Published March 16th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
When Kansas City International Airport’s new terminal and garage opened Feb. 28, crowds of visitors and residents caught their first look at $5.65 million worth of new public art.
The paintings, ceramics and other artworks, created by 28 different artists, were funded by the city’s One Percent for Art program created in 1986.
The first art funded under the program was the steel “Bull Wall” that has stood in the historic West Bottoms since 1992. Other notable One Percent for Art projects include Bartle Hall’s “Sky Stations” and “The Moons” video screens in front of the T-Mobile Center.
While the total cost of revamping KCI came in at $1.5 billion, the $5.65 million slated for public art was based on the vertical construction cost, which amounted to $565 million. It is by far the largest One Percent for Art project in Kansas City history, increasing the number of public art works funded by the program from 54 to 82.
The city charter envisions the One Percent for Art program as a “catalyst for artistic growth and aesthetic excellence in our communities.” James Martin, the city’s public art administrator, said the program’s impact extends beyond those aspirations.
“When the big sports networks show up for a big game and they want to show symbols of the city, one of the things they show often is the Sky Station sculptures,” Martin said. “That has become a symbol of the city in many ways, and that is part of the One Percent for Art program. With the art now open to the public at the new KCI single terminal, we might very well find a new icon for the city.”
But public art is about more than icons beamed around the world. Advocates believe it can serve a crucial role in encouraging economic development.
“It can help a neighborhood start feeling some pride and increase the livability of the neighborhood,” Martin said. “People might find themselves wanting to take a walk in the neighborhood and go see the public art. Then, perhaps businesses will be interested in coming in to interact with the pedestrians.”
Kansas City’s One Percent for Art program has funded about $17 million in commissions since the program began. Spending on the program varies from year to year, but $17 million over 31 years averages out to $548,000 a year.
By comparison, the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC) allocated $28 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year for improvements to streets, roads, bridges, sidewalks, street lighting, parks, community centers and other infrastructure.
Even though it represents a tiny sliver of the city’s budget, some might question the wisdom of the One Percent for Art program when considering the city’s enormous backlog of pothole and sidewalk repairs.
If the city had completed all 678 requests submitted to PIAC in the 2021-22 fiscal year, the cost would have exceeded more than $2 billion. The total city budget that year came in at $1.73 billion.
“Those are important infrastructure items,” Martin said. “I think what we in the public art world try to get across is that art is also an infrastructure item. Think about a neighborhood that doesn’t have any sort of statuary in the local park and compare that to neighborhoods that do. I think you’ll find that there’s a lot more liveliness in the neighborhoods that have that kind of amenity.”
Potholes have long rattled the nerves and vehicles of those who drive Kansas City streets. In a March 3, 2021 release, the city announced a “new strategic plan” for pothole repairs.
“Potholes have been a problem in Kansas City for generations,” Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement accompanying the release. “Listening to the public, we are changing that sad fact, relying on data analysis, increased funding, and better collaboration.”
PIAC member John Sharp said the city is “on the right track” toward infrastructure improvements but much more needs to be done.
“There are so many streets I drive on that are just pothole after pothole, and some of them are pretty big potholes,” said Sharp, a former city councilman who lives in South Kansas City. “We get a lot of requests from people for street resurfacing through PIAC. We haven’t funded many of those in the Sixth (City Council) District, because several of us think that’s something that should be done as part of the city’s regular maintenance program. Street resurfacing is pretty darn expensive.”
Sharp is also concerned about the state of aging water and sewer lines and broken sidewalks, or in some cases no sidewalks at all.
“Many sidewalks throughout the older areas of the city are hardly walkable,” he said. “In a lot of areas where I live, in the Ruskin Heights/Hickman Mills community, we don’t have any sidewalks. There have been injuries and fatalities due to that.”
Kansas City voters in 2017 approved $800 million in general obligation bonds to fund a capital improvements program for streets, sidewalks, flood control and other infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.
But “every year, we could easily spend or recommend spending over 10 times the money we have available, because the need is so great,” Sharp said.
Yet despite his concerns, Sharp is not pointing a sharp pencil at the One Percent for Art program.
“I don’t think the One Percent for Art program is what is causing underfunding of our basic capital improvement needs,” Sharp said. “I think the problem is decades of neglect and a tendency to fund glitzy projects. Public art is necessary for a city to enhance its image and encourage more people and more businesses to locate here. It’s not a great deal of money in the overall scope of things.”
Kansas City had diversity in mind when it set up an art selection process for the revamped KCI.
“A typical approach to large public art projects is to limit the number of selection panelists,” Martin said. “Sometimes it’s advantageous to do that, because it’s difficult to get a very large group of people to agree on a meeting time, and there’s often a desire for cohesiveness in public art, being able to come to a consensus.”
But Martin said Kansas City took a different approach.
“We tried to make the selection panels as diverse and inclusive as we could, with over 50 panelists,” Martin said. “We had a hunch that by having more inclusive selection panels that we might end up with art that would be more representative of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Seventy-five percent of the selected art was produced by women artists or artists of color, and 75% was created by artists who are based in the Kansas City area or have significant ties to Kansas City.
Among those selected was Hasna Sal, a native of Mumbai, India, who lives in the Kansas City area. Sal’s KCI artwork consists of a 10-part illuminated glass and wood installation based on Midwest imagery and experiences.
Sal said she hesitated to apply because of what happened when she applied for two earlier Kansas City One Percent for Art commissions. In each case, she advanced to the alternate position but did not make the final cut.
“I was really despondent when I did not get the first two projects,” Sal said. “But I spoke with James Martin, and he was so helpful. He said: ‘Hasna, there are people who apply for years and years and they don’t make it. You just applied for two and you were the alternate. So don’t lose heart and just keep applying.’”
So she did, and this time Sal made it to the finish line.
“I was in shock for a couple of days, and then I kept crying,” she said. “Because it’s more than just presenting a work for interior space. It’s not only the aesthetics. You’re addressing the community. It is about civic pride. It is about civic responsibility. … The airport project for me is a celebration of my community.”
Being selected for the KCI project is “almost like an Oscar,” Sal said. “For me it is a litmus test. When you put art in a public space, you have to transcend into social morality, social responsibility. I have come to a greater understanding about myself, so that I can make my work even more powerful.”
Kwanza Humphrey, who has lived in or near the Kansas City area his entire life, said he was “a little skeptical” when he first heard about One Percent for Art applications for the airport reconfiguration.
“The work I do isn’t necessarily public art, it’s more paintings and portraits,” he said. “But they said that they were really looking for local artists.”
So Humphrey applied. His original idea was to paint something involving classic Kansas City themes such as sports, music and barbecue. Then he decided to propose portraits of five individuals who represent life here.
“I wanted to create a work that was very diverse, male and female and people of color,” he said. “They all represent different aspects of what it means to be a part of Kansas City.”
Humphrey was vacationing on a boat in Florida last November when he learned his proposal had been selected.
“I was really excited,” he said. “I would say excited and a bit anxious, because there is this huge thing I have to create now.”
Being chosen to paint portraits for KCI has been good for Humphrey’s career.
“It’s been very impactful,” he said. “It’s given a lot of notice about the art that I do. I’m seeing it on social media. I can’t imagine the number of people who are going to see the work. We’ve got a lot of national events coming to town.”
Humphrey said the city’s One Percent for Art program could be improved by “making it more visible to more people that these opportunities are out there. But other than that, it’s a fantastic program. There was a great website, and I was always able to communicate with Holly Hayden (consulting artist for KCI public art) and James Martin with any questions I had. I’ve enjoyed working with the city of Kansas City, and I hope to work with them more.”
Sal said artists who want to apply for a One Percent for Art project should “understand what you are creating, where you are creating it, who you’re creating it for and why you’re creating it. Keep it simple, keep it honest, keep it true and keep it powerful. If you can narrow your concept into one line and present it three dimensionally, you got this.”
Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.