A few Mondays back, about 40 teenagers and 20-somethings were gathered in clusters in the sloped parking lot north of Open Fire Pizza (3951 Broadway). It was after 10 p.m. Open Fire had closed for the night, and to the untrained eye, the scene conveyed trouble: a mini-mob of young people, in ratty clothes and tattoos and complicated piercings, loitering in a secluded parking lot after business hours.
Then, from inside the building, came a few raps on a snare drum, a whine of guitar feedback: sound check. Gradually the crowd moved through a propped-open side door of the building — the entrance to Art Closet Studios. Then the set started and somebody pulled the door shut, muting the music.
Inside, it was the second night of Emo Fest, a three-day buffet of angst-packed bills featuring small touring acts (You Blew It, from Florida; Dads, from New Jersey) and young local bands (Only Words Last, Canyons) for $5 a night. Down a hallway, past a sign warning "No Alcohol, No Drugs, No Bullsh*t," the bands performed in a room that indeed resembled an overgrown art closet — lockers, scattered chairs, a large painting of an eye, a mannequin draped in black cloth and a gas mask. You could practically taste other people's sweat in the air. Like any all-ages venue worth its jacket patches, Art Closet Studios doesn't bother with air conditioning.
But Art Closet Studios wasn't meant to be an all-ages venue. When Dakota Walz and Mike Moreno started it last summer, their objective was to create a space to provide free art workshops for underprivileged kids.
"Formally, that's what we still are — an arts education center," Walz says. "There's a big gap in what the Kansas City public school system can provide students for arts education, so we try to fill it. We offer workshops for screenprinting, ceramics, glass blowing. Kids — toddlers to around 11 years old — can come in and get free exposure to art."
Walz, who is 22, moved to Kansas City from Fargo, North Dakota, in November 2011. Within a week he met Moreno, a 34-year-old KC native who had recently returned from a 10-year stint in Eugene, Oregon. They were part of an art group called the Black Arts Society, which worked in the areas of glass etching and LED illumination.
"We were trying to get the Black Arts Society out there in front of people, but we were finding it hard to get into art shows, and there were these ridiculous entry fees and things like that," Walz says. "The Crossroads arts scene started as a grassroots, community thing, I'm told, but when I got here a couple years ago it seemed snooty and exclusive. So instead of trying to fit in with that, we thought we'd start our own thing."
They eventually connected with Ahmed Awad, who had opened Open Fire Pizza on a stretch of Broadway a few blocks from the nexus of Westport nightlife.
"He had this room in the back that he had no real need for, and he was super-stoked on the idea of us putting it to good use, particularly if it brought people to his pizza shop," Walz says. "So he let us take over the room and donated some materials and didn't charge us while we got on our feet. He's been our biggest backer."
But things like kilns, glass, clay and instructors cost money, and Art Closet Studios quickly found it difficult to sustain its free workshops. That's when Walz and Moreno thought to book rock shows.
Walz grew up going to basement punk shows in Fargo. But when he arrived here, he says, there wasn't much in the way of all-ages venues. Legendary spots such as El Torreon, the Stray Cat, and Gee Coffee were all long shuttered.
"I was only 20, and I didn't know anybody here and I wanted to go to shows and meet people," Walz says. "And every show was either at a bar or at some dirty punk house in a terrible neighborhood. I'd go to [Troost house venue] the Gravyard and wake up the next day to find out four guys with guns robbed the place after the show. So I definitely felt like there was a need for a place for people who want to see music but can't get into a bar and don't want to go to a dangerous neighborhood."
It looks like he was right. "The shows are now basically funding the art education side of it," Walz says. "We do three or four a week, all kinds of bands, and charge three bucks or five bucks or even 10 bucks if it's a really solid show."
And the venue has largely avoided the usual pitfalls associated with teenagers on the loose at night. "We haven't had many issues with people breaking stuff or stealing," he says. "The difficulty is with some of these older punks who have been around for years and just want to get drunk and do drugs and fuck things up. But we have a core group of kids that are really positive and helpful."
Young, inexperienced bands regularly play shows at Art Closet Studios, but older, more established local acts have also performed there this year: Bent Left, the Caves, Lazy. "It's been cool to have this environment where these high school bands get to have the exposure of playing with bigger local bands and even national touring bands," Walz says.
Last winter, Awad sold Open Fire Pizza to Moreno and a partner, which has given them the opportunity to merge the building's for-profit and nonprofit components. A community garden is in the works, as are more art exhibits. And pizza diners will likely hear live music from the back of the restaurant more often. "We try to keep it down when the restaurant's open," Walz says. "If customers hear it, it's usually muffled and in the distance. But sometimes they'll walk down and poke their head in and try to figure out what exactly is going on back there."