Open Spaces organizers face potential lawsuit from unpaid artists

Photo by Zach Bauman

Last month, Cheryl Kimmi—the executive director of KC Creates, the local nonprofit that organized last year’s citywide arts festival Open Spaces—was hauled before a city council committee in search of financial details in the aftermath of the fest.

Revenues for Open Spaces—in particular “The Weekend” at Starlight, which featured performances from Janelle Monae and the Roots—had fallen far short of expectations. The nonprofit was on the hook for nearly half a million dollars. And now artists and vendors were grumbling about how they hadn’t been paid.

Kimmi told the committee that “commissioned artists have been paid. It’s fabricators and suppliers that are left hanging out there.”

Recent information obtained by The Pitch would contradict that view.

Earlier this week, Jeffrey King—an attorney representing Open Spaces’ artistic director Dan Cameron, as well as four of the event’s commissioned artists—sent a letter to KC Creates’ attorney threatening legal action over nonpayment. King says his five clients are still owed a combined $80,000. And he alleges that Kimmi’s statement to the finance and governance committee in July was untrue.

“Your client’s actions at a recent city council meeting about Open Spaces greatly harmed my clients’ ability to have their debt paid,” King wrote to Darin Shreves, the attorney representing KC Creates. “Your client knows that these statements are: (1) false; (2) harmful to our supposed joint effort to pay my clients; and (3) fly in the face of the cooperation into which we supposedly just entered.”

In the letter, King mentions a different letter he had sent in March regarding the outstanding fees KC Creates still owed. King notes that he suggested that Cameron, who has significant nonprofit fundraising experience, could help KC Creates figure out how to satisfy its debts. 

According to King, that letter was met with, “complete silence from your client, city leaders, and prominent members of the Kansas City philanthropic community.” He writes that he had hoped a meeting between KC Creates and his clients two months prior would be the start of a “productive collaboration to retire these debts once and for all.” But that hope was lost after Kimmi publicly asserted that all artist debts had been settled. 

Dawn DeDeaux is one of the artists King represents. (Ebony Patterson, Ted Riederer, and Nari Ward are the others.) The New Orleans-based artist was behind the Open Spaces exhibit “Free Fall”48 concrete and fiberglass columns wrapped with text from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” 

DeDeaux confirms to The Pitch that KC Creates still owes her money. She says she has been patient, accepting incremental payments, because she’s familiar with how taxing the debts from festivals like Open Spaces can be, and because she recognizes what a wonderful event the festival was for the city.

“[A lawsuit] is nothing I wish for, and I don’t wish any ill-will with the city or organizers,” DeDeaux says. “I’m hoping it can be resolved. I think some are owed more than I am, and I think they should be paid, even if they have to resort to a lawsuit.”

In the letter, King writes, “If my clients’ debts are not fully paid within two weeks, I will have no choice but to file a lawsuit against KC Creates.” The letter was addressed on August 26. 

Neither Kimmi or Shreves directly responded to a request for comment. Brenda Poor, a spokesperson for Shreves’ firm Lathrop Gage, says, “Unfortunately, as much as we would like to, we’re just not able to provide a comment at this time.”

Both King and DeDeaux lament that a lawsuit could inhibit the launch of a second Open Spaces, which is tentatively in the works. (Kimmi said in July that the planning of another Open Spaces event will not move forward until all debts have been paid.) But, as King writes, “The inaction of KC Creates, its false and harmful public comments and the apathy of the Kansas City philanthropic community to the plight of my clients have left us with no other alternative. I remain hopeful that we can resolve this matter short of litigation, but fear that time is of the essence in doing so.”

On Twitter: @ByEmilyAPark.

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