Kansas City: A Right-Brain Redoubt

The vision of one man a century ago spawned a creative class that continues
to set Kansas City apart today. But the Hallmark influence was just the start
of something much bigger.

At one time, Betsey Solberg notes, the world’s largest art department was housed under the roof of Hallmark Cards. And, with a current staff of roughly 500 creatives—artists, illustrators, calligraphers, designers and many others—plus nearly as many other employees in supporting roles—the company remains a formidable force in that regard as the world’s best-known brand for personal expressions.

So you’re not part of the Creative Congregation in Kansas City if you don’t at least genuflect in the direction of 25th and McGee when you talk about this region’s wealth of artistic talent. But in the 104 years since J.C. Hall founded his greeting-card company, a great deal has happened to increase the muscle mass of right-brain thinking hereabouts, leaders of the region’s creative community say.

“When you look at just the art piece,” says Solberg, general manager at the Fleishman-Hillard PR agency, “the influence of the Kansas City Art Institute, the Nelson-Atkins and more recently the Crossroads—in terms of freedom to express, art is stronger here than it was 10 years ago, which was stronger than 10 years before that and 10 years before that. But I particularly credit the Crossroads with bringing out both artists and classes within that creative realm.”

That unbound creativity is asserting itself in new ways here, particularly in the Downtown area, where an explosion of creative-grounded business, from ad agencies to photography studios, video production companies to digital marketing firms and even IT companies are redefining what it means to be a creative in KC.

All of them, though, share a link with the man who put this city on the creative map.

What Hallmark Hath Wrought
It wasn’t that Hall himself was creative, says Sharman Roberts, Hallmark’s company archivist. Rather, he was an entrepreneur whose vision enabled creative to gather, succeed and push the company to global status.

“Over the years, even to the founding of the company, the product and the art work has always been the main driver,” Roberts said. “Even before getting the first printing presses in-house in 1915, J.C. would bring teachers in from the art institute in Chicago, or have Norman Rockwell in to train the artists.”
Hall’s business-development sense lent itself to creating a suite of training regimen that has blossomed into a powerful suite of programs today. Among them are a resource library with 25,000 books, magazines and newspapers from around the world, an art supply center with more than 5,000 types of art supplies and samples of company-specific processes, digitized archives of historical Hallmark images, one of the country’s oldest corporate art collections—even a farmhouse retreat in Kearney, where employees can brainstorm their creative hearts out.

“He realized this was the Midwest,” Roberts said, “and that a lot of people may not have had the opportunity to go to a New York or Chicago, to see great museums, so he started building collections here.”In the decades since, Hallmark employees have headed out on their own to start ad agencies and galleries, and extended the company’s influence throughout the artistic market.

Congruent Lines
But at the same time, says Pasquale Trozzolo, chair of Trozzolo Communications, other factors were contributing to the region’s artistic bloom.
“The strength of the creative class here is that it’s at home in Kanas City,” he said. “While it’s growing and becoming more impactful today, it’s not new. Kansas City has a rich history there.”

Artistic innovation, Trozzolo said, “crossed all kinds of boundaries—the fine arts, the performing arts. Look at jazz, we have the American Jazz Mus-eum, and we may take it for granted, but it’s real, and it has had a national influence.”

The organic growth of the arts community, he said, “is stunning. First Fridays is a wonderment to me. Same with the West Bottoms on the first weekend of the month. But it’s growing and expanding, and we now talk about creativity it in tech terms, but it’s been around a long time.”

Even at the company he founded, that influence continues today, Trozzolo said. “We’ve got fine artists, lots of good creative folks as you’d expect, but we range from the button-down to the kind-of-weird. The Fringe Festival is a cool thing, but so is the ballet, and they co-exist. I don’t know where that kind of melting pot exists in any other place like it does in Kansas City.”

Linda Bumgarner, executive creative director for VML, offered a similar assessment of where Kansas City stands compared to the rest of the nation. “I feel like we have a lot of great people,” she said. “More of the issue for us is that we have to get the word out about what we have here. There is a bias against this part of the country, and if people come here and discover what we have to offer, they always say, ‘This is amazing.’”

She consistently sees that reaction among people who are in Kansas City interviewing for work at the digital marketing company, even if they hail from cities generally considered as pillars of creative thinking in the U.S. “They’re taken aback by what Kansas City has to offer,” Bumgarner said.

Broader Implications
The creative and artistic community offers much in its own right, Solberg said, but the corporate cultures of Hallmark and spinoff companies contribute something more than aesthetic value.

“They gave us accessibility and availability,” she said. “If some kind of young creative, walks up to the rich and famous here and says, ‘Can you give me some help on this?’ people in leadership positions will say yes. I hear that all the time.” Even though evolving corporate protocols have made a rarity of contacting a chief executive directly, she said, those companies “still provide that service: ‘Mr. Brown is traveling, but let me set you up with Joe Smith and he can help you with what you’re asking about.’ It’s not a closed-door town.”

That same dynamic is often cited by entrepreneurs here, who connect with business leadership through such programs as
1 Million Cups at the Kauffman Foundation, or through classes and mentoring opportunities offered through the Bloch School of Management at UMKC.
“If you’re a young creative with a dynamite idea and you don’t know what to do with it and you’re half-smart, you can get in the door,” Solberg said. “And if it’s a really good idea, you can take a one-year course in entrepreneurship at UMKC and take it from zip to practicality in about nine months.”

How Big Can It Go?
Kansas City has the ability to build on those assets, creative company leaders say, but some are more realistic than others.

“We’re short on investor money here,” Solberg says. “There are lots of little angel investment groups, but we need more.”

Another barrier, Trozzolo said, is more easily remedied. “We need to get the chip off our shoulders, because what we have here is really neat,” he said. “Anecdotally, as we bring clients or prospective employees in from out of town, we’ve gone from the world’s best-kept secret, to ‘I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got here.’  Now, we’re no longer the best-kept secret, because we’ve got things like Google Fiber, the Kauffman Performing Arts Center and other things that have drawn national attention.”

Darren Abbot, creative group vice president at Hallmark, says one thing Kansas City’s creative class has going for it is its authenticity.
“I’m a graphic designer by trade, so I tend to look at things through that filter,” he said. “But Kansas City is a rising star within the graphic design community and ad community, because it has a certain level of authenticity, a style that is honest and genuine. Those things are important to up-and-coming generations—and to the Millennials, in particular; it’s very important to them. There’s just something about that work ethic that translates from a design perspective.”

Which leads, he said, to an opportunity for more of the same.

“We can build on the strong foundation we have,” Abbott said. “There’s definitely room from a community standpoint for more scale.”