Cheap rent and studio spaces are rapidly vanishing from Kansas City’s arts landscape. What now?
Not so very long ago, Davin Watne and his bandmates in the garage-soul act Thee Devotion rented the entire upstairs floor of a Crossroads building for $100 a month. The year was 2008. Downstairs was Posterworx, a digital printing company at 1523 Oak. Posterworx’s owners, John and Paul Migliazzo, weren’t using the extra space.
“It had the windows busted out, it had no heating or cooling — it was pretty rough,” Watne says. “For several years, we were up there making noise on Monday nights after work.”
At the time, Watne — who’s also a visual artist, and is now professor of painting and drawing at UMKC and the curator and director of the UMKC Gallery of Art — kept an art studio at Studios, Inc., which offers three-year residencies to mid-career artists. When Watne’s time was up at Studios Inc., he approached the Migliazzos about converting the band’s practice space into art studios. The Migliazzos agreed. A few years later, Posterworx moved out of the downstairs space, and the studios — now known as Kunstraum, a German word meaning “art space” — expanded downstairs. Early Kunstraum artists included Watne’s bandmate Michael Schonhoff and Phil Shafer, who paints murals around town under the name Sike.
Eventually, two dozen artists kept studios at Kunstraum. Rent was intentionally affordable: $150 to $300 a month, depending on the studio size.
“I wanted to ride it out as long as I could, because it’s hard to find anything even close to being as affordable,” says Steve Snell, a Kunstraum artist.
But Snell knew it wouldn’t last, and over the past year it became obvious to him and others that the Migliazzos were preparing to sell the building.
“Most of us could sense that the relative lack of investment in the building — leaking sewer pipes, etc. — was probably because it was going to be flipped at some point,” says Corey Antis, another artist with a studio in Kunstraum.
In April, the Migliazzos formally told the artists that they were selling the building, and that everybody had until June 18 to clear out their stuff.
The Kunstraum building, Paul Migliazzo tells The Pitch, “is worth more than what we’re getting out of it.” He’s familiar with the cycle he’s perpetuating by selling the building.
“Artists come in, help revitalize the area, and then they end up getting priced out of that very area,” Migliazzo says. “It becomes less and less possible for them to stay as those properties become more profitable for the owners.”
Gentrification, of course, is as real in KC as it is in every other city living under late capitalism. The process is by now so inevitable-seeming that some Kunstraum artists currently being displaced don’t even begrudge Migliazzo for selling the studios.
“Those guys have been really great,” Watne says of the Migliazzos. “I think we’ve had a really great partnership. If there’s an opportunity to partner with them again, I would definitely jump at that opportunity.”
“It’s frustrating to have to move out,” Snell says, “but I don’t blame Paul. They have to make a living and everything. I just hope that there is continued affordable studio spaces. It’s what makes Kansas City an attractive place to be a contemporary artist.”
But as spaces like Kunstraum vanish, Kansas City is well on its way to being a place where artists actually can’t live cheaply anymore. Several studios and art spaces in addition to Kunstraum have announced they are closing in just the past few months, the result of landlords selling buildings or raising the price of their leases. And as these artists look for new studio spaces, they’re finding that the rent is too damn high.
“[There’s] an acute lack of working space for artists in Kansas City right now,” Antis says.
While cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Miami offer artists institutions, scenes, and opportunity for wide exposure, the draw in Kansas City is a little different.
“Affordable space is a critical component in the KC ecosystem,” says David Hughes, founder of Charlotte Street Foundation, one of the biggest nonprofit sources of arts programming and funding in Kansas City.
Put simply: rent’s cheap here. Many artists in Kansas City have looked at what’s on offer in bigger cities and decided to stay put because what we have is in some ways even better: freedom to experiment. You can be an artist here, you can focus on your craft here, you can have a little space here. That’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves about KC. But is it even true anymore?
• • •
From the outside, it looked as though the Drugstore might survive the wave of gentrification rolling across Kansas City. The midtown space — located in the historic Katz Drugstore building at the corner of Westport Road and Main Street — houses studios for 26 artists and has become a vital community hub since opening in 2012. Best of all, its landlord was Redeemer Fellowship, a nearby church that has made it its partial mission to spruce up the neighborhood. (Redeemer is a landlord to Oddly Correct and a handful of other businesses near Westport and Main.) The church won the Katz building at auction in 2011 and decided to dedicate it to the arts, in furtherance of its community-oriented mission. Under church ownership, the Drugstore wasn’t vulnerable to rising property taxes as the neighborhood transformed — a change that, in many ways, was set in motion by the Drugstore artists’ renewal of the Katz building space.
Rent for artists at the Drugstore is unbeatably cheap: $75 per month. The money goes into an account controlled by the residents, who have used the funds for programming, building materials and supplies, and occasional maintenance. A few residents have specific administrative roles and contribute labor in exchange for their spaces, but the Drugstore is generally self-governed as a collective.
This spring, Drugstore artists decided to use their funds to support resident-planned programs in the building’s front gallery space, which are scheduled throughout this summer. “We developed a model of somewhat self-sustaining programming,” says Patricia Graham, a visual artist who also used her Drugstore studio space to teach private music lessons.
Graham says that, this spring, Drugstore artists planned a meeting with Redeemer to share their vision and talk about the need for new HVAC. The meeting didn’t go quite as planned.
“They’re [Redeemer] like, ‘Oh, by the way we’re going to sell the building,’” Graham recalls.
In an interview with The Pitch, Andy Bean, the church’s director of operations, cites high mortgage and utility bills and the increasing costs of maintaining a deteriorating structure built in 1934 as Redeemer’s reasons for putting the building on the market.
“We simply lack the capital in our ministry budget to invest in developing or improving the facility in the way we think the neighborhood and community deserves,” Bean says.
Drugstore residents have been asked to be cleared out by the end of August.
As at Kunstraum, there’s a mix of resentment and understanding among the 26 artists now scattered to the wind. Redeemer has said it plans to “make sure that whatever the building looks like in the future is something that is good for our city.” And the church has pledged to give Drugstore residents $10,000 as a collective to help with the move or purchase of a new building. But some have questioned if that amount is sufficient, given how much value the artists at the Drugstore have brought to the building and the neighborhood.
“This is now a cornerstone of activity in the city,” says Don Wilkison, another Drugstore artist. “And it’s become one partly because of us.”
“Their profit margin is going to be fucking crazy on that building,” says Patricia Bordallo Dibildox. “They bought it for nothing.”
In addition to keeping a studio at the Drugstore, Bordallo Dibildox is the co-director of Front/Space, an experimental, artist-run gallery in a storefront apartment in the Crossroads. Front/Space’s goal is not to sell artwork, like a commercial gallery, but to start conversations.
“Front/Space has always had shows that are developing work,” says Bordallo Dibildox. “You have the freedom to fuck up. You have the freedom to go for an idea that maybe you thought you’d fuck up, and then it turns out great. It allows artists to be artists.”
Bordallo Dibildox and her co-director, Jahaira Aguilar, took the reins of Front/Space last spring; the space has been in operation since 2010. They’ve admirably continued the mission. In April, for example, the duo Emotional Store (artists Scotty Wagner and Bailey Hikawa) took over the space and made a completely site-specific work at Front/Space in two days. “That’s something that more established galleries would be like, ‘What the fuck?’” Aguilar says. “And that’s the beauty of Front/Space.”
But rent’s rising, and Front/Space is moving on. Bordallo Dibildox and Aguilar had been discussing sustainable alternatives to their $1600 monthly rent when their landlord recently informed them it would be going up even higher if they signed another lease. The additional $100 per month sought by the landlord may seem relatively small, but art spaces operate on razor-thin margins. Front/Space’s co-directors are unpaid and hustle throughout the year to raise money to cover expenses. (Half the organization’s annual budget is raised at the exuberant live-drawing event Hot Hands, which has been hosted at the Drugstore. They intend to put on a Hot Hands in 2020, though the venue remains to be determined.) For Front/Space, the rent hike was the tipping point.
“Every month feels like a fight to even exist,” Bordallo Dibildox says of the financial pressure of running the space.
With some freed-up funds and new flexibility, Front/Space will continue its work in a nomadic fashion, putting on exhibitions in spaces around the city. It will be able to commit more time and energy to exhibitions and programs, better support artists, and, Bordallo Dibildox says, “be more daring.” But Bordallo Dibildox, who also works in continuing education at the Kansas City Art Institute, thinks Kansas City is about to see a drop in the number of artists that stick around after graduation.
“Either you stay and don’t make work and don’t exhibit it, or you go to someplace you can do that,” she says. “With rent prices [in Kansas City] now that are almost matching Chicago prices, why wouldn’t you just go there?”
Melaney Mitchell, Drugstore artist and founder of the art blog Informality, agrees.
“KCAI fundamentally teaches object making,” says Mitchell, who, like many artists I interviewed for this story, is a KCAI alum. “All these studio artists are going to be graduating from there with object-oriented, functional studio practices that they want to cultivate with no fucking place in this entire city to be able to afford a studio space. And they’re all just going to be like, ‘Well fuck, what do we do now? Leave? Go back home?’”
That’s exactly what Julia Cole and others are afraid of.
“There needs to be, right away, short-term fixes so we don’t lose artists who are getting displaced from their studio spaces to other cities,” Cole says.
As an artist deeply engaged in community issues, Cole — the Rocket Grants program coordinator at Charlotte Street Foundation — is well acquainted with Kansas City’s attempts to address gentrification. In 2017, in conjunction with UMKC’s Center for Neighborhoods, she convened “Development without Displacement,” a wide-ranging discussion about solutions to the inevitable housing crisis that has now fully arrived in Kansas City. (She’s also an adjunct at KCAI.)
Cole points to previous measures taken to retain artists in KC. In 2006, as First Fridays began to expand, the Crossroads Community Association became concerned about how to ensure artists would remain in the neighborhood. The CCA worked with city officials and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA) to create a tax abatement plan for arts-related businesses and organizations that occupy at least 51 percent of a building. Locking in that abatement in 2006 was essential, as property taxes for some Crossroads properties ballooned as much as 500 percent in 2007. Owners who qualified received 100 percent abatement for 10 years.
The benefits of artists in the neighborhood are many, Cole says.
“Artists can look at a space that most people see as ugly, dirty, blighted … and say ‘No, but look, what if we did this?’” Cole says. “They see the potential in something, and then they engage with it, and they make it a space that’s useful or beautiful for the community. And then immediately, other people see that, and their perception and value becomes fiscal. Artists are seeing a different kind of value and really helping that to bloom. And that gets translated by the community into dollars.”
When the Crossroads artists’ tax break was due to expire, in December 2016, the city passed an additional 15 years of abatement at 50 percent. Without these abatements, it’s likely the Crossroads would have lost more studios and galleries than it already has. For example, Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, an origin point for First Fridays, is still holding on.
“But,” Cole says, “artists can no longer afford to buy in here [the Crossroads]. It’s effectively useless unless you’re already in here. There needs to be some other thinking that goes on about these longer-term programs. How does the community remain porous to artists?”
The PIEA abatement allowed building owners to charge cheap rent to artists as the value of their buildings steadily rose. But when the owners cash in and sell the buildings, the asking price is now far beyond what most artists and galleries can afford. So they’re bought by banks and chains and professional developers — the kinds of landlords with little incentive to rent at below-market values to artists and galleries. It’s an especially bitter outcome for those artists and galleries because the increasing property values often have little to do with the physical condition of the building and are instead directly linked to the appeal created by the artists.
“Unless the city makes it attractive for property owners to work with creative partners, it seems obvious that the financial incentive to do other things with the real estate is too high to pass up,” Antis says, “Their [property owners’] argument is that they shouldn’t lose money, and I respect that — they made an investment. But that logic also, in my view, fundamentally misunderstands the reciprocal exchange between the creative class in the city and what they offer to the investing and developing interests.”
• • •
Left to their own devices, the forces of gentrification and capitalism will eventually eat everything. We’re seeing that happen in cities like San Francisco and New York City. But Kansas City is behind the curve. We might still have a chance to stem the tide for artists trying to work here. But how?
Hughes, the Charlotte Street founder, has some general suggestions for ways Kansas Citians can tangibly support local artists: Attending open studios and asking artists questions, donating unused office space for artists to work in, integrating artists on planning teams and committees, paying artists for their time (not just their objects).
But after years spent cultivating support for the arts in the city’s philanthropists, Hughes’ attention has recently turned to local government.
“What’s needed now, I think, is more education of public officials,” he says. “And while there is little to no money available from the city, still, thoughtful public policies regarding art and artists are urgently needed.”
To that end, Hughes recently hosted a gathering of about 40 artists with Jolie Justus, a 4th District Councilwoman who recently lost her bid for mayor. It was an informal get-acquainted session for Justus to hear and learn what’s on artists’ minds.
In my conversation with the Front/Space co-directors, Aguilar brings up the meeting with Justus, and Bordallo Dibildox groans. “Her answers were so inadequate,” she says.
Aguilar adds: “Patricia is sitting there saying that she’s exhausted of constantly working for free. And [Justus said], ‘You know, when you get to that point when you are so exhausted — because I am, too — find someone and pass that torch to them, and let them carry the torch for you. And then when you’re ready to come back, they can pass it back to you.’”
“That’s not the way it works,” says Bordallo Dibildox, adding that if she gives one torch away, she’s still holding three. “If we [artists] are not holding the torch to the very roach tip of it, we will all burn, and no one else is going to carry it,” Aguilar says.
Point being: city officials, and perhaps the public in general, often lack awareness of the heavy workload artists are carrying — and how they’re bearing that load without any institutional support.
Nor do many understand the importance of actual space to an artist.
“People think we can exist with a little easel in our bathroom,” Bordallo Dibildox says. “We need a space.”
Whitney Manney, who runs a full-time fashion design business from her studio at the Drugstore, notes that the closing of the Drugstore isn’t just about a bunch of artists needing to find a new room to paint in.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding that we are not hobbyists,” Manney says. “I think Kansas City as a whole has the idea about artists that we’re just willing to starve and do without — that this is just something we do for fun. Everybody else has a place of employment that they get to go to that’s not their dining room or their basement. Why should we have to be OK with our dining rooms or our basements or our parent’s garages being our physical place of work?”
Many artists being ousted from these spaces find their work disrupted and plans derailed, while their schedule of exhibitions, proposals, and commitments plows on.
“I have some exhibitions coming up soon,” says Drugstore resident Andrew Ordonez. “I don’t want to compromise the visions that I’ve proposed to those people [because] I have to work out of my bedroom.”
Losing a shared studio building also means artists are losing the opportunity for the cross-pollination of ideas and support that it allows.
“This has been transformative to my practice,” says Mitchell of working at the Drugstore. “The dialogues, the people that I’ve been around. It’s really the community. The way that this was structured with its open walls opened me up to different possibilities.”
Since learning about their studios closing, many Drugstore residents have organized to try to explore what it would look like to create a new Drugstore in a new location — ideally as a nonprofit, in a building they own. They’ve divided themselves into committees for getting nonprofit status, seeking funding, and finding a building.
“If we want to keep going forward, and we don’t want to run into this again, our goal should be to buy a building somewhere,” says Andrew Erdrich, a Drugstore artist since 2014.
They also met with Megan Crigger, KCMO’s Director of Creative Services, to seek guidance. She pledged her support and resources and connected them with the Economic Development Corporation, the public-private organization responsible for all your favorite TIF projects. Residents express gratitude and relief at her help. Navigating the world of commercial real estate is new to all of them.
Crigger knows the issue of artists needing space is multifaceted: “My main message is that one unit and one approach is not going to solve the problem,” Criggers says. And she’s aware of what is at stake: “If we continue to allow for unaffordability to keep moving people out of the core and then out of the city limits, then [Kansas City] will ultimately lose.”
Having watched as developer after developer received generous tax abatements in Kansas City over the last decade, I ask Crigger what kinds of incentives or tax breaks an actual arts organization like the Drugstore might have access to.
“Typically, nonprofits don’t qualify for state or federal incentives,” Crigger says. “If it’s a nonprofit, or if it’s an individual artist, I would imagine that there would be some need to partner either with the city in a formal way or with the private sector to bring the kind of capital to the project.”
In other words, not only do well-heeled private developers have access to the capital necessary to execute a project in Kansas City, they are also able to access government incentives that nonprofits and individuals cannot.
The city is well aware of the need for artist spaces. In 2015, KCMO invited Artspace, a nationwide nonprofit arts-related developer, to do a study about building live-work and studio spaces for artists here. After a pre-feasibility report estimated there to be 6,000 artists in the city, Artspace returned in 2017 for a more thorough market report on what kind of development would work best in KC.
“It gives us a snapshot of data that we as staff can [use to] talk about the condition and state of artists in Kansas City to our policy leaders,” says Crigger.
But no deal has actually been made to have Artspace start a development here.
“The study was finished and delivered to the city, and nothing has happened, right?” Cole says. “So, somewhere along the line, someone said, ‘Oh, we can’t afford this now,’ or ‘This isn’t a priority.’ There’s an idea that everybody has about what it takes to have Kansas City be this art city and have artists draw tourism and all the rest of it. But when it comes to actually doing the things that are going to make it happen, there is something that is not being fulfilled.”
Crigger says the lack of movement is due to the fact that Artspace’s model only works if the building is cheap or free, and they haven’t found the right space. (“We don’t want to deter economic growth for our city, but we want to make sure that there’s not negative impact for those who live here, and that everyone benefits from that growth,” Crigger says.)
But according to Justus at the aforementioned community meeting, there are currently 9,000 unoccupied retail and residential spaces in Kansas City. Mightn’t the city gift a few of those spaces to the very local artists Kansas City’s leaders love to brag about?
“I was like, ‘How do we get those spaces?’” Bordallo Dibildox says. “And she [Justus] didn’t know the process or any answer.”
“If art is important to your city, and to the growth of the city, the same way sports teams are, and you’ve got buildings you don’t know what to do with,” says Drugstore resident Don Wilkison, “then give them to us or sell them to us for, like, no money whatsoever. We’ve already shown we can do this. And it can be a lot more. It can be a model.”
• • •
Unfortunately, even though Kansas City has had years to prepare for the onslaught of the affordability crisis that occurred first in more prominent cities, our leaders have shown little interest in devising new ideas and strategies in advance of it arriving on our shores. That extends to the larger issue of affordable housing as well as the more specific subset related to artist work spaces.
Instead, under Mayor Sly James, we have devoted our resources to splashy, big-ticket national marketing efforts like Open Spaces, a citywide arts festival to which KCMO committed $875,000 (half a million in funding, plus a $375,000 loan it’s still on the hook for).
The festival provided a gorgeous, two-month spectacle. “But now here we are, six months after it closed, and how many galleries or art spaces are closing, and how many condos are being built where studios used to be?” Mitchell says. “You’re forgetting about the fucking artists [that live here].”
“It’s always about being the other place instead of just taking something organic and growing it,” says Brandon Frederick, a Drugstore artist. “That’s exactly what Open Spaces was: ‘Let’s make this thing that’s not true to what Kansas City is, or to what the art scene is here, and let’s just plop it in and emulate New York, New Orleans.’”
Frederick continues: “Nobody’s going to fucking care if you just try to be the other place. What people want to see is something new and different and authentic and real. That is the major shift that has to happen in thinking about the arts in this city — especially from people who are not a part of the arts community. Right now, I just feel like all they do is recycle ideas. We don’t need to be another Portland.”
Cole also believes that local artists are best poised to find solutions for themselves.
“We can invent solutions here, homegrown solutions, that could then be exported to other communities that are struggling with this, instead of just throwing our hands up and saying, ‘What can we do?’” Cole says. “We really need to be drawing on the people who are here, who have all this experience, many of whom have been doing research in other places around the country. They know the conditions here, they know the opportunities here, the challenges, and can design things that will be uniquely designed to meet this set of circumstances. There’s a huge sense of possibility and opportunity.”
In an ideal world, Mitchell says, “We would have an artist’s union that could go to the city and make demands and have oversight and have seats at the table with whoever the next mayor is.”
“When you’re all together, you have a larger voice, and people will listen to you more,” says Frederick. “We think about these things similarly as artists. If we can form a structure around that, then the more power we will have to see these things come to reality. We have to work together. I think now is the time.”
There have been preliminary, informal meetings among artists to discuss what it would look like to move forward with unionization. Mitchell says the loss of the Drugstore has been a galvanizing event. It has “lit a fire under all our asses,” she says. “For me, it’s been a big wake up call to see what I can bring of value with my labor to my community.”
Mitchell continues: “Sustainability is not going to come from a capitalist plan. Sustainability is going to come when artists recognize that sometimes it’s less important to be in your own studio making your own work. Sometimes it’s more important to look around you and say, ‘How do I protect this precious practice that I’m doing by protecting the precious practices of everyone else around me?’”
Kansas City has been largely successful over the past decade at branding itself as an arts-friendly city. But as Wilkison notes, “They don’t use the term ‘artists’ — they use the term ‘art.’ We have to remind them that we make the art. And we need a place to do it.”
Aguilar, at Front/Space, says Kansas City needs to decide if it wants to actually be a city for artists, rather than just call itself one.
“If all you want is the polished condos and the block parties every First Friday, then there’s not going to be any room for us,” she says. “We won’t be able to fit into that picture.”