had to come to terms with how long it would be until they could return to live performances.
“As we got to the end of the summertime, we started making plans for a different sort of season,” says KC Symphony executive director, Danny Beckley. Between September and December, the symphony has been performing on a mobile stage, something that has broadened symphony attendees. As of Nov. 30, the mobile music box has allowed the symphony 132 performances, reaching approximately 14,000 people.
The Symphony has also adapted to streaming performances online, embracing the opportunity to bring in new subscribers being offered through the convenience of a screen. Beckley has been impressed by the organization’s adaptability through the last year.
“We had a very finely tuned organization that was successfully following the same playbook, year after year after year,” says Beckley. “But necessity is the mother of invention, and the creativity that’s come from our musicians, and both in terms of learning new skills, but also in terms of the way that they perform music together, and the way that they program music so that it’s more representative of the community that we serve.” They are exploring the option of offering concerts to limited live audiences in the new year.
Kansas City Lyric Opera
1725 Holmes St, Kansas City, MO 64108 | kcopera.org
Deborah Sandler, executive director of the Kansas City Lyric Opera, told patrons to wash their hands and stay well at the curtain speech before the opening night performance of Lucia di Lammermoor last March. By the following week, the city had been shut down, and the remainder of the Lyric’s 2020 season was canceled. Sandler knew that the organization was going to have to engage with audiences in a new way with live performances no longer possible. They created a series focused on local partnerships called New Visions. It includes an eight-part digital history of opera, presented by musicologists from UMKC and KU and featuring art from the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Though there were plans to perform Amahl and the Night Visitors as a live puppet show in front of a small audience, new information on the virus has made it clear it wouldn’t be safe. The opera made its debut in Kansas City in 1951 at the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It’s reimagined format will feature newly-designed puppets from KC’s own Paul Mesner.
The performance will premiere digitally on Dec. 15, available to be purchased for viewing. Sandler understands that it will be a long time until audiences feel comfortable returning to sitting in a live theater. However, she hopes people will “turn to the arts for the solace and the comfort that we can provide and that maybe we will gain new people who can see the benefit of the arts. I mean, there have been studies that have said that watching an arts program, such as they are currently delivered, is one of the few things that make people feel better. So I hope that will continue to bring people back to us.”
Kansas City Ballet
500 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO 64108 | kcballet.org
The Kansas City Ballet (KCB) also faces stress regarding returning to the stage for live performances. “Nobody believes that a ballet company can exist without doing the Nutcracker,” says Jeff Bentley, executive director of KCB. However, KCB is doing just that.
Through applying for the PPP early on, the company was able to continue paying their dancers through the remaining seven weeks left in their contract at the time the city shut down. After months of taking ballet class from their homes on Zoom, the company has seen progress with dancers returning to the Todd Bolender Center. Each dancer is grouped in one of three separate specific pods to limit those they share the space with. These pods of 10 make contact tracing easier if one dancer were to get infected. The company has further explored the importance of filming in the studio or on stage—offering the option of streaming performances for audiences.
Bentley believes that the company will return to where it once was, though probably with “some additional resources and information, and creative ideas at our disposal that were forced upon us by this pandemic that made us think differently in and in more expansive ways than before.” Ultimately, he believes that Kansas City Ballet will be a better company, better artists, a better organization, and better management because of the pandemic.
106 Southwest Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108 | artskc.org
A backbone for arts organizations across the city, ArtsKC is a non-profit with a mission “to unleash the power of the arts.” When the pandemic hit in March, ArtsKC immediately began asking potential donors from across the board for help in providing funds for the most vulnerable in the arts community.
“It’s amazing when a community is threatened in this kind of a way, we all come together, to lift each other up to try to get the word out about opportunities,” says Branden Haralson, communications, engagement, and public policy manager at ArtsKC. “It goes back to that old adage of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and that’s certainly the case in this arts community.”
KC Crew recently contacted the non-profit to offer their support and provide artists with the opportunity to perform virtually and reach new audiences. Haralson feels that when it comes down to it, organizations staying afloat will depend on a business’s available funds. He hopes to also provide knowledge and resources for arts organizations to utilize. “Once we turn to 2021, I think there will be this real desire to get life back to normal. We’ve all heard so much about how 2020 has been the really problematic year, but the truth is that for at least the first quarter or two of the next year, we will look very similar to where we are now. So we encourage people to accept that and to continue using the resources that we have offered so that you can keep the art and keep art in your life.”
The new year offers a fresh start and the chance to build new habits. Want to keep art in your life? Consider donating to any of the arts organizations in this article.