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Visionaries and Artists Meet at The Kansas City Crossroads Arts District

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Kansas City, Missouri’s Crossroads Arts District is a combination of growth and vision. According to an article in 2004 by USA Today’s Gene Sloan, “The Crossroads Arts District has an awesome artsy vibe like New York, Philadelphia, or Portland.”

The Kauffman Performing Arts Center & District Garage in Kansas City Missouri, known nationwide for the amazing architecture. The Arts District Garage is known for its Greenroof. (Photo by Kat Day)

Kansas City did not utilize the Crossroads name until one man saw an area of vacant buildings and warehouses and envisioned it as a thriving art district. That man was Jim Leedy of Leedy Voulkos Art Center, and at first, the area was called Leedyville. Jim Leedy had a vision and made that vision happen!

The Jim Leedy, "Leedy-Voulkos Art Center and Sherry Leedy Contemporary Arts are located in-between the 19th and 20th and Baltimore Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

(Photo by Kat Day) “The Crossroads was a no-go zone of vacant buildings until artists began moving in about a decade ago. And it’s only in the past few years that the area has exploded with galleries, restaurants, and design stores. Thousands of people now turn out for First Fridays, a community-wide open house that takes place the first Friday of every month (complete with art openings and live performances).” Stated Journalist Gene Sloan of USA Today in 2004. Hugh Merrill is a long time art professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. Merrill is also a well-known artist, writer, and community activist. In 1985 Merrill had a solo exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum, and his work is collected in over 50 museums including the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Hugh Merrill explains that Jim Leedy and Dale Eldridge ran the Sculpture Department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Jim Leedy had an incredible vision. Merrill talks about how intimidating and impressed he was by when he first met him. Leedy is well-versed in music, sculpture, poetry, teaching, being a gallery owner, and his world travels. He and Jim met at the Institute, and they became fast friends.

Leedy kept trying to get Merrill to buy a building for $30 thousand at 1919 Wyandotte. Merrill regrets that he didn’t because the building is now worth over a million dollars today.

The building that Jim Leedy tried to get Hugh Merrill to purchase, 1919 Wyandotte, KCMO. Leedy had his first gallery in the Crossroads in this building from 1985-1995. Before that it was the Squadron Press from 1978 til Leedy purchased the building in 1985 to start the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery. (Photo by Kat Day) Regardless Hugh Merrill, Doug Baker, and Dan Younger worked together in 1978 to build the first art-related business in the Crossroads. The company was a Print Studio called Squadron Press at 1919 Wyandotte. Merrill had his studio above the Print Shop. The Crossroads area was vacant back then. There might have been one restaurant that was a mom-and-pop diner now replaced by Manny’s Mexican Restaurant. The Squadron Press is long gone, but now it is a Gallery by Volume 1NE, with the Crossroads Studio and Nichols & Company Photography. Merrill goes into a haunting tale of how he and Leedy went in to inspect the first building that Leedy had purchased. Merrill got quite a fright going into the basement to discover thousands of elves and clown figures he remembers from childhood in Macy’s Christmas window displays.

Hugh Merril pointing out a photo of Jim Leedy in his studio while telling the tale of the Crossroads. (Photo by Kat Day) Merrill claims it was phenomenal to watch Leedy’s perseverance in wanting to fix up the old, dilapidated building and stay the course of his vision.

Jim Leedy merged the the galleries in 1995 changing the name to Leedy-Voulkos Art Center located at 2012 Baltimore. (Photo by Kat Day)

In the beginning, the name of the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District was Leedyville for a short period. The business community already had a name: the Crossroads that Dolphin Gallery Owner John O’Brien found out at a luncheon with a group of businessmen at the Hereford House, according to an NPR interview on Central Standard with O’Brien and Jim Leedy.

What is left of what was put into the concrete after hearing the tale of Leedyville in-between Leedy-Voulkos and Sherry Leedy Contemporary Arts on Baltimore. (Photo by Kat Day)

"Many say the Crossroads was born in 1985, when Jim Leedy opened the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery in an old warehouse at 1919 Wyandotte St. A sculpture professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, Leedy was attracted by the area’s low building costs and went on to buy more properties to use as studio and gallery space." states Bob Johnson in an article from the Kansas City Business Journal in 2015. "By 1995, when the First Friday tours of Crossroads arts venues began, Leedy had merged his gallery and contemporary art center at 2012 Baltimore Ave. The Leedy-Voulkos Art Center remains a stop on the tours, which pull in as many as 10,000 people a month." Merrill explains ‘humorously’ that the Crossroads was named in honor of the great Robert Johnson who drove down highway 61 to sell his soul to the Devil to play the guitar. It is fun to think that the Crossroads got its name from the Devil and certainly more creative, but not accurate. R. Scott Anderson is a retired firefighter and got into photography with a vision and persistence to do better. Anderson discusses his first show on First Friday in March of 2010, in the Old Hemmingway Gallery, which used to be the old Kansas City Courthouse in the Crossroads.

R. Scott Anderson at MOD Gallery & Space in front of his show, "The World...Surreal" in circa 2015. (Photo by Patrick Lamb) “There were a lot of newcomers to the art world, the energy was high, and it was a zoo with a lot of people coming out to see art," states R. Scott Anderson of Anderson Artwork. “The power on the street was high, and there were probably around 200 people in the Hemmingway, which made it difficult to talk with people.”

One of R. Scott Anderson of Anderson Artwork's underwater photography photos. (Photo by Anderson Artwork, 2021)

Anderson is now doing underwater photography and has accomplished the art of capturing fascinating photos of the female form underwater. You can see his photography on Facebook and Instagram. There is also a full podcast of R. Scott Anderson on SoundCloud or Spotify.

In 2015 Ruth Eckdish Knack, who wrote “Great Places Year Nine,” said, “First Friday events bring thousands of people to the Crossroads Arts District to experience local artists, buskers, performers and culinary fare in an open-air setting.”

McGee Street on a First Friday in 2021 photo by Kat Day

First Friday in the Crossroads Arts District has grown so much, people come out to find the one of a kind pieces of art from the various artists in the area. (Photo by Kat Day)

Like others before him, Brian Ousley began with a vision, the start of MOD Gallery & Space. The Gallery is in the heart of the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City, Missouri. When Ousley first began with MOD, he was operating with raw space. Ousley’s first show was on October 2, 2009. MOD is the result of a dream and vision!

“Open as soon as you can; don’t wait till it is perfect. That was the best advice I ever got,” Stated Ousley, owner of MOD Gallery & Space. The Gallery only had the main wall to do a show in the beginning. There was only one bathroom in the employee lounge at the time, and the space was primitive. Through hard work and perseverance, MOD aspired.

The traffic, in the beginning, was maybe 150 people, and that was a great night. The MOD has grown so much to where the first hour is 150 people. The MOD has changed and grown so much.

MOD Gallery & Space on a First Friday (Photo by Kat Day)

The MOD’s eclectic, bold, and free-in-style vibe keeps people coming back for more. The Gallery is a place for people to buy and look at art, drink, listen to music, and converse with like-minded people.

Ousley has worked hard to achieve his visions, and there is still more to come. For a man who has created MOD through hard work, perseverance, and without financial backing, his vision for MOD has become a reality.

“There was a time when developers could have swallowed up MOD, and MOD Gallery would not be here now,” Brian Ousley, Owner of MOD, stated. “And uncertain times during Covid. I feared we weren’t going to make it, but this year has turned out to be the best year we have ever had.” Ousley can remember when there used to be two buildings where the back parking lot is facing Oak Street behind MOD. The buildings were dilapidated. When they tore the buildings down, it increased the exposure of MOD. Artist Richard Day had his studio in the back gallery of MOD, got with Ousley, and they discussed how the traffic was gaining since the buildings were taken down and made into a parking lot. The Gallery now has bands play on their back patio, and DJs play music into the evening, keeping the crowd dancing. The music echoes through the streets, bringing the crowd to MOD Gallery & Space.

Ousley began with a handful of artists represented through Boom Art that put artists in high-traffic commercial locations to get exposure and sell their art. Brian now has featured artists every month. One artist’s amount of art for the show determines one or two featured artists a month. Richard Day is an established self-taught artist that has been in two different spots before being a part of MOD Gallery & Space. Day turns 78 years old on September 27, 2021. Richard Day had a front-row seat to watching the Crossroads grow and claim its rightful name. He has contributed his talents to MOD Gallery & Space since 2010. Since Richard Day walked into the MOD, Ousley and Day became fast friends. Day’s passion and love of art have been a big emphasis on MOD Gallery. Day has helped Ousley at MOD, spending late nights painting ceilings and walls and assisting Ousley with their planning projects for Gallery development. It has been a Labor of Love at MOD. Richard Day had two different spots in the Crossroads before he met Ousley, owner of MOD. He was at a location at 18 & Cherry, and the second location was at 327 SW Blvd., not far from Phil Dunn’s Restaurant, Nica’s at 320 SW Blvd. The circle seems to be a continuing factor, with artists and gallery owners always working together in one way or another.

Day had begun showing his art in Coffee Houses and even had a small show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the 1990s. His work is a wide variety of mediums, from pastels and watercolor to oils and acrylic. Years before that, he did specialized carpet laying designs for homeowners in California and Florida.

When asked what the Crossroads was like before it became the Crossroads, Richard Day, a local Kansas City Artist, stated, “there was only a handful of people back then. Now, there are galleries and new businesses everywhere.”

Richard Day and Edward (Skip) Bailey, RIP., would get old warehouses to use as studio space for cleaning them up. Then when the traffic started picking up, someone would come along and buy the building, and he would have to find a new place to do his art. Richard knew Jim Leedy and remembered conversations from years ago discussing art before Leedy’s vision of the Crossroads came to life. Day said he used to go to the Gallery that Leedy had on Grand Blvd in the early 90s.

Phil Dunn is a great example. He had brought so many paintings for one show that there was not enough wall space to hang all his work for the July First Friday Show. It was kind of funny when Dunn had his restaurant. Ousley was bringing art to hang and sell in ‘Nica’s 320’ for artists he represented. Now, Richard Day has a painting hanging in Society. Phil Dunn is a 52-year-old artist here in Kansas City, Missouri. Phil was originally from Washington and was a 1992 film school grad from Full Sail University. Digital was coming out when he began college. In 2014 Dunn had gotten serious about photography after doing freelance film jobs. After a progression of losing family members to the macabre of death, Dunn needed an outlet to grieve in a non-abusive way and turned to photography and digital art. Phil learned his craft through watching videos on digital painting. Art has given Dunn a new outlook on his life. Dunn met Brian Ousley through a restaurant he owned called “Nica’s 320” in the Crossroads. Ousley would bring the artwork of artists he represented monthly to the restaurant for people to admire and purchase.

Dunn decided to approach Ousley on the Resin paintings that he was creating. Ousley came to look at the work Dunn had made, and they set up a show at MOD Gallery & Space. Dunn has found his niche in painting with Resin coating and still claims he has a lot to learn.

Dunn has also been the in-house artist at a new restaurant with a New York Vibe in the Kansas City Crossroads called Society KC. Dunn is the in-house artist who has painted the bar tops, floors, tables, and more. The job has been a constant for Dunn.

The Arts District of Crossroads is a lively neighborhood filled with vibrant galleries, busy streets, great restaurants, bars, breweries, small businesses, condos, and apartments. It has come a long way from the day Jim Leedy came down and bought his first building in an area swallowed up with empty old warehouses. The Crossroads Arts District brings out the inspiration, vision, and creativity of many established and emerging artists. It is a great place to be present in time and space.

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