A Contemporary Arts Collective Housed In A Shipping Container
“This is what you’re missing on your non-stop flights over this country: The talk about radiant patchwork insides of eyelids & the psychological sinkholes & the neon barbed-wire borders of reservations & the hanging, drooling, suspiciously open mouths of various rivers—which in short—are trying to tell you that there are broad swaths of American that you will never be able to trust again.”
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This poem, written by Benjamin DuVall, was showcased on a billboard last year in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood, in contrast to sumptuous photographs advertising burgers, upcoming soap operas or toothpaste brands that usually end up on billboards. It’s not a traditional spot for a public art space, but that’s one of the reasons why the proprietors of 50/50 Collective lease it out to their artists. Nestled in a shipping container near the formidable confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, 50/50 is part gallery space, part artist platform and part whatever artists can dream up.
At a time when our current presidential administration has begun upending the values that created a country predicated on free speech and a melting pot of cultures, 50/50 and initiatives like it serve a vital purpose in the 21st century: to wake up the public’s consciousness. “It’ll end in four years,” says Hannah Lodwick, co-founder, while Cambria Potter, also co-founder, nods in agreement. Their work has been cut out for them.
Potter and Lodwick met while art students at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) and co-founded the collective as recent graduates, strengthened by their mutual interest in curating. For their first foray into collaboration, they decided to curate the work of their peers in a shared studio that had been abandoned. “Long story short, we put our heads together and decided that we would take the most ambitious route by creating our own space, and making it sustainable,” says Potter.
Much stands between the initial idea and its full realization, they’ve found. They carve out the time to work on 50/50 during lunch at their full-time jobs, after work, and on weekends. The entire first year was spent on nose-to-the-grindstone planning, securing funding and creating a sustainable space.
Their largest expenses were covered by a number of grants, including a Rocket Grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation and a Kickstarter campaign. “The way in which we raised funds shows that there was support for this idea. We really didn’t have anything to show yet as recent graduates. There was a desire from our immediate community for something like this, because there was that fiscal support up front and advocacy from our peers,” says Potter.
Their first full year of programming included the work of 56 individual artists shown in a series of six exhibitions throughout the year, attracting almost 2,000 visitors. “We’re called 50/50 because we exhibit half local and half national artists per program. Being in the middle of America, our platform is important to our mission because we’re here introducing a national conversation to our local community,” says Lodwick.
50/50’s nimble business model has also permitted them to take risks on controversial artists. Such as a collaboration with artist Dread Scott, whose 1989 piece “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” (which George H.W. Bush called “disgraceful”) showcased at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece appropriated an American flag on the ground, encouraging viewers to write down a response to the question while stepping on the American flag. Scott created a piece with 50/50 that appeared on the collective’s billboard, which displayed the names of black men and women killed by police. The calamitous details are absent, and each name is depicted in white text on a black background, neatly organized into columns with hashtags. In the last column, the artist leaves three blank harrowing spaces.
“The motivation for the billboard is something that Dread can speak to in the best capacity, but we asked him to respond to the exhibition theme of memory in Missouri, Ferguson and 2014 with all the recent shootings,” says Potter. They’ve also worked with artists like Annie Woodfill, whose work gathers found objects in highly inventive ways, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and her archive-based works, José Faus, Brett Ginsburg, Caitlin Horsmon and many more.
Potter and Lodwick have many ideas for what Kansas City could become. And while they plan to explore other art markets in their 20s, they also have a gut feeling that they’ll end up back here. “I think there’s something you almost can’t place your finger on about Kansas City that warms your heart,” says Potter, though they aren’t blinded to its weaknesses. “We both see there’s room in Kansas City to create institutions that it doesn’t have. We didn’t have a 50/50 until we had a 50/50,” says Lodwick. “I’ve been in this area my whole life. I know how to contribute to this cultural region because I am you. I am you guys.”
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.