| 2014 Q4 | story by KATHERINE DIAZ |
Driving through the rural roads of Kansas, it’s an image one sees repeatedly: an image dull and unappealing. For some, it’s difficult to find beauty and excitement in Kansas’ plains, but for one individual, it’s easy to see it through an artistic lense. Pink and yellow crops, green and blue fields popping out of a plain Kansas landscape. This is what artist, Karen Matheis, envisions when driving through the simple roads of the Sunflower state. These are the illustrations she portrays in her oil paintings.
“I used to think the landscape of Kansas was boring,” Matheis said. “But the simplification is very interesting to me now because I’m abstracting it.”
Matheis is among several artist participants who take part in the lively event of Lawrence’s Final Fridays. It’s a monthly occasion that incorporates various forms of art, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense.
“There’s really every kind of art you can think of,” said Downtown Lawrence, Inc. Executive Director Sally Zogry. “There are performing artists, 2D art, so paintings and drawings. There’s 3D art, so sculptures; there’s jewelry, clothing and music performances.”
Final Fridays have sparked the artistic awareness needed for artists to build relationships with potential clients, as well as with the community, according to Matheis, who’s showcased her work since the start of this event in the community.
“Businesses have been really open to showing art at their venues,” Matheis said. “They have been great about supporting us.”
Being in its fourth year, Final Fridays has expanded to other areas outside of downtown Lawrence, and has grown to include a diversity of businesses and restaurants, according to Zogry.
“Something that people don’t necessarily know or realize is that any business can participate,” Zogry said. Zogry is responsible for connecting people who are interested in participating with the Final Fridays Coordinator. “There’s this business called Yantra Services that’s on the 800 block and they do Final Fridays, but it’s actually a tech company so they have art installations.”
In order for the event to come together, businesses collaborate to bring this artistic experience to life. The previous executive director of DLI, Jane Pennington, had received a grant to launch Final Fridays, according to Zogry. Though DLI wasn’t the sole entity to ensure this project took off, a partnership was established in the first year among DLI, the Lawrence Arts Center, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Lawrence, as stated by the Lawrence Arts Center CEO Susan Tate. Currently, however, the partnership stands between the City of Lawrence, DLI and the arts center.
“Final Fridays has come together almost simultaneously with the development of the cultural district concept, with the arts center and the city’s creative place-making initiatives,” Tate said. “Creative place-making is about how art can celebrate what makes a place distinctive and, well, Lawrence has many distinctive features.”
To highlight Final Fridays and promote its awareness, Molly Murphy took on the challenge as coordinator. Among her duties, Murphy works to connect artists to exhibition spaces, as well as inviting artists to participate. She has also received assistance from the collaborating partners. Murphy stated that the arts center helps in producing a map each month, hosts Final Fridays information on its website and essentially acts as the host for the production of public projects. On the other hand, DLI assists with promotion, and also recruiting new businesses to participate. Social media and artists themselves have also played an important role in raising awareness for the event.
“Social media and artist partnerships have been our biggest assets in reaching a very wide demographic,” Murphy said. “With every new business or artist who gets involved, we reach a new audience.”
The increase in community awareness has helped bring entities together on each Final Friday, and as Murphy stated, inviting everyone to be part of the arts, not just for an “elite few.”
“Final Fridays is just one night every month that highlights the amazing resources, talents and economic impact of the arts in Lawrence,” Murphy said. “However, it is essential to have an event of this nature that brings it all to the public in a free and open way.”
As coordinator, Murphy became involved with the event as she had been a working artist both in Lawrence and Kansas City. She was also a member of the Lawrence Arts Center Board of Directors and a curator for various spaces in the past years, which led her to take on the role of Final Fridays coordinator.
“I know an extraordinary wealth of talent that we have here,” Murphy said. “I was excited to be involved with Final Fridays as a way to let everyone else in on what makes this town such an amazing place to live, and for me, it is the art community and collaboration.”
According to Murphy, more than one hundred artists are involved each month, and in the lifetime of the event, there have been thousands of visual and performing artists of local, regional, national and international status who’ve participated. Though these artists have enlightened visitors with their work, what has truly made Final Fridays prosper is the work effort put forth by the community.
“The real strength and vitality that has come from Final Fridays is due to the endless hours of work and support from artists, curators, volunteers, local businesses and building owners who work each and every month to make this event a success for the community,” Murphy said. “Without all of them, none of this could be a reality.”
Final Fridays may emphasize the city’s diversified character, yet it also highlights Lawrence’s local atmosphere. As said by Murphy, the economic impact downtown and the warehouse arts district has been exceeding.
“Through an economic impact study a few years ago, we learned that many families, during the event, stay for dinner, shop while they’re downtown, grab a coffee or a cocktail and, better yet, many come back on another trip to see their favorite shows or ones they couldn’t make it too,” Murphy said.
For the past four years, Murphy has seen the potential that Final Fridays have to grow and bring more artistic experiences to the public. However, starting this coming year, a new individual will be managing the future coordination of the event, and like Murphy, will help Final Fridays become bigger and reach more audiences.
“Right now we’re at a transition period because the city just recently hired Christina McClelland to, in 2015, take over the sole management of Final Fridays,” Tate said.
McClelland has filled the new position of Director of Arts & Culture, which was created by the City of Lawrence. Among McClelland’s responsibilities will be examining ways to improve administration and communication concerning Final Fridays.
“I’ll be working with Molly through the end of this year to ‘learn the ropes’ in terms of pulling together the marketing and promotion for this monthly event,” McClelland said. “We’ll be examining and improving current methods of getting the word out and increase participation to create an even more successful event in the future.”
Final Fridays has been successful thus far, but what it has needed is the attention of a person at city-level to coordinate, as interest in the event is very high, according to Tate.
“We have a great deal of anecdotal information from downtown vendors that their sales receipts are much higher on these Fridays, and there’s been a lot of positive response,” Tate said. “But we need the next level of coordination to make sure there are venues for all artists, and to make sure it’s widely publicized.”
The opportunity for growth is endless, and Final Fridays have also helped bring history to the public. Participants may showcase an array of new projects and performances to a multitude of locations, but it’s the Carnegie Building that has added the historical element to an artistically-filled event.
“People come in and hear little bits of history and connections,” said Executive Director of the Lawrence Convention and Vistors Bureau, Frederick Conboy. “It’s a fun experience for them.”
Final Fridays at the Carnegie Building has been hosted by Freedom’s Frontier, a National Heritage Area, and the visitors bureau since the summer, in which the two entities have been operating under Destination Management, Inc., according to Conboy who is also Executive Director of Freedom’s Frontier. The National Heritage Area is an act that was created by Congress in 2006, which strives to preserve and interpret nationally significant stories about the “enduring struggle for freedom.” Conboy recognizes the enthusiasm and positive response from the community in regards to learning the historical connections that exist within the city of Lawrence and across the state.
“History buffs love the floor to ceiling storybook of suffragettes, slaveholders, abolitionists, Buffalo Soldiers, martyrs or madmen; but the Carnegie Building is also a gateway for visitors discovering the quest for ‘freedom’ for the first time,” Conboy said. One example of local history of freedom depicted at the Carnegie is when former chancellor, Franklin Murphy, championed the cause of social justice for the legendary basketball player, Wilt Chamberlin, to enter then-segregated Lawrence restaurants.
Conboy also stated that one of the goals of the Final Friday event is to compel guests to visit the partner sites within the 41 counties in Kansas and Missouri that embody the mission of the National Heritage Area, and which are represented by Freedom’s Frontier.
“At previous events, guests enjoyed wine harvested from heritage grape vines from Middle Creek Winery in historic New Lancaster, Kan. in Miami County; one of Freedom’s Frontier’s 150 partner sites whose history is tied to the Border War or Western Frontier,” Conboy said.
Overall attendance at the Carnegie during Final Fridays has been driven by re-enactors from areas such as Lecompton, Black Jack Battlefield and Mahaffie Stage Coach Stop in Olathe. These re-enactors, dressed appropriately for the age period they’re depicting, engage passersby on Massachusetts St. to explore the Carnegie. They also illustrate impromptu impersonations of firebrand characters like John Brown, James Lane or Sheriff Sam Jones from 1850s Bleeding Kansas, according to Conboy. Once inside, individuals may appreciate the history that makes up the Carnegie, and learn more about what makes this building special.
“Visitors to the Carnegie may simply enjoy their experience by learning about the building’s former life as Lawrence’s public library from 1905 until 1972, when it became the home of the then Lawrence Arts Center,” Conboy said. “The brown tile ‘bars’ on the floor mark where the stacks of books once stood in the original library.”
Final Fridays may have presented an opportunity, not only for artists and businesses to grow, but for history to extend its reach to a wider audience.
“It’s not about the person who knows history, but the person who isn’t interested in history. When they come into the building and learn about all that we have, and they get excited about it – those are the kind of individuals we want to reach,” Conboy said.
Final Fridays has sparked interest in art, and history, in unexpected places, but this event has defined the distinct characteristics that makes Lawrence a memorable city.
“Monthly art walks are common in lots of communities,” Tate said. “We feel its time for Lawrence to have a really mature and sophisticated one, and this brings attention to everything that makes this area unique.”