Heidi Van listens intently as one of her students sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” one afternoon at the Fishtank, the experimental theater that Van operates in Kansas City’s trendy Crossroads Arts District.
“All of this is just about breathing and connecting thoughts, and when you connect the thoughts, it will be easy,” Van astutely advises the girl. “Do you feel good? Do you feel bad?”
When the teenager doesn’t immediately respond, Van reassures her: “You’re really fine. I’m so excited for you!”
A few minutes later, the private session concludes with hugs and hearty goodbyes. And the ambitious 35-year-old theatrical entrepreneur returns to her office behind the 50-seat performance space where she’s produced, directed and acted in a slew of mostly offbeat shows since opening the forward-looking downtown venue five years ago.
The Crossroads has become a magnet for all kinds of businesses, from tech firms to construction companies to marketing groups. But a good deal of the credit for the neighborhood’s turnaround goes to creatives like Van who led the way by opening their own galleries and related small businesses there.
“This is my startup,” Van said. “I consider the plays here as product. It’s what I’m selling.”
Nationally, more and more cities are waking up to the economic impact that artists can have.
According to advocacy group Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture industry is responsible for more than $135.2 billion in economic activity every year, or $273.1 million in the Kansas City metro alone.
If you count for-profit companies like advertising agencies, film studios and others, the number is closer to $504 billion annually, according to the U.S. Bureau for Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2011, that represented 3.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, bigger than U.S. travel and tourism.
You can see it right here in Kansas City. Some of the region’s most successful companies—Hallmark, Bernstein-Rein, VML—rely on the work of talented illustrators, painters and designers.
“We also know that regions that have a thriving artistic population are much more desirable from an economic development standpoint,” said Diane Scott, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Artist INC Program, which teaches artists the business skills to make a living from their talent.
Arts are just part of the “DNA that’s expected in a 21st century community,” said Pete Fullerton, the president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City. A big part of the EDC’s mission involves recruiting new business to the community.
Real estate used to be the deciding factor when a company went looking for a place to locate, Fullerton said. But in today’s knowledge-based economy, businesses are more interested in human capital.
Owners want to know if they’ll be able to find employees with the right skills and knowledge, he explained. They also want to know if a community is going to be an inviting, attractive place that will make it easier to recruit top-flight talent.
“In order for us to continue to have creative folks relocate to and be part of Kansas City,” Fullerton said, “it is really important to have a thriving arts scene.”
No More ‘Starving Artists’
According to U.S. census data, approximately 6,000 artists live in the Kansas City area, although the actual number could be twice as large, Scott said, because many artists don’t self-identify.
Historically, Kansas City has had a concentration of artists because Hallmark, along with the city’s corps of advertising and engineering firms, needed creative professionals, Fullerton said.
But it hasn’t always been easy for individual artists to support themselves, said Harlan Brownlee, the president and CEO of the ArtsKC—Regional Arts Council.
Talented people would move here to work for Hallmark or study at the Art Institute, but when they graduated school or left Hallmark, they would move away, Brownlee said. “The environment here wasn’t conducive to them making a living.”
Artist INC has helped change things.
Since 2009, Artist INC has conducted its cornerstone eight-week seminar program, which teaches business skills to 25 competitively selected artists. The program, funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration, also has been adapted for students from the Kansas City Art Institute and the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.
Workshop topics include strategic planning and goal setting, intellectual property law, raising capital and how to use the Web, social media and other technologies to market any artistic endeavor to the widest possible audience.
“There is no truth in the ‘starving artist’ stereotype, except for the fact that people believe it and buy into it,” Scott said. “A huge part of what we do is work on the entrepreneurial mindset.”
Artist INC tracks the program’s graduates, who currently number more than 400, and likes what it sees. For example, Scott said, “about 29 percent of our people who come into the program have strategic plans. But when we look two years out, 83 percent of them have plans.”
At the Fishtank, Van is using the knowledge she’s gained from her business studies—not only as a graduate of Artist INC, but also as a grad of the UMKC business school’s E-Scholars Program.
“I learned that I need to evaluate every process of every part of my operations to truly evaluate how much everything costs,” she said. “It enabled me to place a value on things that I didn’t before. I’ve learned to streamline. And that only happens if I make it happen.”
Another Artist INC partici-pant, musician Nick Carswell has learned the value of multiple income streams.
As a vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in several bands, including the breezy rock outfit Carswell and Hope, the 32-year-old native Irishman also co-founded a label, Silly Goose Records, for independent artists.
“The analogy is the pots you have on the boil,” Carswell said. “You’re paying appropriate amounts of attention to lots of different projects, so you never forget about one project, but you keep lots of things simmering.”
Friday Night’s All Right for Browsing
The Crossroads Arts District is a living example of how artists’ entrepreneurial efforts can transform a community.
The district stretches from Interstate 35 to Troost Avenue, between Truman Road and the railroad tracks north of Union Station.
The area used to be known more for its light industry and workshops—in fact, the eastern parts of the neighborhood are still fairly industrial, said David Johnson, the vice president of the Crossroads Community Association.
Attracted by lower rents, artists began to set up studios there several years ago. Studios became galleries. During the mini-recession that followed 9/11, Johnson said, the artists decided to band together and host a single night of the month when everyone would stay open late, as a way to attract visitors.
The gallery night soon became First Friday.
Today, thousands of people crowd onto the Crossroads’ streets for the monthly event. They browse galleries, they watch street performers, they dine in the neighborhood’s restaurants. The Crossroads is now home to more than 40 shops, more than 150 galleries and studios, and 60-plus restaurants.
During the peak months of June and Oct0ber, about 10,000 people will turn out for a typical First Friday.
That energy is a big reason why Johnson, who works in the tech industry, decided to buy a condo in the Crossroads. “I saw all this lively street activity, and I didn’t have to go to the Plaza to find it,” he said.
Several technology, architecture and engineering firms have relocated to the Crossroads, too, so they can be part of the environment there, Brownlee said.
While they might not fit the popular idea of art, IT and engineering do require creative thinking, and working in the Crossroads plugs them into a community of other creative people.
“A lot of them find it very inspiring,” Brownlee said.
‘They Have This Idea, and They Want to Go Attack It’
The Crossroads isn’t the only place where the community is investing in arts-related development, Brownlee noted.
» Anonymous donors have secured land for a possible downtown arts campus for UMKC—a move that could bring thousands of students to the neighborhood. The first phase would cost $96 million, and the university has raised $48 million.
» Last year, Lee’s Summit voters approved $2.89 million to create a downtown cultural arts campus and improve the amphitheater at Legacy Park.
» In Kansas City, Kan., community leaders are developing a series of live-work spaces for artists in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood.
» Independence rezoned its Englewood Station area as an official arts district in 2011 and paid for streetscape improvements there.
» As part of its Village Square redevelopment, Gladstone has built Linden Square, a “destination park” that hosts concerts and other arts events.
All told, more than $1.57 billion in public and private money has been invested in local arts over the past 10 years, Brownlee said. That includes high-profile projects like the Sprint Center, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College.
None of it would be happening without individuals like Van, Carswell and other artists who decided to pursue an entrepreneurial vision in Kansas City.
“Artists and entrepreneurs have a lot of the same qualities,” Van said. “They think outside the box. They want to support themselves. They want to make money doing what they like to do. They want to be their own boss. They want to set their own limits, their own schedule. They have this idea, and they want to go attack it.”
James Hart contributed to this article.