Kansas City’s oldest theater is positive inspiration for art students

By Consuelo Cruz, Office of Culture and Creative Services

The Folly Theatre has been a premier venue for performing arts in Kansas City since 1900, serving as host to iconic entertainers ranging from the Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart to Gypsy Rose Lee. Since 1982, the Folly has presented jazz greats from around the world through the Folly Jazz Series. Musicians like Eliane Elias, Arturo Sandoval, Karrin Allyson, Robert Glasper and Jon Batiste have not only captivated audiences from the Folly stage but have also inspired students at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI).

This collaboration really took off about eight years ago when the Folly, which is supported by the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund, was looking to improve designs used to promote the Jazz Series. In search of a more professional look, Folly Executive Director Gale Tallis turned to KCAI.

“With Jazz being a very improvisational type of art form, it seemed natural to collaborate with the Kansas City Art Institute with their innovative and improvisational approach to art,” Tallis said.

For years, Tallis has worked with KCAI Graphic Design faculty and students to create posters for each of the Jazz Series performances. At the beginning of every academic year, students get to tour the Folly so they can learn of its history and architecture, take photographs for inspiration and hear stories about past performers. Each tour ends on the Folly stage so that the students can experience what it’s like for the performers.

The students’ work is shared during design development and upon design completion. Completed designs are evaluated by a panel that includes Tallis as well as art, design and marketing professionals. After designs are selected, posters are printed and ultimately placed in display cases. On the night of each performance, the artist and KCAI are recognized from the stage and acknowledged in the printed performance program. Each student gets to meet the performer who inspired his or her design, and gets it signed by that performer.

The Folly is among the litany of arts and leisure activities that receive money from the City’s Neighborhood and Tourist Development Fund. Managed by the Office of Culture and Creative Services, the NTDF program has been in place for 28 years and continuously strives to meet the growing demands to fund programs showcasing the cultural diversity of the City.

This particular project’s impact on students -- both professionally and personally -- is evident. Artists like Grammy Award winner Fred Hersch, have maintained contact with the students, hoping to one day collaborate with them on an album or other artistic project. Several years ago, Hersch slipped into a coma and nearly died from AIDS. When he recovered, he had to re-learn the piano. He says he was touched by the design that was created for his poster, that “told his story” in a creative way.

KCAI alumni Samantha Mak, now a design consultant with IBM Watson in Austin, Texas, summed up her experience by saying, “The Folly Theater project was one of the earlier design challenges where we needed to represent a community outside of our own.” At the time, I had zero understanding of jazz music. The project taught me many lessons in navigating unfamiliar terrain, especially how to get informed and inspired on any given topic. Dive in. Keep an open mind. Develop context and perspective. These lessons served me well as a student where everything was uncharted territory. Now, they’re now a daily occurrence for me as a design consultant. I live for it!”

Fellow KCAI alumni, Eli Brumbaugh said, “At the time of the Folly Theater project, I had previously worked on a handful of poster projects. None of them prepared me for the delicate and iterative process of pairing visual metaphor with an artist. I haven’t looked at poster design the same way since.” Brumbaugh works in San Francisco, Calif., at Data @ Airbnb.

Stay tuned to the Channel 2 Weekly Report and city social media outlets for updates on the designs selected for the 2017-2018 Folly Jazz Series season. The season kicks off with an Oct. 28 performance by Grammy award-winning guitarist Lee Ritenour. For more information about the series, visit FollyTheater.org. For information about the NTDF, visit KCMO.gov/ntdf.