Serving Kansas City’s Artists

Residencies, exhibitions and patrons: an interview with Colby K. Smith, managing director of Studios Inc

When it comes to supporting the arts in Kansas City, Studios Inc goes above and beyond. Founded in 2003, this local non-profit boasts a wide array of programs aimed at serving the professional needs of mid-career artists in Kansas City. The Residency Program is the cornerstone of the organization’s work, offering exhibitions, studio space and so much more through its three-year residency awards. Supplementing this are the Patron Program, Public Exhibition Series, Internship Program and studios.gallery, the “shop.”  More than helping artists build a portfolio, Studios Inc strives to help artists build relationships and make connections with the local community. Kansas City Spaces sat down recently with Colby K. Smith, managing director of Studios Inc, to talk about the organization’s program, mission and challenges.

Kansas City Spaces: You have so many different programs. Did you start out with all at once, or has it slowly grown?
Colby K. Smith: The Residency Program came first. Nothing would be here without the Residency Program. The other programs were so intertwined with it that we weren’t looking at them as separate programs until we started moving away from private funding. For state support and larger foundations, programs are really important. By breaking them out and understanding what they were, we could strengthen them as programs in their own right.

KCS: How do you choose the artists for your Residency Program?
CKS: Our ultimate goal is we’re looking for Kansas City’s best artists, hands-down, but we also look at which artists will most likely go back after the residency and build our community. That’s something that has been really important to us. You can look through an artist’s resume and tell how engaged they are outside of their own sphere. There are artists that love to make work, but they do it in solitude. Then there are people out there aggressively putting art into the community. Since we serve mid-career artists, we also expect them to come to us with all their business acumen. We want to make sure they have a clear idea of what they’re going to do, not what they’re going to make but how they’re going to approach it to have that impact. We want to see definite change, to see their career take off even more.

KCS: Why mid-career artists specifically?
CKS: It’s challenging to be a mid-career artist. There’s all this tremendous support for emerging artists. It’s easier to sell supporters on your work. There’s all this opportunity, and generally your cost of living and your responsibility is lower at that age. But maybe your career jumps up real fast and then plateaus off as you enter into that mid-career phase. Then it’s more of a steady, slow up-down increase until you’ve reached that point where you’ve totally made it. An emergent artist might be anywhere from 20 to 30, but mid-career artists might be anywhere from 30 to 60. We want to step in when there’s not a lot of support. And it’s a really critical time. These artists might have mortgages, a kid in college, their wife is working two jobs, and they’re working out of their basement making art even though it appears they’re on top of their game.

KCS: How do you find the patrons for the Patron Program?
CKS: Each member of our board of directors is responsible to either find or become a patron. When we look for patrons, we’re looking for somebody that has a deep passion for the arts and is looking for a way to support it in a more intimate way. For our patrons, one of the things they find unique and rewarding is that their giving is on a one-to-one level. They are supporting this artist and having a tangible impact.
We also look for people outside the art arena. We’ve had success focusing on other industries by showing them the importance of incorporating art into their workplace. They see how exciting it is to be a patron and the value of it for their company or as an individual.

KCS: With all these different programs, it seems like a lot to manage. What are your biggest challenges?
CKS: It’s been a challenge letting the public know we’re here. Our general response when someone comes here is “This is amazing! I had no idea you were here!” We’re almost better known nationally and internationally than locally. It’s very challenging, but it’s also very rewarding. I’m an artist. I used to make art every single day. I don’t get to make it as much as I used to, but I do get to wake up knowing that what I dedicate my day to will make a difference for our city.

KCS: Speaking of the city, what’s your favorite thing about working in the arts scene in Kansas City?
CKS: It’s malleable, and it’s also maneuverable. I think that on any end of the spectrum, whether you’re a young artist that’s new to K.C. or you’re an established artist, there’s always an access point, which I think is rare for any arts scene.

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