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One of the ideas that I encounter most frequently around Kansas City and in other small to mid-size Midwestern cities these days is that we are uniquely positioned for civic and cultural reinvention. This dynamic involves the potential for artists, their spaces, discourse, resistance, and imaginative actions to become a critical agent in the chemistry of regeneration.
The Midwest occupies a stable-unstable position in time-space – not just in the middle of the country, but on the frontier between eastern America with its Enlightenment inheritance, and the western edge where tradition has been
experimentally tested and remade. This is a reactor vessel of a kind, a place of traces and precursors in physical and cultural isolation – which in evolutionary terms is an ideal condition in which mutant elements can arise. Mutation is a fundamentally different pathway to novelty than the recombination process that occurs in denser environments.
For some time now the Midwest’s isolation has been reinforced by its designation as a freakish or boring cultural backwater, the flyover zone between the intellectual inheritance and daring inventions of the coasts, the place that art ‘originals’ would leave as soon as possible to receive support and validation. But while our raw ingredients have been slowly simmering, reacting and bubbling up inside this crucible, conditions have been changing outside of it too.
An increasingly dysfunctional economic system has been insinuating itself as the primary shaper of civic form and process, and the arts have inevitably been swept into the hopper along with everything else. The appropriation of suitable artworks as blue-chip commodities, the stoking of the ‘creative industries’ as a quirkily disguised model of the same old franchise machine, and the avid absorption of artists as cost-effective tools of gentrification/creative placemaking are a few of the more distasteful examples of such systematic incorporation.
The process has been working more assiduously in the areas that were already culturally hip, because it’s part of the capitalist m.o. to go for the easy pickings first. Coastal cities are at the forefront of the fallout, with economic pressures leading to studio evictions, closure of alternative spaces, freeway flyer arts faculty, and diminishing sources of support for art forms that challenge the hegemony.
In Kansas City we are just now starting to see twinkling in the eyes of developers and the captains of industry as they latch on to ‘creative placetaking’. We still have so much vacancy in our neighborhoods that we have some time to develop thoughtful alternatives to displacement, proactively rather than reactively. Artists can still rent studio space for ridiculously low sums, taking the pressure off the necessity for a creative industry day-job to pay for them. A generally lower reliance on the ‘hand that feeds’ means a smaller disincentive to bite it, and we are starting to see the first real growth in organized resistance here since the crushing repressions of the late 1960s. Municipal governance structures, while swooning over the data that show what an economic engine the arts have become, are still open to meaningful conversations and initiatives that examine the potential links between arts education and equity, or hiring artists to participate on governance committees whose work impacts public space and civic engagement.
In short, there is a window to do something extraordinary – to learn from other parts of the country where the arts as an impulse for/partner in progressive socio-political change are being swiftly engulfed by a system that is hell-bent on neutralizing opposition. I know that as a city we are not alone in enjoying this opportunity. The Field can play a vital role in building solidarity, creating channels for information exchange, and broadcasting models that will illuminate the potential that marginal communities offer to reinventing the social imaginary.
Julia Cole is Rocket Grants Program Coordinator and co-founder of Rad School, an alternative school based in Kansas City, MO.