Kansas City Bets on Culture

If you build a shiny new performing-arts center, will the creative class come?

From the south, the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in Kansas City, Missouri, looks like the world’s biggest terrarium. The building’s entire southern façade is transparent, with more than 48,000 square feet of glass suspended by a system of columns and steel cables, exposing to public view the four-story lobby inside and its Guggenheim-ish stacks of white balconies. Designed by Moshe Safdie (known for Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, among other projects), the $326 million Kauffman Center is set on a hilltop, astride a half-block of terraced, landscaped public space overlooking the galleries and studios in the city’s downtown Crossroads Arts District. Seen from the north, the center looms up as a mismatched pair of segmented silver domes, sheathed in bead-blasted stainless steel and looking like Art Deco airplane hangars, or a giant, slightly misshapen bra for Maria the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Under that steel-coated lingerie is plenty of technological whizbangery. The smaller Helzberg Hall features an oval configuration in which none of the 1,600 seats is farther than 100 feet from the stage. The 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre boasts an adjustable proscenium, a 5,000-square-foot stage, and low-light screens in front of each seat to give patrons translations of an opera’s lyrics. Yasuhisa Toyota, a master acoustician at Nagata Acoustics, designed each of the center’s aural spaces, first creating a 3-D computer model and digitally mapping how sound would move within it, then building a scale model to test his simulation—a method that enabled him to eliminate dozens of unwanted echoes. “Floating” acoustic panels above the Helzberg stage allow technicians to adjust the room’s sound quality based on the performer. A new pipe organ, with 79 stops, 102 ranks, and 5,548 pipes, is arguably America’s finest. Throw in the center’s muffled plumbing, and heating-and-cooling ductwork hung with spring isolators to eliminate vibrations from fans or airflow, and you have one of the planet’s best buildings in which to hear music.

That’s a bold statement for Kansas City, a metroplex whose 2 million souls make it only America’s 29th-largest, and a town better known for barbecue and long-suffering sports fans than great opera. Even more remarkably, it’s a statement being made largely by individual donors and companies: the taxpayer contribution to the Kauffman Center’s construction was a 1,000-space underground garage.

Why were these individual donors and corporations, such as the accounting firm KPMG, so willing to cough up their money? Some—beginning in this case with the namesake Kauffman family, which made its fortune in pharmaceuticals—just love music and dance. Of course, observes Terry L. Clower, the director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, “vanity plays a role, for those individuals who want to get their name on a brick or a bench.”

But beneath the noblesse oblige and civic boosterism is a more hard-edged wager: that the performing arts are a great way for companies to promote development and grow their own business. Like the Kauffman Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which opened in Dallas in 2009, was mostly privately funded. A 2006 study of the AT&T Center’s impact, co-authored by Clower, predicted tens of millions of dollars annually in additional economic activity and millions more in tax revenues.

Especially in Kansas City, civic leaders are also eagerly courting the “creative class”—the well-educated workers with bourgeois-bohemian tastes whom urban scholars have identified as the engine of urban growth. Since 2000, The Kansas City Star estimates, the city has spent more than $1.5 billion on cultural facilities, including the Steven Holl–designed expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the new Power & Light entertainment district, and the Sprint Center arena.

The Kauffman Center’s president, Jane Chu, whose creative-class merit badges include master’s degrees in music and business administration, told me that corporations see a vibrant cultural landscape as a magnet for talent, almost as vital for drawing good workers as more-traditional benefits like retirement plans and health insurance. “It used to be that people would move to a city just for the sake of a job,” Chu told me. “But now people also want to know what there is to do after work.”

Or, as Clower put it, some people who would never go to an opera “just feel better about their city knowing that it’s there.”