KC’S CROSSROADS DISTRICT BLOSSOMS WITH ART OF ALL KINDS.
The line at Dolphin snakes out the door and around the corner on Baltimore Street. The wait is amiable, but a palpable sense of anticipation is building.
The serpentine train isn’t for an arena concert, nor is it for a department store shoe sale. It’s not even for garnering a table at a popular restaurant that doesn’t accept reservations. Instead, it’s for a photography show at Dolphin, which is a fine art gallery.
Welcome to First Fridays in Kansas City. Every first Friday of the month, the Crossroads District’s more than 100 galleries, shops and restaurants open their doors from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., beckoning to art lovers of all ages, cultures, tastes and backgrounds.
“Kansas City has probably been one of the Midwest’s best-kept secret destinations for art collectors,” says Marcus Cain, editor of Review, Kansas City’s art magazine. “The Crossroads District is a very welcoming urban neighborhood—a place where everyone opens their doors to invite in new people, and audiences are encouraged to open their minds to new experiences. It isn’t intimidating like many gallery districts in larger cities.”
A trolley traverses the square mile of this eclectic neighborhood, which is bounded by 15th Street, I-35, the Freighthouse District, and Troost Avenue. On First Fridays, some galleries and stores start the excitement earlier, while some stay open later—but all of them (including some small, working studios of artists that aren’t normally open to the public) pledge to be open during the evening hours.
“First Fridays have been going on for a number of years, but the consistency of it happening every first Friday really started in the fall of 2000,” says Kelly Kuhn, owner of Blue Gallery. “That’s when it began to take off, and it snowballed really quickly. Really, it’s a no-fail event. You don’t have to grab a Kansas City Star, or log onto a Web site. You just have to show up.”
When the event began, attendance was in the hundreds. Now, it’s grown to the thousands, and on a balmy fall night, 10,000—if not 20,000—people take part in the festivities. “We have had 4,890 people visit our business,” Kuhn says.
“It’s just really family friendly, and it’s not too loud, not too bright. It’s just a nice event,” says Peregrine Honig, owner of the boutique Birdies Panties and a local artist. “This is just a great way for people to come together.”
Besides Blue Gallery and Dolphin, two other must-visits include Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art and the Byron C. Cohen Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Today, the many visitors and residents keep the neighborhood vibrant and busy even on other nights of the month—but the Crossroads District wasn’t always so lively. In fact, it had become run down during the ’80s. About 20 years ago, artists moved into the district.
“A number of creative types bought buildings because they were affordable,” says Suzie Aron, past president of the Crossroads Community Association.
“Much like artists everywhere, they were able to see the beauty in an area that others had left behind,” Kuhn adds.
The artists’ acute, collective eye not only transformed the neighborhood, but also created such a welcoming environment that when city officials were looking to build a new performing arts center, they chose the intersection of 16th and Broadway in the Crossroads District as the site.
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, will be completed in December 2009. It will become the new home of the Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera and Kansas City Ballet.
Events inside the center will be accented by the art found not only in its galleries, but also the creative expressions on the streets. According to Aron, “The thing about the Crossroads District is you are just as likely to see a street performance given by a nonprofit arts organization as you are to see a couple tangoing, or a guy looking in a telescope at the moon.”
Place an order for Monet’s haystacks, served with a side of Picasso—easy on the abstraction—and a glass of Whistler, straight up. Or, savor a plate of seared sea scallops on a grilled portobello mushroom, stuffed with spinach and brie, drizzled with balsamic reduction, and paired with a chilled sauvignon blanc.
The art at the café, located in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, comes not only on the wall, but also in the dishes, making for a perfect beginning or ending to a First Friday experience. The café is decorated with Frederick James Brown’s 110-piece collection called “The History of Art.” His art is accented by Chef Jennifer Maloney’s symphony of flavors. In warmer months, she might serve a pan-roasted chicken breast with warm, coconut curry over jasmine rice. And during cooler times of the year, that same chicken breast might be served with a root vegetable purée. “Some people just come in for the art, but many come for the food,” Maloney says. “We say you can get free art with every meal.”