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Sarah Hearn
As an administrator of the Kansas City-based 10-location organization and a working artist herself, Artist INC Regional Program Manager Sarah Hearn is straightforward in what she thinks about a life in arts. | Photo by Anne Kniggendorf

Artists take risks, but so do the people and organizations who support them

Galleries, venues, and nonprofits play a critical role in making sure artists can connect to their audiences.

Artist INC Regional Program Manager Sarah Hearn is straightforward in what she thinks about a life in arts. “I think if you sign up to have a life as an artist, you have taken a risk,” she said. As an administrator of the Kansas City-based 10-location organization and a working artist herself, Hearn understands better than most how much risk is involved in the arts.

Among the risks in the arts: the risk artists take in their careers and finances when presenting work that might not have broad appeal or is outside of their regular repertoire; the financial and reputational risks galleries and institutions take in presenting chosen works; the risk a patron takes in purchasing a new piece in hopes that it will bring years of joy or perhaps appreciate in value; and the risk taken by audiences of art, who must set aside biases in order to open their minds to the artist’s ideas.

In her support role, Hearn knows that many of these risks, particularly those artists face, can be managed. Artist INC has assisted about 1500 artists over 10 years, guided by a mission to help them – as entrepreneurs – learn to manage their business risk. Through professional development programs, the organization helps artists by giving them resources to file their taxes, navigate legal issues, create marketing plans, and set professional goals.

Many organizations across Kansas City support artists in different ways, enabling them to take risks. For instance, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which hosted 352 staged performances – many featuring established and even famous artists – for 530,000 guests in 2018, also invites up-and-coming performers, including children, to take the stage and find an audience. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has Picasso and Caravaggio displayed on its walls, takes risks in its programming, not only so that it can support world-class artists, but in order to invite members of the public to take a risk in exploring and discussing otherwise unfamiliar or sensitive ideas.

The cultivation of a strong arts community makes cities attractive, Hearn said. But more importantly, she added, “I feel like art has the power to communicate difficult ideas and concepts that we can’t digest otherwise or that may be polarizing.”

She said that art can act as an entry point for a variety of difficult conversations, and because a performance or painting is the focus, people feel safe in articulating their differences.

Kreshaun McKenney
Kreshaun McKenney, right, Manager of Audience Engagement, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. | Photo by Anne Kniggendorf

Kreshaun McKenney, right, Manager of Audience Engagement, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. | Photo by Anne Kniggendorf

The Nelson-Atkins Manager of Audience Engagement, Kreshaun McKinney, agrees with Hearn. She said the museum has selected four “power words” as guides.

“People deal with those issues – race, history, identity, beauty – all day in their lives, or every day in their lives, outside of an art museum,” McKinney said.

So, an exhibition like 30 Americans, which ran from June to August 2019 and showcased 80 works of art by 30 African-American artists, encompassed all four power words and was a catalyst for a variety of conversations not only in the arts community, but in communities that don’t regularly patronize the museum.

“Sometimes people see museums as intimidating; they think you have to know something about art in order to cross that threshold,” McKinney said. She said the museum understands that in order to minimize the feeling of personal risk for new patrons, they need to create physical points of entry even before they create points of entry into conversations.

The Nelson-Atkins has done just that with events surrounding exhibitions. The 30 Americans programming included lectures, book club meetings at the public library, an artist talk at a church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and an original play – all of it decided on and arranged by a 14-member advisory panel composed of Kansas City teachers, artists, community and spiritual leaders, librarians, and activists. Each occasion served as a way in for people who might not otherwise engage with art, with each other, or in discussions concerning, in this case, race.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts also looks to draw in a wide range of patrons, which involves taking risks of its own. Center CEO Paul Schofer said, “Our vision is to provide diverse and extraordinary performing arts experiences for everyone.”

Paul Schofer
Paul Schofer, CEO, Kauffman Center for Performing Arts. | Photo by Anne Kniggendorf

But everyone is a lot of people. Schofer and his team manage that risk through their business model. He said that only about $1.5 million of their yearly revenue is from ticket sales from their Kauffman Center Presents series in 2019, which was fewer than 25 performances out of 352. Less than 10% of its revenue comes from rentals to their three resident companies: the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Ballet (at a subsidized rate to help ensure the financial success of those organizations) which make up about two-thirds of annual performances. Rentals to community arts organizations like the Harriman-Jewell Series, the American Theatre Guild, and the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra provide an additional 9% of revenue; while ancillary business revenue such as special events and ticket surcharges provide about 24% of revenue. Other sources of revenue come from contributions and sponsorships (around 30%), and an endowment of over $60 million.

For the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, part of the risk comes in rising to their mission of including the entire community through the 25 or so performances that are not among those from their resident companies or other rental organizations. In the past, they have brought in Alice Cooper, Boys II Men, Snarky Puppy, and a screening of Napoleon Dynamite accompanied by a conversation with three of its stars. Schofer said that Snarky Puppy and Napoleon Dynamite drew 500 people who’d never before set foot in the Kauffman Center, according to an audience survey.

Even with such programming successes, Schofer said that this tactic is financially risky for the center best known for its fine arts performances, because they have to pay the full price to the artists even if not one ticket sells. “As compared to a rental, if Theater League brings in Chicago, we still get a rental fee regardless of whether one person shows up to buy a ticket. They are at risk on the tickets. We get the rental fee.”

Schofer doesn’t stop there, though. Real inclusivity – really including “everybody” –means incorporating and supporting local artists like those Hearn works with at Artist INC. Among those, local singer and harpist Calvin Arsenia performed there in 2017 to a standing ovation. In 2013, Artist INC participant Beau Bledsoe performed a night of tango music at the Kauffman.

In early 2020, Kansas City’s Störling Dance Theater will perform Underground based on true stories of the underground railroad. Artists who don’t yet have the following to sell 800 to 1000 tickets perform in a series called Live in the Lobby, which is akin to a warm-up for performers in one of the larger venues. The Kauffman’s Future Stages series places adolescent performers front and center.

“We just think that’s a part of being a part of our community. It’s building relationships in our community,” Schofer said.

As McKinney at the Nelson-Atkins puts it, “people need to feel that challenge of, can you connect to a cultural experience that’s not your own?” She and Schofer both see that, though that might feel risky, a lot of people want to try.

In thinking back to the 30 Americans exhibition, McKinney said that the work showcased a wide range of feeling, including elements of “tremendous hope and triumph and celebration. And then also very traumatic moments. And what was important for us was that people had an opportunity to experience all of those things. And, some people may find that off-putting, ‘I don’t want to feel this way, I don’t want to see these difficult elements of this history.'”

Artist INC’s Hearn said that all of those conversations and the various forms of risk work to put artists in positions where they can affect positive change. She’s concerned that in the past, the public has often viewed artists and their craft with little respect, sometimes offering little to no pay for murals, written content, or other forms of output, and not seeking their guidance on important civic challenges. But with big organizations like the Nelson-Atkins and the Kauffman Center behind them, artists are treated as the professionals they are, and she said, “communities are better because of this.”

More and more, Hearn said, she sees artists placed in leadership positions and given real roles of authority. “And what we have realized is that when artists are on the director’s team really amazing changes can happen, and good partnerships can happen, and it can be long-term relationships, and we see artists fully succeed and thrive.”


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