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Avenue of the Arts reclaims its Central status

Central Avenue is alive again, thanks to the Avenue of the Arts.



For two summers, Central Avenue looked empty.

Anyone who'd gotten used to being charmed anew each year by the temporary sculptural installations, curated by the Municipal Art Commission, found nothing new to see in 2010 and 2011. While the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was taking shape to the south, and conventions and performances pressed on inside Bartle Hall and the Lyric, the view on the street was plain.

After celebrating its 10th anniversary, in 2009 (with a set of artwork that included a couple of encore works and, for the first time, live performances), the Avenue of the Arts program fell on the same hard times afflicting the rest of the nation. Artists for the next year's lineup were selected and contacted, then asked to wait. Despite the publicly expressed optimism of Municipal Art Commission director Porter Arneill, many wondered whether the Avenue of the Arts would return at all.

The wait is finally over.

Located as far from coastal waters as any U.S. metro can be, and forever associated with westward expansion and stockyards and railroads, Kansas City can still claim an enviable dedication to the arts. One reason: its "One Percent for Art" policy, which sets aside for public art one penny of every dollar spent on civic-funded construction. Among the other easy-to-take-for-granted public-art partnerships that our city enjoys are Art Through Architecture (Charlotte Street Foundation and AIA-KC), Art in the Loop (a project of the Downtown Council), and the Avenue of the Arts Foundation.

The foundation started in 2000 as Jim Calcara's response to Hallmark Chairman Donald Hall's challenge to the business community to find innovative ways to celebrate Kansas City's sesquicentennial. As principal of the architecture firm CDFM2 (now 360), Calcara recruited Tom McDonnell of DST Systems and the Municipal Art Commission's director at the time, Blair Sands. The name "Avenue of the Arts" came from an earlier idea from Mark Edelman, the Theater League president, who wanted to promote Central Avenue as a cultural thoroughfare.

Today, 360 and DST make up the core of the Avenue of the Arts Foundation, and 2012's sponsors include the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City and, for the first time, the state-funded Missouri Arts Council (whose involvement opened the door to two artists from St. Louis).

The seven artists in this summer's lineup, whose works span Central from 10th to 16th streets until September 30, were selected, as usual, by a panel of arts professionals and business and community representatives. Part of the goal of the program is to give artists new experience with designing and managing public-art projects. Many of the 60-some Avenue alumni — notably James Woodfill, Jorge García Almodóvar and Matthew Dehaemers — have gone on to use the experience to create larger, permanent public art here and elsewhere.

Because it's "public art" — that is, art in public spaces, partly funded by public money — it is bound to draw well-worn gripes from the tax-weary. These grumbles in turn invite counterclaims from those of us who like to see intriguing non sequiturs amid mundane sidewalks, visual surprises standing out against traffic-light electric boxes. But at the opening event June 15 — mostly populated by artists, arts-organization employees, their friends and a few City Council members — any critical impulses were drowned out by the sounds of people hailing pedicabs to tour the art and by the happy chatter of spectators enjoying a bright, hot Friday evening. To the south, the Kauffman Center crowned the view as the sun began to set.

This year's works aren't as interactive as some in the past — think Dylan Mortimer's "Prayer Booths" or Brian Zimmerman's literally face-to-face chat enclosures, "In Parenthesis." But the collection fits comfortably within the visual scope of the decade-long program while offering viewers some fascinating thematic parallels. Each of the 2012 works in some way touches on the natural world.

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