More than a hundred art galleries operate in Kansas City, not including coffee shops, bookstores, office lobbies and many other unconventional spaces that exhibit art. And additional galleries open every year. Most of the newborns are located in the West Bottoms or Crossroads District and are run by young artists who have assigned themselves the rough task of parenthood. These people dream neither of grandeur (they're known by only a small percentage of Kansas City's population) nor wealth (their galleries usually operate in the red). Instead, curating a gallery offers them a chance to affect the direction of the art world by defining what they see as valuable and by supporting artists who might not otherwise get exhibited.
The first exhibition Peregrine Honig put together for Fahrenheit Gallery (1717 W. 9th Street) consisted of works by Bill Mooreland, a self-taught artist in his sixties, whose paintings she saw hanging in the Walnut Street Laundromat. Exhibiting a naive artist was an unusual gallery inauguration, one that "wiser" curators would never risk, but it left little doubt as to the position Fahrenheit intended to take in the Kansas City art scene. "There's brain language and eyeball language," says Honig. "There are people who pick out art as an investment, not because they like looking at it. The role of alternative galleries is to say, 'Hey, I think this is beautiful. Don't you think this is beautiful?' without putting a monetary priority on it. Kind of like a garage sale without the sale."
But sometimes the art does sell -- and that is always a welcome surprise for the gallery and usually a bargain for the buyer. The Green Door Gallery (1229 1/2 Union Avenue) opened in November 2000 in the West Bottoms, originally as a vehicle to exhibit six artists working in the studio space: John Baker, Kellie Bloxsom, Héctor Casanova, Renée Laferriere and Rachel Stuart. Although their mission, according to Casanova, is to "show work that is younger, more raw and cutting-edge, such as installation and performance, and to blur the line between low and high art," a number of deep-pocket art patrons attending the first opening purchased art. It was a boon for the gallery, which now hopes to become a self-sustaining enterprise, even though, Casanova says, "we are not expecting it to be very lucrative."
Low financial returns are realistic for alternative galleries and lend a freedom that few profit-based galleries can afford. Censorship, pedestrian taste, artistic medium and size are seldom concerns -- except perhaps as molds to break.
Tim Brown of Telephone Booth, a tiny gallery at 124 W. 18th Street next to the very boho YJ's Snack Bar in the Crossroads District, believes that artist-run spaces "are more about the scene of the bohemians, whereas the blue-chip galleries are more about patrons and provenance." He considers his gallery "a place to have experimental and collaborative shows that established artists might not put forth in a traditional gallery space." Certainly Telephone Booth's size (only six feet by eight feet) presents one challenge for artists; another, Brown believes, is the bohemian community itself: "If you're making stuff that doesn't fly, you won't get smoke to say it does.... When artists are showing in these spaces, in the context of this community, the standards are really high."
So are the standards for curators, especially young ones trying to find a place in a flourishing art scene. Relatively few Kansas Citians realize that the quality and originality of art now produced locally is equal to or exceeds that of work produced on either coast. As more artists flee from the high cost of living in New York or San Francisco to the manageable cost of life in the interior states, they bring their talent, education and dedication with them. Brown believes that "the super-shiny, the grandiose and the cult of the puffed-up artistic superhero have all been played out pretty hard by the commodity-based art market."
Casanova agrees. He was part of the exodus from New York, and he believes "Kansas City allows artists to develop and explore freely, whereas in more competitive markets like New York it is essential for an artist to quickly find a marketable style or 'trick.'" By providing a venue for up-and-coming artists, he says, "we hope to retain some of the more promising talent that has been traditionally lost to the 'art mecca' myth of New York or California."
Honig maintains a similar responsibility to Kansas City artists, including herself. "Being an artist is 50 percent community. As soon as you stop helping someone with their career, you're going to fall.... It's like tango: It's good to learn to dance both the lead and the lead-ee, so you understand your own work better."
Those of us who have lost or forsaken our younger vision convince ourselves of its futility in order to justify stiff-jointed apathy. But youthful artist-curators do make a tangible and positive difference in the way we live. The Crossroads District and the West Bottoms are among the most exciting places in the metropolitan area -- and they prove that the city is becoming one of the most exciting art centers in the United States.