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Arts Council of Johnson County Nurtures Artists in Trying Times Grants help artists and art businesses in ways that ripple through the economy

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Above image credit: A grant from the Arts Council of Johnson County helped freelance illustrator Hector Garcia create “Jazz: The Resilient Spirit of Kansas City,” which appeared on a KC Streetcar during the 2021 Art in the Loop project. (Courtesy | Art in the Loop)
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COVID-19 nearly derailed the career of artist/illustrator Hector Garcia before he got back on track with a grant from the Arts Council of Johnson County.

Garcia, a native of Guatemala and longtime resident of Lenexa, retired from Hallmark Cards in 2013 and branched out. His “Faces of Kansas City Jazz” caricatures were featured at the Folly Theater and the Gem Theater during the 2017 and 2018 birthday celebrations of jazz legend Charlie Parker. Other projects have included design work for convention spaces.

“But when the pandemic hit, all those venues closed,” Garcia said. “There were no in-person conventions. There were no parties or weddings where I could provide caricature work. I was in a difficult spot.”

Freelance illustrator Hector Garcia in his home studio in Lenexa.
A grant from the Arts Council of Johnson County helped freelance illustrator Hector Garcia, seen here in his home studio in Lenexa, survive the economic challenges of the pandemic. (Courtesy | Jim Barcus)

With his prospects growing bleaker by the day, Garcia applied for a grant from the Arts Council of Johnson County (ACJC) in late 2020. The ACJC managed the grant program for Johnson County, which approved the re-granting of $135,000 in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds the county had received from the federal government.

Garcia’s grant amounted to about $3,700, which he used to buy new software and art materials. His upgraded supplies enabled him to create an artwork entitled “Jazz: The Resilient Spirit of Kansas City,” which appeared on a KC Streetcar during the 2021 Art in the Loop project.

“It was fantastic how things worked out,” Garcia said. “Everything fell into place.”

Garcia said many other artists found themselves in similar circumstances as COVID roared. “If there is no work coming our way, how are we going to survive? Any help we can get in difficult times is welcome. It’s an incentive for people to create.”

Garcia was one of more than 40 artists who received re-granted CARES funds from ACJC, said Executive Director Sarah VanLanduyt.

“That was our first experience in re-granting emergency support,” VanLanduyt said. “We reached the people we needed to reach, and we got the money out the door quickly and efficiently. It was unbelievably scary circumstances, but the grant program did what it was supposed to do.”

The Arts Council of Johnson County dates to 1992, when it was established as the Arts and Humanities Association of Johnson County. With the development of a county business plan, the organization became the Arts Council of Johnson County in 2003.

The ACJC aims to enhance the quality of life in Johnson County by strengthening the arts. Van Landuyt took the helm of ACJC in 2008, when the Great Recession was wreaking havoc on the economy.

Two years later, the ACJC met with artists, arts organizations and educators to learn about how to better support their work in the community.

“We had a series of community sessions,” VanLanduyt said. “We asked, ‘How can we help you? How can we serve you?’”

Those meetings led to a partnership that would become the InterUrban Arthouse, an Overland Park gathering place for artists and a catalyst for small business development.

The need to support the arts intensified when Kansas de-funded the Kansas Arts Commission in 2011. Nine years later, the ACJC adopted a strategic plan aimed at making it not only an advocate for the arts, but an agency that works on behalf of the Johnson County cultural community as a vital regional partner in Kansas City’s creative sector.

“That set us up to be responsive when the pandemic happened,” VanLanduyt said. “It was incredibly lucky timing.”

Rare parrots on the cover of KC Studio magazine.

This article first appeared in KC Studio. It is part of an ongoing content collaboration between Flatland and KC Studio.

In 2021 the ACJC convened the American Rescue Plan Advisory Committee, made up of arts administrators, artists and community leaders. Between January and April 2022, the ACJC held three community forums to give artists, small arts businesses and nonprofit arts organizations the opportunity to provide feedback on proposed solutions to COVID’s hammering of the arts.

Based on that feedback, in February 2023 the Johnson County Commission voted to support ACJC’s request for $2,073,520 from the Johnson County State & Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

ACJC used its share of the money to provide financial assistance to non-employer creative small businesses and arts nonprofit organizations still recovering from the pandemic. Direct grants of up to $7,500 were awarded to more than 80 small businesses or artists, and 20 direct grants of up to $10,000 were awarded to arts nonprofit organizations. Funding was used for business operations such as rent, payroll, equipment purchases and other business-related activities that provided recovery relief.

Garcia said organizations such as the ACJC help artists develop their portfolios. “If you are a creative, if you have the time and the resources to focus on creation as opposed to how you’re going to pay for this and that, that really helps. It helped me move forward and start thinking what my next steps would be.”

Curtis Young, director of the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (part of the Kansas Department of Commerce), said, “Every dollar that they (ACJC) are able to give out as a grant is going to stimulate a lot more economic activity than people might think.”

According to a 2023 report by Americans for the Arts, entitled “Arts & Economic Prosperity 6,” total industry expenditures by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences added up to $38,537,604 in Johnson County during fiscal year 2022.

The impacts of those expenditures included:

  • 676 jobs
  • $21.7 million in personal income paid to residents
  • $896,398 in local tax revenue
  • $1.4 million in state tax revenue
  • $3.8 million in federal tax revenue

“Surveys completed by individual attendees in Johnson County demonstrate an appreciation for how the arts and culture impact the development and well-being of the community and its residents,” the report said.

The arts “generate a ton of money,” Young said. “People value arts and culture. That’s why organizations like the Arts Council of Johnson County are so vital to help preserve us during traumatic times.”

Other ACJC endeavors include the Shooting Stars Program, which celebrates student artists and art educators with recognition, college scholarships and teacher honorariums. Shooting Stars has recognized more than 1,000 high school seniors for their artistic excellence and contributions to their community since 1997.

The 2024 Shooting Stars Gala and Awards program is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at Johnson County Community College. The gala will recognize 18 scholarship recipients and nine teacher award winners in the categories of literature, 2D visual art, 3D visual art, photography, production & design, theater performance, classical voice, strings, and winds & percussion.

The event will include a reception in the atrium of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art on campus and an awards ceremony in Yardley Hall, which is located inside the Midwest Trust Center building on campus.

“During the pandemic there was a spotlight on mental health needs. How can the arts continue to be a partner in helping to address mental health? Are there things we can do to help with everyday well-being? That’s something we should pay attention to and see how we can be supportive. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do some really cool things.”

– Sarah VanLanduyt, executive director of the arts Council of Johnson County

Looking toward the future, VanLanduyt said ACJC wants to continue raising the profile of arts in Johnson County while it explores new opportunities.

“During the pandemic there was a spotlight on mental health needs,” she said. “How can the arts continue to be a partner in helping to address mental health? Are there things we can do to help with everyday well-being? That’s something we should pay attention to and see how we can be supportive. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do some really cool things.”

Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer. This article first appeared in KC Studio. It is part of an ongoing content collaboration between Flatland and KC Studio.

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