Crossroads Arts District Draws Crowds on First Fridays
by Matt Ehrhorn
After humble beginnings, First Fridays now attracts people from across the 20-county metropolitan area, making the exhibits a “must-see” for the traditional arts community as well as the general public. (photo courtesy of Blue Gallery)
In all of the recent talk and excitement over the future downtown arena and entertainment district, the present success being enjoyed by the thriving downtown arts community tends to get neglected. Over the last five years, the number of people from all over the bi-state area who come downtown each month for the Crossroads Arts District’s First Fridays gallery openings has been increasing steadily.
Spread out over a one-mile square north of Union Station, the Crossroads Arts District grew out of a small community of artists and residents in the late 1980s and ’90s. Jim Leedy, a professor in the sculpture department at the Kansas City Art Institute, bought some lofts in the district during the 1980s and turned them into art galleries. Leedy and other interested parties, including John O’Brien, owner of the Dolphin gallery on 1901 Baltimore and Suzie Aron, president of the Crossroads Community Association (CCA) and the Society for Contemporary Photography on 2012 Baltimore (for which Aron’s daughter, Kathy Aron Dowell, serves as director), initially held small gallery openings and shared postage and others costs by keeping an envelope for sales profits.
Eventually, the group began attracting other artists and businesspeople who recognized the Crossroads as a potentially profitable district in which to open lofts, restaurants, retail shops and more galleries. As Aron puts it, “Just by any kind of energy and network, an art community began to grow.” And what began with one or two galleries now has grown to more than 60 galleries and shops throughout the Crossroads District.
The Crossroads Community Association was formed four years ago to better administer marketing, funding and other community initiatives. Made up of residents, property owners, tenants, employees and small business owners, the CCA is divided into Infrastructure, Community Enrichment, Marketing/Communications and Financing committees that oversee subcommittees such as the Crossroads Anti-Graffiti Initiative and the Visual Arts Cooperative. Competing with escalating property taxes, the CCA and the Crossroads Arts District get the bulk of their funding from members’ dues, program fees, and government, foundation and private donations.
About five years ago, Aron, Leedy, O’Brien and others got together to pick one night out of the month to open the galleries for public showings. For a while, the First Friday openings were attended mostly by friends and other community artists. “In the beginning, we knew everybody,” Aron says, “and now people are coming from all over.” On the first Friday of each month, the galleries are open from 7 to 9 p.m. At that time of night, on-street and small-lot parking is available throughout the area, and a free trolley service makes multiple stops from 6:45 to 9:30 p.m.
Aside from the gallery openings, much of the draw of First Fridays comes from the various independently owned restaurants and retail shops, which sell artwork, clothing, antiques and other merchandise. Live entertainment is another common attraction. Both City Tavern and The Coffee Girls regularly feature live music on First Fridays, and the Smith & Berstert gallery on 122 Southwest Boulevard has show tunes and classical music concerts.
Crossroads activity is far from limited to First Fridays. On Saturdays following Friday night openings, featured artists from the night before give talks abut their exhibits and art in general. And the galleries, themselves, are regularly open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In addition, other organizations tend to plan events around the arts district and often concurrently with First Fridays, particularly in the spring. The Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, for example, is holding its 43rd Annual Spring Homes Tour in the metropolitan area from April 24 to May 8.
Artists, business and gallery owners, or anyone interested in participating or learning more about First Fridays, the Crossroads Arts District and the Community Association are encouraged to go the CCA’s website at: www.crossroadscommunityassociation.com.