Julius A. Karash on Business and the Arts | ‘A shining spot in Kansas City’

The Zhou B Art Center is expected to be finished this December, repurposing a former segregated public school at 1815 Woodland Ave. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The Zhou B Art Center pays homage to a historic Black school and adds another major cultural attraction to the 18th and Vine district

On a sweltering day last August, contractors in the historic 18th and Vine district were transforming an abandoned elementary school into an arts mecca.

The Zhou B Art Center in Kansas City is a project of storied Chinese artists ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou, creators of the acclaimed Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. The ambitious venture involves a major renovation of two historically significant buildings into a vibrant work and gathering space near 18th and Vine. It will include 45 art studios, indoor and outdoor event spaces, a sculpture garden, a kitchen and a lounge. The $27 million project got underway in October 2022 and completion is expected in December 2023.

“If you were restoring a building that wasn’t an historic landmark you would just gut the building,” said Mark Sargent, an A.L. Huber General Contractor superintendent who led me on a tour of the redevelopment site. “But here we have historical finishes that we have to keep. We’re restoring all the old blackboards from the 1905 classrooms that are being converted into studios. We’re refurbishing historical doors. A fifth-generation plasterer is doing a complete plaster restoration in the auditorium.”

The monumental brick structure at 18th Street and Woodland Avenue formerly housed the Attucks School, which served Black children during the days of segregated education. The school was named after Crispus Attucks, a Black man killed in Boston at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It has stood empty for about 20 years.

KC Studio writer Julius Karash (right) and Mark Sargent of A.L. Huber General Contractor in an old Attucks School classroom that’s being redeveloped into art studios. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The original building went up in 1905 and a second, connected building was added in 1922. The school was listed on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places in 1983 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

In 2019 it was reported that the abandoned school was awash in graffiti, pocked by broken windows and surrounded by piles of trash.

After decades of abandonment, this redevelopment project brings a promise of renewed vibrancy. “This is really going to be a shining spot in Kansas City,” Sargent said.

Allan Gray, an equity partner with Zhou B Art Center, said the foundation of the venerable structure was in great shape and both buildings “have excellent bones, as they say. We’ve had to do very little to the exterior brick, other than some tuckpointing. Our biggest challenge with the physical structure has been removing the graffiti.”

Gray said the original plan was to do the project in phases, beginning with the 1905 building. “But once we got into the building and had architects from BNIM take a look at it, we quickly realized that we were going to have to do both buildings at the same time.”

The developers have been able to take advantage of historic tax credits. The tax credits benefitted the project from an economic standpoint and sharpened the focus on historic preservation in the 1905 building, Gray said.

ShanZuo (left) and DaHuang Zhou making art in their studio in the historic Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago circa 2004 (from the artists)

Connecting with 18th and Vine

A new atrium entrance on the north side of the building will emphasize the art center’s connection to the celebrated 18th and Vine neighborhood, home to attractions such as the American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Black Archives of Mid-America and Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.

Gray said the developers want people to realize the historical significance of this neighborhood.

“Where you now see parking lots were houses that came right up to the school building,” Gray said. “This was a place for African American students in Kansas City to receive an education. This was a place where African American educators and administrators got their start. It was very much a community, and we have made it a point to engage the community all along the process. That’s one of the reasons we added a main entry that will face 18th and Vine, in homage to the neighborhood. We are becoming another anchor for the district.”

The Zhou Brothers

Leading this endeavor are the Zhou brothers, both of whom are acclaimed contemporary artists. The brothers were born, educated and trained in China. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 brought suffering to the Zhou family, and the brothers immigrated to the United States in 1986.

A 2016 article in Artsy described the Zhou Brothers as “among the most legendary and established cultural figures in the contemporary art world. As artists, they live in a world of the self. Their art is made to explore the topic through inquiry about humankind itself. Their life reflects their pursuit of art, which is a heroic journey to conquer the world.”

Artsy lauded the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago, which opened in 2004. It said the brothers had transformed a “big warehouse building” into the “most popular private art center in Chicago.”

Artsy also noted that the Zhou brothers had started their own art foundation and opened an artists’ residency exchange program.

Gray, a former chairman of the Missouri Arts Council and Arts KC, has known the Zhou brothers for more than 20 years. During a 2016 visit to Chicago, he invited them to Kansas City to “see for themselves the vibrancy of the community and all that was taking place with the arts,” he said.

The next year, the Zhou brothers took Gray up on his invitation. Gray introduced them to art and civic leaders and gave them a close-up look at the 18th and Vine district. Gray said the Attucks school building caught their eye, so much so that they said they wanted to buy it.

“And that was the genesis of how the Zhou brothers came to Kansas City,” Gray said.

Mark Sargent (right) of A.L. Huber General Contractor gives KC Studio writer Julius Karash a tour inside the old Attucks School auditorium, which is being redeveloped into an updated auditorium/event/meeting space. It will include a digital ticket experience, and art will be projected onto the walls. (photo by Jim Barcus)

A Community of Artists

Kansas City’s Zhou B Art Center currently is set up as a for-profit LLC (limited liability company), but plans are afoot to establish a nonprofit foundation to support artist development and other programs, Gray said.

“We will bring in artists from all over the world and work with local artists, to provide them opportunities to share their work and have their work seen by individuals they normally would not rub shoulders with,” Gray said.

Mitch Obstfeld, a curator and design coordinator with the Zhou brothers’ Kansas City development, said the brothers “want to create an active community of artists who will have studios in the building. But somebody can’t just say, ‘I want a studio, here’s a check.’ They have to go through a process.”

Applicants for studios will be reviewed by a jury consisting of the two Zhou brothers, Obstfeld and a Kansas City area arts patron or educator. The prospective tenants will have to provide a CV and samples of their artwork.

“We’re looking for active artists who are part of the community,” said Obstfeld, who has known the Zhou brothers for many years. “We want people that are doing this full time, for whom it’s not a hobby. We’re not looking to be just a landlord. We will be helping the artists grow in their artistic career. And the artists in the building will feed off each other, almost like an artist incubator.”

The studios will range in size from 200 square feet to 800 square feet, with an average lease rate of $2 per square foot. “We’ll be able to help subsidize their rents if needed,” Obstfeld said.

The Zhou B Art Center also will offer educational programming and events, such as “First Fridays” and an annual artist exhibition. Obstfeld was scheduled to install a permanent exhibit of Zhou brothers art in November.

The art center will partner with several organizations. Among them is the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Chicago, Obstfeld said. “It is one of the largest and most important African American museums in the country, if not in the world. We’re working very closely with them in educational programming.”

Obstfeld said additional partners, including Kansas City area organizations, will be announced after agreements are formalized.

A Bit of Historic Redevelopment Advice

A lot goes into a successful historic redevelopment project. Gray said the requirements include making a commitment and taking a long view.

“If you’re trying to restore an historic building, there are things you have to be willing to do,” he said. “It may not make sense financially, or even logically, in terms of what your particular vision is. But in the long run, when you look back at your work,
it all comes together.”

For more information, visit www.zhoubartcenterkc.com.

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