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Former Segregated School Opening Soon as Major Art Center

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3 minute read

By Kevin Collison

Kansas City’s newest cultural institution, the Zhou B. Art Center, is expected to open before the end of the year, repurposing a former segregated public school into a creative hub in the 18th and Vine District.

“It’s important to Kansas City,” said Allan Gray, who is partnering with renowned Chicago artists ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou on the project.

“We’re located at 18th and Vine and certainly will have a strong relationship by our proximity to the local community, but we see the Zhou brothers as an international art commodity with a special brand and relationship to world art coming to Kansas City.”

It’s been six years since the Zhou brothers were chosen to redevelop the vacant Attucks school following a request for proposals issued by the city. The school was built in 1905 to serve Black students with an addition in 1922. It had been vacant 15 years.

A rendering of the Zhou B. Art Center, the new atrium entrance will be built on the north side by a plaza and sculpture garden. (Rendering by BNIM)

The school was named after Crispus Attucks, a Black patriot killed in the Boston Massacre before the Revolutionary War. The 60,000 square-foot building at 1815 Woodland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gray, a former chairman of Missouri Arts Council and ArtsKC, met the Zhou brothers at an art conference in Chicago and introduced them to Kansas City in 2017. They operate a similar center in a former Spiegel catalogue building on Chicago’s South Side.

The Chinese siblings established their reputation in Shanghai and Beijing before relocating to Chicago in 1986.

“I convinced them to come here and look,” he said. “I think their choosing to respond to the RFP had everything to do with the energy of the building, what struck them was its historic background.

The Attucks school was built in two phases, the 1905 original building in the foreground and an addition in 1922.

“Moreover, when we walked through it in raw condition they could see the possibilities, the same they saw in the Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago by White Sox Stadium 40 years ago.”

The $28 million project which was designed by BNIM architects and is being built by A.L. Huber essentially required the old school to be gutted, although care was made to retain some of its historic interior finishes.

The Zhou Center will feature 45 artist studios; gallery and special event spaces; a 250-seat theater in the old auditorium; a cafe and catering kitchen; office space; sculpture garden, and a new, 4,500 square-foot entrance on its north side along with a plaza for events.

The facility offers a range of studio spaces from 200- to 800 square-feet. Most are former classrooms bathed in natural light, although some are in the cellar with limited light that would appeal to photographers and others.

A former classroom is being renovated to become one of the artist studios.

The center recently began showing spaces for lease and plans to have an open house in mid-July.

“We anticipate we’ll lease out everything we have,” Gray said. “The studios in Chicago have a two-year waiting list.”

Gray is one of the partners in what’s called the Zhou B. Art Center of Kansas City LLC. Chicago partners include Gateway Investment Partners and RDM Co. Capitol Federal of Topeka is a lender.

Currently, Gray anticipates construction will be completed in early December with artists beginning to move in during November. A grand opening is expected in Spring 2024.

Molding in the former school auditorium is being restored as part of the historic preservation process.

The new Zhou B. Art Center will be opening at a time of renewed investment interest and big plans in the 18th and Vine area.

The Negro League Baseball Museum is planning a $25 million expansion; hundreds of new apartments are in the pipeline; the city is converting 18th Street into a pedestrian corridor, and the historic 2000 Vine project will house the city’s first Black-owned microbrewery.

“We’re happy to be involved with 18th and Vine with its history and with the new vitality of the other developers in the area,” Gray said.

“We’re all part of this renaissance and it’s important for us to be part of it and provide a strategic cultural component. We want people from all over Kansas City, the states and country to think about the Zhou B. Arts Center.”

The former Attucks gymnasium will become an event space.

Construction is underway on the atrium entrance on the north side of the Art Center.

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