Dynamic Kansas City Cultural District Perhaps a Streetcar Stop Away

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The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from 45th Street would be the gateway to a potential unified Cultural District.

GUEST COMMENTARY

By Tony Jones CBE, The Nerman Family President of the Kansas City Art Institute

Lately, I’ve been imagining I’m a visitor to Kansas City, riding the shiny new streetcar from the River Market to Union Station, but then on down a bustling Main Street toward the Country Club Plaza.

I imagine getting off at 45th Street at the stop announcing the Cultural District. I know this is somewhere special when I’m drawn to a major piece of sculpture in front of the stunning new Kimpton Hotel, a three-story gateway hotel in the location of the former Holiday Inn.

The hotel entrance and the sculpture announce that I’ve arrived. At what?

Well, imagine that I’ll walk around the corner to see the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art to my left, stroll past the Otterness, Bourgeois and Oldenburg artworks.

Tony Jones

After I’ve explored the Kemper, I look across Warwick and see Kansas City Art Institute‘s striking new student living centre, Café Nerman and Wylie Dining Center and I’m magnetically drawn across Warwick by a riveting sculpture at the KCAI gates.

I’m then guided through the KCAI campus by a ‘sculpture walk’ of dramatic works, across Oak St., to the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park and into the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

When I exit, I cross Rockhill Road to their new sculpture park and turn around and head back to the streetcar.

After an afternoon of strolling through less than one square mile of sculpture gardens and two major museums, I’ve experienced some of the most important art in Kansas City.

Tell me, where else will a visitor or a resident of any community, be treated to that kind of richness of landscape and cultural assets?

Well, imagination is a wonderful thing – but this scenario will become reality in 2024 when the first riders take the streetcar all the way down Main from Berkley Riverfront Park to the UMKC campus. (If all the funding is approved — and it will be!)

The Kemper Art Museum, Art Institute and Nelson-Atkins are within three blocks of the planned 45th and Main streetcar stop. (Map by Google Maps)

The Main Street corridor will be full of life — new businesses are expected to pop up on each side of the streetcar track. All signs are that economic development for this project will impact Kansas City is a very positive way.

However, there are other important impacts of the streetcar to consider.

If only a quarter of the 2 million people currently riding the streetcar each year walk from Main to see the museums and the landscaped campus of a working college of art and design, it will change the dynamics of the Rockhill and Southmoreland neighbourhoods.

We need to think hard about this before it happens. It shouldn’t be done to us, it should happen through us, and we need to manage it through a careful traffic plan, a signage plan, a lighting plan and a security plan.

We must consider every detail down to where we put the benches so people can rest and where we add new rubbish and recycle bins.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art could be part of a unified, walkable Cultural District easily accessible by the planned streetcar stop at 45th and Main.

All the major players coming together and developing a comprehensive plan that will make this work and respects the quality of life of people who live in these living and thriving neighbourhoods, while proudly sharing the extraordinary cultural concentration atop Rockhill.

Luckily, we have the ‘luxury’ of some time to really think through how we are going to serve all these people.

When Millennium Park was built in Chicago, city planners could have never predicted it would draw 8 million people a year and add billions of dollars to Chicago’s economy. They created a wide-ranging plan, which continues to evolve to meet the needs of all the visitors to the Chicago landmark.

We need to do the same. The new Cultural District will be our very own Millennium Park, a gorgeous centerpiece to the Kansas City landscape.

The Kansas City Art Institute would be at the center of an enhanced Cultural District.

Even though KCAI has a set of front gates, we are not a gated community. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

We are the literal bridge that gets you from the Kemper to the Nelson-Atkins and back, and we are very conscious we have a critical role to play in the expansion plan.

But this plan has to evolve as a comprehensive effort by all parties – piecemeal non-planning will let Kansas City down, and we can’t do that.

With careful planning input by everyone in the neighbourhood, the museums leadership, ideas from residents of homes and Oak Hall, the church – and the Shakespeareans! – we’ll be ready to welcome the very first rider — and every rider — who gets off the streetcar at one of the most beautiful and dynamic Cultural Districts in America, ours!

Tony Jones joined KCAI in December 2014 as interim president. He is an internationally known arts administrator, broadcaster, educator, exhibition curator and historian of art, architecture and design, as well as a consultant on higher education and the arts.

A citizen of both Britain and the United States, he was educated at Goldsmith’s College in London and the Newport College of Art in Wales as a sculptor, painter and art historian. He came to the United States for postgraduate study as a Fulbright Scholar.

He was appointed president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986, serving in that capacity until 1991, when he took a position as director of the Royal College of Art in London. He returned to SAIC in 1996 and served as president until 2012, when he was named chancellor and president-emeritus.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Museum District sounds better than Cultural District. Something doesn’t work with the latter.

  2. We should just call it Rockhill (or coin “Rock Hill”) which is what it is. (Or Oak Hill, in reference to WR Nelson’s Oak Hall.) “District” in itself sounds secondary (and derivative) or preliminary (and unfinished). I agree “cultural” is to be avoided (for similar reasons and) because too many choppy syllables (especially if followed by “district”). Even “art district” sounds like an explanation rather than a name.

  3. I absolutely LOVE this vision. I think all the time about the visitor experience to KC, and how we have so much to offer, but the districts are not unified (yet). It seems you really need to know a local to enjoy the highlights especially if you are a business traveler visit during the work week. It is great to hear visionaries are thinking 5 years in advance, as the Streetcar is going to completely change the visitor experience once again. This Cultural District (I agree with the criticism that the name could be catchier and/or more descriptive) is exactly what the city needs. Are there ways to volunteer/get involved?

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