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City Picks Renowned Chicago-based Artists to Redevelop Historic School Building in 18th & Vine Jazz District

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By Kevin Collison

The historic Attucks School building in the 18th & Vine Jazz District won’t be reused as a school afterall.

Instead, the city has chosen a proposal by two internationally-renowned artists based in Chicago to convert the old building at 1815 Woodland Ave. into a hub for arts and culture.

The Zhou Brothers, ShanZuo and DaHuang, plan to create a Kansas City version of their Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. The plan includes gallery and exhibition space, live-work space for artists and other arts-related uses.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for Kansas City to link with the Zhou Brothers and their international brand,” said Allan Gray, former chairman of the Missouri Arts Council.

“We anticipate the project will support our local artist community and provide new opportunities for local artists to explore their creativity in a unique atmosphere.”

The city had sought bids for the reuse of the historic school and among the respondents were the Crossroads Academy, which had hoped to locate its planned high school there.

But Vanessa Williams, city real estate manager, said the Zhou Brothers proposal was chosen because it better matched the plans for 18th & Vine being a cultural and tourism center.

“What drew the selection committee to the proposal was its impact on the district for tourism,” she said. “It will give people more to do when the come to Kansas City and the district.”

Dean Johnson, the executive director of Crossroads Academy charter school, was disappointed in the decision.

“We were fond of the building and were excited to have our students involved with 18th & Vine,” Johnson said.

He said his program will continue to search for a new home in the greater downtown area.

The historic Attucks School opened in 1905 to serve African-American public school students.

Williams also said the city also was impressed with the Zhou Brothers proposal because they don’t plan to ask for incentives to redevelop the school property. A final contract is currently being negotiated.

Gray, who is a participant in the Zhou Brothers proposal, said at this point the intention is to fund the project privately. He declined to reveal the estimated cost of the project.

The original portion of the school opened in 1905 and it an addition was built in 1922. It’s been vacant for more than 15 years.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was described in its 1989 application as the “oldest continually occupied school for city black students.”

It was named after Crispus Attucks, an African-American patriot killed in the Boston Massacre at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

The Zhou Brothers were born in the Chinese region of GuangXi, studied art in Shanghai and Beijing and became nationally-renowned painters in the 1980s. Their art was displayed in major museums in China.

The Zhou B Art Center in Chicago (Photo by Natasha Kertes)

In 1986, the brothers moved to the United States and continued their artistic success. In 2011, former President Barack Obama commissioned a work that was presented as a gift to the president of China.

Gray said he showed the Zhou Brothers the Attucks School property during a visit to the city. He became friends with the Chinese-born artists after meeting them at an art conference in Chicago 15 years ago.

“They felt 18th & Vine has a great deal of unrealized potential for development and becoming an international draw for Kansas City,” he said.

In addition to providing space for artists and exhibitions, Gray said plans call for the center to collaborate with other Kansas City area cultural organizations including the Friends of Alvin Ailey, the Kansas City Art Institute and the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas.

If all goes according to plan, the first exhibition and gallery space should be ready in 12- to 18 months, Gray said.

This article appeared originally on the KCUR public radio website.

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