I just spent a day and a half in Wichita, Kansas. But it was not the What’s Wrong With Kansas Kansas and not even the “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Kansas. I experienced a very different Kansas.
Wichita has a big sky. When I walked down the steps of the commuter jet and onto the tarmac of a brilliant Indian summer day in early November, the first thing I noticed was that sky. Well, you couldn’t really help but notice it. It envelops you in its expansive embrace. It is like being inside of a large, translucent, upside-down mixing bowl.
I was back in Wichita to participate in a Wichita Arts Council creative industries workshop and to speak at the Arts Partners (http://www.artspartnerswichita.org) annual Arts Count luncheon. I was introduced to Wichita twelve years ago. I had helped to facilitate the establishment of the Arts Partners program, which created a community partnership among Wichita’s arts organizations, artists and schools to promote the creative development of Wichita’s kids. In the intervening years I had enjoyed periodic reports about the growth of this wonderful program.
My return to Wichita in post-election 2008 has given me hope for the future of America and convinced me that Wichita’s depth, steadiness and vision will fuel an American renaissance. Yes, that is the Kansas that I experienced.
What’s the magic bullet? Visionary, passionate leadership, engaged citizens and a vibrant cultural community. Mayor Carl Brewer is a bigger-than-life, charismatic leader with a booming voice, who super-charges any room he walks into. He and his dedicated City Council passed a mil tax allocation for the arts and culture that will amount to a $15 million investment over the next five years (in this economy). And those engaged citizens? They passed a $370 million bond issue on election day that will, among other things, lower class size and construct new arts facilities for area schools (in this economy!). I was told that the bond issue passed despite strong, organized opposition, the dismal economic climate and the fact that nearly 70% of the electorate don’t have kids enrolled in Wichita’s public schools. They just did the right thing for everyone else’s kids.
A vibrant cultural life in Wichita? Yes, all you right and left coasters, take note! The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation knew this when they chose to make a significant investment in Wichita’s youth in 1997 to establish the Arts Partners program. And that cultural life has only continued to grow in quantity and quality since my last visit. Arts Partners Executive Director Katie Lynn and Program Director Liz Kennedy preside over a full range of artistic resources that are helping to develop Wichita’s youth as innovators and engaged citizens.
There are far too many spark plugs in the cultural community for me to acknowledge here, but the Director of Music Theatre of Wichita (http://www.musictheatreofwichita.org) Wayne Bryan is my nomination for poster boy! I met Wayne during my frequent visits to Wichita in 1997 and 1998. Wayne is a New York actor/director who took over Music Theatre of Wichita in 1988 and found an artistic and personal home. Wayne recognized the unique role his organization could play in Wichita that could also have a national and international impact in the musical theater world. (Kelli O’Hara, the sensation in the current Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific is only one of hundreds of stars launched by Music Theatre of Wichita.) Wayne’s gentle and self-effacing demeanor and popularity both in Wichita and the international theatre world belie his high artistic standards and keen managerial skills, not to mention that he runs a small business that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic impact for the city of Wichita.
But a trip to Wichita packs surprises and this time was no exception. I was on a panel during the creative industries workshop with Jason Olpat. We bonded when I saw his tricked-out MAC laptop with the DVI connector that I needed for my keynote address for the Arts Partners luncheon. Typical of Wichitaans, he didn’t hesitate when I explained my technical predicament. He handed me the connector as a loaner. Then I asked him what he did and found out that he runs Integrated Media Group (http://www.integratedmediagrp.com) that supplies digital interface graphics to Hollywood and beyond from right there in Wichita! I asked him the next all-telling question that relates to workforce development concerns.
“Where do your employees come from?”
I envisioned a Tom Friedman The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded group of techies who had been plucked from the thousands of arts and technical schools that have been recently built in China and India.
“They’re all Kansans,” he replied proudly.
He then went on to tell me that two had trained right there at Wichita State University. Jason grew up in Lindsbourg and trained at Bethany College.
Wichita really does have a big sky.