Nestled in the space between the Kansas and Missouri River, the West Bottoms industrial area offers something unique to Kansas City that people gravitate towards. Look around on almost any weekend and you’ll see people taking photos, trying to capture the essence of this place. Variations in scale, material and texture play into the character of the neighborhood and encourage exploration.
Revitalization of the West Bottoms has manifested itself in the construction of new apartment buildings, renovated storefronts opening as art galleries, and restaurants tucking themselves away in the alleys – depending on their elusiveness as an attractive quality – and it works!
50/50 is the newest gallery to open in the West Bottoms. Its programming is unique in its focus on work of emerging artists, both local and national. This progressive approach provides an enriching experience for the featured artists as well as the Kansas City community.
I was first introduced to 50/50 about a year and a half ago when two Kansas City Art Institute graduates–Cambria Potter and Hannah Lodwick–came into the KCDC (Kansas City Design Center), where I was then a grad student, with a proposition. They wanted to start a gallery in the West Bottoms and build it using two shipping containers. They’d landed on a gallery concept, exhibition platforms and the desired location – but they needed help developing the design and executing this vision. In the months that followed, a strategy emerged to combine the two containers into one larger exhibition space. A specific project site was selected and a site plan developed to accommodate an outdoor gathering space.
Our process was very collaborative and hands on. We built physical models, mocked up the footprint of the containers in the KCDC studio space, researched other shipping container structures and took numerous site visits. Through this exploration – we began to understand the context in which we were working.
Community engagement played a big role in the realization of this project. In addition, building a strong brand helped facilitate these conversations. Project funding was attained though a Kickstarter campaign and a Rocket Grant – both signs of support and growing excitement within the community. Local businesses were engaged in many different aspects of this project – everything from securing the project site to working though construction details.
50/50 sits on a vacant corner lot just north of the Kemper Arena – the 550,000 sq ft arena stands as an icon in the West Bottoms. This juxtaposition in scale works in favor of the small-scale gallery. Sliding past one another, the two containers are oriented at a 45-degree angle to the street. This orientation allows an oblique view of the containers from the corner and suggests that their presence is intentional. Pushed towards the center of the lot, they float in the vast space, a move that invites pedestrians onto the lot itself because you can’t just peek through the window of the gallery from the street, you have to approach the containers – they force you to engage them. Sitting lightly on cinderblocks, the structure suggests that it is not a permanent addition to the cityscape but a temporary piece willing to adapt to its surroundings.
A commercial billboard is another component of the site and an exhibition platform utilized by 50/50. Facing 17th Street, the billboard displays itself to the corner lot and sits atop an adjacent building. Currently – the billboard displays a photograph of a neon sign reading “OPEN” (by Ari Fish). The installation appropriately celebrates the inaugural exhibition at 50/50.
Both the shipping containers and the billboard are elements native to the West Bottoms – in a way they blend into the existing landscape, not proclaiming their importance or even existence. Rather the containers give subtle cues that task people to discover them – just like many other destinations in this area. The billboard is repurposed infrastructure that relies on one strategic move, peeling away a portion of a familiar form to offer something surprising and thought provoking to the community.
The program for the gallery will feature half local and half national artists. This combination of local and national work is a strong component of the 50/50 mission. The current exhibition offers an experience uncommon among galleries. The scale of the space forces viewers to become intimate with the work – examining the pieces with a closeness that brings your attention to detail and creates an immersive experience. In addition to the physical gallery and the billboard series, 50/50 plans to exhibit via other platforms including lectures and a digital archive that will broaden exposure of the artwork. Using the side of the containers as a projection surface and the adjacent plaza as a gathering space, the lectures will be hosted by both local and national artists.
While the physical footprint of 50/50 is small, the impact on the artist community both locally and nationally is already unmistakably significant.
“The cleverness of 50/50 is that it is using current technologies to create a platform with the potential to continue on in many different incarnations. The 50/50 team is consciously creating an adaptable model for artistic discourse that envisions a future in which the digital and analog coexist and creatively extend each other.”
– Meredith Derks