Marta Churchwell: Arts community fueled downtown development Lifestyles
As is typical when ushering in a new year, I’ve been reflecting on what the last year has brought us, particularly in the arts.
We had a variety of additions to our arts menu last year, but the downtown district was the beneficiary of the major ones.
A mural recognizing contributions of African Americans to our community was added in the district, which also saw the opening of the Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex. Additionally, the Downtown Arts District spearheaded an effort to restore Spiva Park at Fourth and Main streets.
These three contributions not only add to the downtown creative climate but will also become economic drivers as they attract more people and businesses to the district. They strengthen the efforts to create a thriving, truly urban downtown setting.
Local Black groups joined with arts organizations to bring about the Black history mural located on the north exterior wall of Bruce’s Point of View at First and Main streets.
Kansas City muralist Alexander Austin worked in last summer’s blazing heat to create the mural.
Painted primarily in black and white, the mural includes images of two of Joplin’s native sons, literary great Langston Hughes and jazz saxophonist Charles McPherson, surrounded by musicians who performed here in yesteryear. Among them are Cab Calloway, Louie Armstrong, Marion Anderson, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
It also includes references to local Black history — Lincoln School, which served Black students, and Melissa Cuther, one of the African American community’s trailblazers who taught at Lincoln School in the early 1900s. A banner at the mural’s top recognizes Joplin Uplift, a former newspaper that served the Black community.
The mural project was a collaborative effort of Black organizations — the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and Minnie Hackney Community Center — and arts nonprofits that included Connect2Culture, Post Art Library, the Joplin Arts District and Spiva Center for the Arts, along with Visit Joplin.
As part of their fundraising efforts for the project, they brought McPherson home for a concert last February. The jazz great, who has carved out a music career spanning six decades, also took time from an international tour to perform at the mural dedication in September.
Not only does the mural add to our rich display of public art, but it also gives long overdue recognition of the contributions of our Black community. That segment of our population has been underrepresented in local recorded history, as well as in public art.
Joplin’s most monumental arts project was the construction of the Cornell Complex, which opened in November.
The visual and performing arts complex at Seventh and Joplin streets encompasses 37,000 square feet of space in sleek, 21st century styling. Its exterior spaces feature sculptures, including a memorial tribute to the 161 people who lost their lives in Joplin’s 2011 tornado.
The first floor features a reception area and gift shop for Spiva, and a state-of-the-art performance hall with customized seating that can accommodate up to 435 people for performances or be reconfigured for receptions and other events.
On the second floor are four galleries of Spiva, designed with environmental and safety controls that meet national standards for hosting world class exhibits. It includes a gallery for rotating exhibits of the 300 pieces in Spiva’s permanent collection. This is the first time Spiva has had such a gallery.
The complex’s third floor houses offices of Connect2Culture, Spiva and Pro Musica, our local chamber music presenter, and community meeting rooms. It also includes classroom space for Spiva.
Exterior balconies, one that can be used for private events, overlook an outdoor green that provides space for concerts, festivals, and other large-scale events.
The $17.5 million complex was constructed entirely through grants and private donations, including a $5 million lead contribution by the late Harry M. Cornell Jr., former president and CEO of Leggett & Platt Inc. of Carthage.
The Joplin Arts District, which encompasses 56 blocks in the central downtown, spearheaded an effort to refresh gardens and restore other elements of the 56-year-old Spiva Park.
The improvements were completed in cooperation with the Joplin Parks and Recreation Department, volunteers from businesses, the Joplin Historical Society, the Joplin History and Mineral Museum, and descendants of the park’s founder, the late George A. Spiva, a local arts supporter and philanthropist. .
The restoration included cleaning and redesign of flowerbeds and planting of new flowers and shrubs. There was also installation of a 12-foot sign bearing the name of the park. Commissioned by local sculptor Jorge Leyva, the sign includes a replica of an iris, the city flower and a favorite of Spiva’s. Previously, the park was identified only by a small ground plaque.
During cleaning of the park’s flower beds, several specimens of minerals that helped build Joplin as a mining town were unearthed. They were cleaned and identified for a rock bed display that can be used for educational purposes. The display includes zinc, lead, dolomite, chert, calcite and hemimorphite.
This park has been long overdue for an upgrade. It speaks of the pride we have in our downtown area.