How Artists Act as Urban Pioneers

In August 2012, I wrote a series of posts about the value of artists in our communities. The one that seemed to interest the most people was the one that I’ve updated and re-posted below. I hope you enjoy it.

Jim Leedy is still at work in the Crossroads Arts District of
Kansas City. He is the subject of a film about his life.

The Kansas City Star published a profile on a “first” pioneer of the Crossroads, Jim Leedy, who also was the focus of a documentary film, Leedy, that chronicles his work in both the art world and in the Kansas City arts community. 

Leedy is a former Kansas City Art Institute professor, and co-founder of the Leedy-Voulkos Arts Center. The Star article gives a more in-depth look at the work Leedy and his cohorts did, to create a nurturing place for new artists, and eventually bring economic renewal to what had once been a seedy warehouse district.


As in Detroit and other places badly impacted by the Great Recession, arts are providing an avenue for economic revitalization. Many states have begun to catch on. Even Kansas—where the infamous Governor Sam Brownback proudly demolished our Kansas Arts Commission, despite a bipartisan rebuke from the Legislature—has quietly instituted a new Creative Arts Industries Commission that replicates some of the Arts Commission’s previous role.

This crumbling warehouse in Utica, NY is the kind of place
where beginning artists might find cheap studio space.
The classic sequence goes like this: a low-rent district of dilapidated properties attracts artists, who go there at an early stage in their careers, in search of affordable studio space. 

Good places to look are warehouse districts that have fallen into disrepair, or down-at-the-heels business districts, where rents are low and nobody is too picky about a mess (art-making is generally not a drip-free, dust-free enterprise!).

This “Heidelberg Project” house offers an eye-popping
example of “visually interesting things in shared spaces.”
Once they’ve established their studios, they collaborate, do visually interesting things with their shared spaces, and start putting on shows. People are attracted to this visually stimulating, offbeat creativity. They start coming frequently to see the art.

Other businesses notice that people are beginning to come to this area repeatedly, in ever-greater numbers. They develop a presence of their own, in this place “where it’s happening.” Business all over the area picks up.

Soon developers are offering “loft space” for urban-chic living, and the area becomes trendy. Gentrification is quick to follow, at which point the rents go too high for some of the artists, while others’ galleries are becoming more upscale, in tune with the neighborhood.

The ambiance of a successful arts district includes eateries
such as Benton Harbor, MI’s Phoenix Cafe.
Now the original area is booming, still enjoying the “artsy afterglow” for several decades. Savvy businesses perpetuate the character of the neighborhood with sidewalk cafes, boutiques, and other interesting attractions, such as pocket parks, smaller, specialty museums, etc.

Meanwhile many artists have moved, looking for a low-rent district of dilapidated properties, where they can find affordable studio space . . . and the cycle begins again. 

Please note this post originally appeared August 30, 2012, on my old Artdog Observations blog.

PHOTO CREDITS: The Jim Leedy photo is by Rich Sugg of the Kansas City Star. The photo of the warehouse in Utica, NY is from the Utica Observer-DispatchThe Ghost of Detroit Blog contributed the photo of the “Heidelberg Project” house in its blog post of the same name(couldn’t find the photographer’s name). The photo of the Phoenix Cafe in the Arts District of Benton Harbor, MI came fromTripAdvisor.com’s slideshow on the area.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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