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Banking on KC – Allan Gray of Zhou Brothers Art Center

 


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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Allan Gray, a partner with Zhou Brothers Arts Center, an exciting new $20 million arts redevelopment in the 18th and Vine District. Allan has been a respected arts leader and advocate for more than 40 years, holding numerous professional and civic positions across a variety of local, regional, state, and national art platforms. He's also been involved in numerous economic development projects in both Kansas City and Lee's Summit. Welcome, Allan.

Allan Gray:

Well, thank you, Kelly. It's a pleasure to be here this morning.

Kelly Scanlon:

The art center is envisioned as an artist hub. What will artists find or have access to at that hub?

Allan Gray:

Well, first of all, we want artists to find a home. We will have 40 to 45 artist studios of various sizes. And it is our hope that the art center becomes a place of creativity where artists and other creatives can come and launch visions and ideas, and have that organic interchange that leads to the art center like we have when we first introduced the Zhou brothers to Kansas City. It was not with any central purpose other than to look at how we could connect with the community. And our selection of the Attucks building as a location for the arts center was strictly by accident.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, tell us about that. It turns out to be such an appropriate place to house it. So tell us about that how it came to be that it was the Christmas Attucks Elementary School that was selected.

Allan Gray:

Well, Kelly, it started about 20 years ago and I was in Chicago for an arts conference and I signed up for a tour of the Zhou Brothers Gallery at that time. And I showed up for the tour at two o'clock in the afternoon, knocked on the door, and only to find out that the tour had taken place at 10 o'clock that morning. But fortunately for me, the Zhou brothers welcomed me to their home because their gallery and studio space also served as their home. I had the privilege of actually observing them create, which is something that they had not done before and have not done since.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, you got to sit there and watch them as they worked on their art projects?

Allan Gray:

Yes.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow.

Allan Gray:

And Zhou brothers, they're the longest-running collaborative art team, if you will, in the country, maybe perhaps in the world, but when they create, there's very little talking. A lot of it is done by feel and by gesture and just connectivity that they possess as brothers and as artists.

Kelly Scanlon:

Art, although it's shared, the creation of it is often a very solitary experience. It's the author, him or herself, in tune with whatever medium they're using. And to have two people working in sync like that, as you say, it's very unusual.

Allan Gray:

Yes. It's almost spiritual. And so growing from that experience, we loosely kept connected over the last 25 years until I was visiting Chicago again at an art conference and stood there in the studios and we began to talk about, "Why couldn't we do something in Kansas City?" And I gathered together the CEOs and executive directors of the organizations in Kansas City for a meeting with the city officials as well, just to have a conversation for us to learn more about what was taking place here.

Kelly Scanlon:

In the mid-2000's, maybe? Late 2000's?

Allan Gray:

Yeah, it was about 2016 of September. 2016.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay, so six years ago. So you're talking to some of the leaders in the arts community, the business people here in Kansas City, and that led to.

Allan Gray:

That led to a tour of the city to some of the institutions. Tony Jones had just taken over the Kansas City Art Institute. He happened to be a friend of the Zhou brothers. We toured the city and ended up at 18th and Vine, and as we walked, they saw the Attucks building. It captured their attention for a spell. The next day, I received a phone call early in the morning, and then he said, "Allan, can we go back to look at the school?"

And there was an opportunity via an open door at the school for us to walk through and passed boards and different remnants of people that had been living in the building, and they were just struck by it. And you could see the wheels turning. You could see their imaginations beginning to flow through the space as far as what the space could be, not what it was.

Kelly Scanlon:

It has expanded from that original concept those early months. Tell us about what the vision is now. And, what is accounted for that expansion?

Allan Gray:

Our original thinking was we would do the building in phases. The building is actually two buildings. It's a 1905 original building, and then there's a 1920 building. The 1905 building is a timber brick structure, which was fashionable and common for that period. And the 1920 building is totally concrete building. So our thoughts of having a phase project quickly faded from a two to four million-dollar building, which we're going to do in phases, and then to what is now about a 26, 27 million-dollar project because of the structural integrities and the zoning laws that we could anticipate. All those little things that add up.

So we decided to do the entire building, which opened up a lot of other possibilities beyond just the original smaller studios, that's allowing us to have exhibition space, gallery space, an immersive digital experience similar to the Van Gogh experience. We'll have a 125-seat auditorium that will be suitable for a smaller events, a spoken word, jazz, and things like that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And you just had a groundbreaking recently on that. Tell us about that as well as when you think it's actually going to be open to the public.

Allan Gray:

Well, we had our groundbreaking September, I believe, the dates are blending now. But it was an exciting groundbreaking at over 150 people, including Congressman Cleaver and the mayor and other dignitaries and art officials, which was exciting because we felt very welcome to the community, to the neighborhood. And really it underscored the significance behind the project and how Kansas City and the arts community of the economic development community are perceiving our involvement.

We have a 80,000-square foot art center currently in Bridgeport, Chicago. And when the Zhou brothers developed that center, when they moved into Bridgeport some 40 years ago, it was just the Zhou brothers, now they've attracted over 2000 artists and other art centers have come. And so, we believe that we'll be able to have that same impact in Kansas City beyond 18th and Vine, but become an international attraction for Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

Kansas City does have a growing reputation as a vibrant arts committee, all different kinds of art. How do you see the Zhou Brothers Arts Center adding to that? Again, not just by invigorating the 18th and Vine area, like you just talked about, but increasing our profile nationally, even internationally as you suggested given the Zhou brothers global reach.

Allan Gray:

Well, we believe that in the same way that artists are attracted to cities like New York or Paris and so forth. They do that because they want to be around the best, and the Zhou brothers represent the best in artistry. And their presence in Kansas City will allow our community, our local artists, to have the opportunity to work and exchange ideas with two international figures, but also to bring in other artists, raising the bar, if you will, in the eyes of the world as Kansas City being a place where, as an artist, you want to be in that environment, as I said. Or you're around other artists to have that creative energy that is both supportive and encouraging, and allows you to think beyond what maybe your original visions just like we did with the art center.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly. You mentioned that the Zhou brothers actually being here physically. How often do they plan to be in Kansas City?

Allan Gray:

We don't have a particular schedule at this point, but I would anticipate it's going to be fairly frequent just in terms of the programming that's planned, and our interest in being part of the community. This will be a first for us to be in two cities, but we're working that out. And a lot of that, again, will depend on the programming. But Southwest Airlines and United and Delta, they fly back and forth to Chicago all the time.

Kelly Scanlon:

As I mentioned, you have been involved in so many different economic development efforts throughout the metro area. A lot of times when people hear about arts, they don't think economic development. But talk to us about the economic impact of not just this new arts center that's being created, but just the arts in general in Kansas City.

Allan Gray:

Well, I think the arts have established themselves in Kansas City as a major attraction if you will, a major reason why people move to Kansas City, why corporations decide to move. Many corporations and businesses will make their decision to move based on whether if there is a vibrant art community involved. I think of the case of Brown, UPS, when they decided to move to Atlanta. One of the questions that the CEO and his wife, in particular, asked was, "Do they have a symphony? Do they have a ballet? Do they have an internationally-recognized museum?" And Atlanta was able to check off those boxes. Similarly, Kansas City can do that. We have our own Kansas City Ballet. We have an incredible symphony with the Kauffman Performing Arts Center.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure. A world-class facility to house them as well.

Allan Gray:

Exactly. Those are the types of things that people look for when they're making decisions. Particularly our young people that are looking for that vibrancy, that opportunity to interact. And as they grow and as they begin to have children, the presence of those amenities becomes very important. And so, that's how you create that foundation for future growth and decisions for where people live. Our own Kay Barnes, I have to give her credit for having the vision to bring people back into downtown.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Allan Gray:

And that has created a vibrancy. The trolley has created vibrancy. And businesses are attracted and now want to be around the trolley.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Well, and that vibrancy, that added quality of life, if you will, it's infectious. People want to come, they're attracted to it. Just like you were talking about artists being attracted to other artists. Same thing with when you have those kinds of cultural amenities in a city. You have been involved in so many different things. We've talked about the art center. We've talked a little bit about economic development for a while. You were a councilman in Lee Summit. And you have just seen with all of the different things you've been involved with from the different art platforms and so forth, you've seen various aspects. You have nearly a 360 perspective of Kansas City. And given that, what excites you most about our potential right now?

Allan Gray:

Well, I think what excites me about Kansas City is that we have yet to fulfill our full potential and that there's just a vast array of opportunities for growth. It's a matter of having people that have the insight, the vision, and the commitment or determination to move projects forward. You look at the women's soccer stadium-

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. The Kauffman Stadium.

Allan Gray:

... the impact that will have, the Royals moving back downtown. I hope the decision-makers are listening, hopefully within a mile of the 18th and Vine jazz district, a shameless plug. I moved back to Kansas City after college. And for that reason, I thought there was just a lot of opportunity here, and it's borne itself out with some of the projects I've been fortunate to be involved in.

Kelly Scanlon:

If there were one thing that you could say Kansas City could focus on or should focus on, we've got a wonderful arts community, art sports teams are just knocking it out of the park, so to speak, we have a great business. If there was one thing more that we could add to the mix, what would you see that being?

Allan Gray:

Well, I think we should continue to lay the groundwork, the creative foundation for transportation and connectivity in our community. Because I talked to leaders and I talked to people in the communities, I was just in a board retreat for the organization. Connectivity and transportation were two of the areas that, as an arts organization, we were concerned with and wanted to become involved in that discussion. So our ability to connect the North with South Kansas City, or East and West to cross the boundaries of state line into Kansas to connect our rural communities into Kansas City, that's where our strength is.

Now, this is probably a little bit dated and I'm going to imagine that this number has improved. The arts contributed over $3 billion to the state of Missouri's economy, with the B. And the local arts community is in excess of $256 million are contributed. We represent, I think, the third largest employer in Kansas City if you combine all the arts organizations and the employees and all the businesses that are connected to the arts. So, we're a significant economic factor. Communities that have keyed into that and learn how to unlock that potential and to not connect the arts with their economic development plans are the ones that are being successful.

Kelly Scanlon:

As I mentioned, you have been involved with so many different art platforms, you were the former chair of the Missouri Arts Council, you also were the founder of the second home for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1984. As you work with the Zhou brothers on establishing a home for their new center, what are some of the similarities you're seeing? What are some of the advantages that you learned with your work with Alvin Ailey that you can bring to this project?

Allan Gray:

Well, I think it began with the experience I had in their studio. I was able to draw on what I had learned, what I had experienced being with Alvin in the studio, knowing how to sit motionless, and not disturb the energy of a space while he created a ballet or during the rehearsal, and that transferred to the first experience I had with the Zhou brothers. I think the other similarity is to have the opportunity to work with genius and to understand how that mind works.

I believe that this project is based upon vision, is based upon a spirit of knowledge and understanding of the arts and what the arts intrinsically mean to each of us, and how the arts can empower communities, how the arts can open up opportunities in the mind, the experiences that people are willing to position themselves for. With Alvin Ailey, the entire community was impacted by presenters or acknowledged that there was an entire community that had been left out by the African American community.

Our first performance at the Folly, it was over 50% of the audience was from the African American community, that's 1982 and 1984. And people forget that that happened, and that's recent history.

Kelly Scanlon:

It is.

Allan Gray:

But it opened doors for our community to be more accepting and more inclusive. Kansas City, we were having these discussions about inclusivity and diversity back in 1980, and creating opportunities for our community to fully engage itself. And so, that's what we look at the Zhou brothers, two artists originally from the name China at 18th and Vine.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right, right.

Allan Gray:

I mean, who would think that that would happen. But it's happening very organically, that the neighbors around 18th and Vine have welcomed the Zhou brothers, and we think that that's going to create an opportunity for partnership, for collaboration, for projects that we have yet to invent or even think about.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, and that they will happen. Allan, thank you so much for all of the work you have done throughout the region on behalf of the arts, on behalf of various cities, we really appreciate your involvement.

Allan Gray:

Well, thank you, Kelly, for the opportunity.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Allan Gray for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Kansas City's vibrant art scene has been attracting national and even international attention. The Zhou Brothers Art Center should bring even more exposure, celebrating local artists and drawing international talent to its studios stage and exhibit halls. The center is also expected to add to the economic vitality of our region, generating additional jobs, business ventures, and other development projects. Most of all, the center is envisioned as a connector, as a gathering spot where the local community can gather for an organic interchange of visions and ideas.

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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