I heard beforehand that The Speakeasy was going to be more dynamic than the typical art show, but still I was surprised by the number of events and the breadth of the subjects covered. Except for the food and beer served from behind the counter by people in red striped aprons, there was nothing static about the show at all.
The list of events that transpired over the 6 weeks of the show is exhausting just to consider: scrounged architecture, foraged food, socially conscious art, art as craft, a BBQ cook off, live music ranging from rock to techno to industrial, poetry, and a series of dialogues tackling knotty problems as balancing day jobs with artistic careers, getting grants and working unpaid to support ‘artists for name your cause.’
Most exhibits are tightly bound by time and space, but for this show each event was like an individual piece at a traditional show so in order to ‘see’ The Speakeasy it was necessary to see as many of the events as possible and so I decided to do this. I missed a few events due to scheduling conflicts and I must confess I deliberately skipped the ‘stitch and bitch’ out of fear that it would bring back bad memories of interminable waits at the fabric store when my wife was buying materials for KC Art Institute projects.
The Speakeasy was a surprisingly ambitious project to be put on by a tiny crew of people and almost no money. It doesn’t fit in with my past view of Kansas City which was largely in agreement with an essay published in Harper’s magazine in 1987 by Richard Rhodes entitled “Cupcake Land – Requiem for the Midwest in the key of vanilla.”
In his essay Rhodes traced the descent of Kansas City from a vibrant city in his childhood to a soulless expanse suburbia of where a bland pleasantness is the prevailing attitude and “a through search of an expensive well furnished house turns up not one serious book.” For the visual arts Cupcake culture is epitomized by the statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill on the Plaza which was blown up to life size from a small piece of kitsch designed for a coffee table.
Rhodes describes his adult years in Kansas City as being “stuck” due to an ex-wife with custody of his children. He made due by living in a small vibrant enclave which he call “Nutbread Land”, a spirited neighborhood with “people of all sizes and shapes and colors walking real sidewalks, some of them talking to themselves.” Of course, he is talking about 43rd Street and the area around the Kansas City Art Institute.
While there is still plenty of Cupcake culture in Kansas City, I think that his portrait has been outdated for a few years now. Basically, Nutbread Land has grown quiet a bit both geographically and culturally. It has expanded into the River Market, the Crossroads (thanks to pioneers like David Ford) and now the West Bottoms and Troost. The big institutional arts organizations have all vastly improved from where they were in 1987. More importantly there are more artists getting together doing more things. The activities of the Charlotte Street are a prime example.
I see The Speakeasy as a good sized brick that has gone into the construction of a Greater Nutbread Land in Kansas City. I don’t think that you need to feel ‘stuck’ in Kansas City as a creative person any longer. But we need people like Bread KC, Charlotte Street and others to be constantly working on building up Nutbread Land or it may well get sucked up again by the surrounding Cupcake Culture.
Of course, if I strip away all the analytical superstructure that I have built, the actual experience of The Speakeasy is what remains. I have to admit I am not a martyr for Nutbread Land. If the events at The Speakeasy had been annoying I would have dropped the whole thing more quickly that I would exit a room full of Thomas Hart Benton paintings if I happened to stumble into such a room). No The Speakeasy was never a bore – always a pleasure.