Central Standard Culture

The following is my entry for the 2012 Spring for Music Festival Arts Blogger Challenge. It addresses the question: “New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?” 

This is my answer. 

Cultural capital? Did that ever really exist? Culture is the way people live, their day-to-day experiences, the way they spend their money, free time and energy. New York has that, sure, but all of America has that, too.

New York is the cultural capital of New York. It so happens to be where tastemakers have lived for decades, where creative people have gathered, where resources, power and drive have converged. However, the era of people looking to New York (or New York’s perception thereof) for the creation and preservation of a total cultural experience has passed.

The question itself is passé for the world we live in. Thank the force of the Internet, which has changed how information is accessed and shared, how connections are made, how ideas are generated.

It reaches everywhere, this great seething hungry presence. Anything that strikes a certain tone with a certain group is sure to be a success, at least for a flash. What you need are good ideas, dedicated spirit, consistent follow-through, some panache, chutzpah, savvy, and some luck to hit that sweet spot.

I live in and comment on the culture of Kansas City. It’s a fast-rising arts destination, birthed by a resilient and supportive community, spearheaded by the civic leaders, heralded by the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and maintained by a feasible cost-of-living.

Could Kansas City overtake the bustle, energy or mystique of New York? Unlikely – and I hope not. It’s not exactly a sleepy little cow-town; the music and art scenes are widely diverse and offer intricate niches. But New York’s energy is restless, unceasing. With so many people the market is oversaturated, which can cause poisonous, backstabbing behavior and a caustic environment.

In Kansas City, a collaborative environment and a low cost-of-living conspire to attract and maintain artists in all disciplines. With the relatively smaller pond, artists are more at ease to take chances – not just to stand out from the manning crowd, but because that is where their work takes them. They take risks in their art because their livings are more assured.

Another positive aspect of the smaller community is that it is, in fact, a community. Individuals and organizations work together to create new works, share audiences, and explore avenues of adventure. Civic support enriches the environment, from groups like the Charlotte Street Foundation (which offers grants and studio space) and the Urban Culture Project (which has reframed the deserted floor of an office building into a rehearsal/performance space) to the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 Ideas initiative. Two of these ideas, 1. encouraging entrepreneurialism and 2. creating an urban arts campus, are expected to further develop a centralized and energized arts destination.

But Kanas City artists aren’t willing to putter about and just pat each other on the back. They present themselves on the world’s stage and challenge a critic to say more than, “pretty good, for Kansas City.” This past month bands from around Kansas City issued a MidCoast Takeover at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. The new Kauffman Center, which hosts both visiting acts and serves as the home for Kansas City’s three largest arts organizations (Kansas City Symphony, Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera),  has garnered national attention as a note-worthy addition to the concert circuit.

This positive attitude, creative accessibility and encouraging community also mean that Kansas Citians have a chance to “see it first.” Many projects are developed here before traveling to larger markets, such as Harry Connick Jr,’s The Happy Elf by the Coterie Theatre, Venice, a hip-hop performance produced by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, or the group exhibition America: Now and Here, the brain-child of Eric Fischl, which included not only internationally acclaimed artists like New York-based Chuck Close, but selections and performances from Kansas City artists.

The collaborative spirit goes through the whole town, far beyond the visual and performing arts. Beer masters Boulevard Brewery recently reissued their Christopher Elbow Chocolate Stout. Elbow makes imaginative artisan chocolates, which are sold in boutique stores in Kansas City and San Francisco, and also sells his flavors in the gourmet ice-cream shop, Glacé. Try a scope of goat-cheese-honey or basil-lime sorbet. May change your life.

And there are enterprising individuals who split their passions between business and artistry. Three examples generate from Kansas City’s legendary 18th Street, which runs as a conduit between the Crossroads District of studios, galleries and restaurants and the historic Jazz District. Artist David Ford is the owner/operator of YJ’s Snack Bar, which feeds well those “starving” artists and hosts a Sunday night jazz jam. Metal sculptor/restaurateur Stretch owns pizza shop Grinder’s (which Alex Ross visited in his KC venture) and concert venue CrossroadsKC. And Peregrine Honig – artist, storyteller, fashion-instigator and petite-dog owner – co-presides over Birdie’s, a luxury lingerie-cum-recital venue.

If New York wants to make culture a one-stop-shop commodity, well, that’s New York’s shortsightedness. There’s culture here, in Kansas City and everywhere, everywhere you turn.

Please visit the Arts Blogger Challenge page and vote for Proust Eats a Sandwich. Thank you!

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One Response to Central Standard Culture

  1. ali anderson says:

    so many great points i loved about this – the collaborative spirit of smaller communities, the question itself being passe, and lower costs of living making smaller communities more attractive and art maybe even more accessible. as someone considering a move back to the midwest (from DC), this spoke to me!@

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