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Flowers, Not Flags: Arts And Urban Revitalization In Wichita

Ascha Lee
KMUW File Photo

The arts have come to be seen as a marker of a city's growth or revitalization.

Sociologist Kate Nance recently examined the role that the arts have played in Wichita's civic image in her Wichita State University graduate thesis.

Kate Nance is a recent graduate of Wichita State University's Department of Sociology, having received her master's degree earlier this year.

Nance's thesis, "Art as a means of urban revitalization? An examination of creative placemaking, artist perspective, gentrification, and neighborhood change in Wichita, Kansas," examines the role that the arts have in a city's image and economy.

What she found in the process was that Wichita has some commonalities with its larger counterparts when it comes to issues of displacement and gentrification.

She recently spoke with KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin about her research and findings.

Katelynn McIlwain
Sociologist Kate Nance

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: If I read your thesis correctly, what you wanted to explore was this common notion: "What can we do to bolster a city's image? Let's get the arts community involved."

Kate Nance: What I really wanted to look at was [that] the arts often spearhead a lot of initiatives to "revitalize" a community or change an area. [The arts] bring a lot of life to an area. What I wanted to see was: How does that play in our community, and who is getting the most of that? What areas of Wichita and what people are getting the most access to new art? Really, interesting collectives or murals. What I wanted to see is, is there any inequality there with who is getting access to that? What parts of town are getting access? What artists are getting commissioned for that work? Are they being fairly compensated for that work? What are they encountering when they go out and [create work]?

There's a lot in the literature when it comes to art and gentrification, and art and community change, and revitalization that really focuses on big cities like Chicago, New York … Toronto is a big one. You see these patterns over and over. But there's not as much research focusing on smaller midsize Midwest cities like Wichita. That's something I wanted to get a better grasp on and a better understanding of to see where is our community succeeding? Where are we falling short? … Where are we headed? What's next?

What did you find in terms of who's getting the commissions?

It's a mixed bag. My focus when I did this research was to try and let the artists voice everything.

I really wanted to amplify their voices and their perspectives and sit in the background and just be the researcher, but really have them take the lead. There's some frustration that maybe the same people in town tend to get the same [commissions] over the past several years but it's changing. There is a push to have more voices, more diverse voices. But, in the past, there's been a lot of white, middle-class representation over and over. There's a place for that but what are we doing to empower other communities, other perspectives, other cultures that have rich, beautiful artistic talent? There're so many talented people in our communities that we are not putting at the forefront. I think there are some really great people in our community that are working to do that, and I got to talk to a lot of them.
There's a lot of concentration of public murals on the Douglas strip. Douglas is kind of the big vein of Wichita. Everyone goes through it and engages with it, but there are some other neighborhoods that are more neglected, like the south side. I don't see a lot of people going down there to look at murals.

But then we also had the Horizontes Project, which was great for the north end, the northeast neighborhoods as well. There's been pushes to get more of that out there.
But I think the general consensus is that [we can always do more] and that it should be spearheaded by the people from those communities. People who are familiar with the neighborhoods, who have love for that neighborhood and who understand the needs of that neighborhood and how art can play into that and empowering the people who are already there.

With Wichita, you're looking at a few different things. One is the size of the city, but you're also looking at a city that historically has an extreme inferiority complex.

This came up a lot, Wichita's identity issues. Wichita always feels like it has to prove something. I think there are a lot of people who are really proud to be from here, and I think there are people who have a lot of frustration and want to see the city be better. Something I hear a lot and I heard some artists mention is [this feeling that] Wichita is trying to be the next Kansas City or the next Tulsa. Why are we not just Wichita? We're so unique; it's a bizarre, wonderful, strange, artistic, creative city. There's so much here.

But I feel like, over and over, we try and rebrand Wichita and do all these things to attract outsiders. But what are doing for people who are already here?

Another really interesting thing was the Wichita flag. There's a lot of imagery of the Wichita flag that gets put up on murals, and people are talking about it. Talking about how we have this really strong tie to this imagery in relation to our city that really came up over maybe the past 10, 20 years. We're more than the Wichita flag. We have more symbolic representations of Wichita beyond that flag. Some artists expressed some frustration about wanting to move beyond that and try new things. One of my favorite quotes in the whole project was someone saying, "I want to paint flowers; I don't want to paint flags."

Wichita gets down on itself pretty hard. And then we have these moments of, "We're so proud of Wichita." How do we sustain that? How do we sustain that identity and that solid love of Wichita and grow Wichita for the love of Wichita and not for the purpose of bringing in other people or impressing someone else?

You can learn more about Kate Nance's work here: https://soar.wichita.edu/handle/10057/21600

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.