By Superintendent of Culture Susan Mong
The Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center is turning five and Johnson County Park and Recreation District (JCPRD) could not be prouder of the growth and impact that has occurred through this iconic and historic structure that many remember as King Louie West.
The vision for the JCAHC was not so clear in 2016 when the fate of this building was being debated. The Johnson County Museum was in desperate need of a new facility and the abandoned King Louie West building showed a lot of promise. While it was clear that the museum could serve as a major anchor for this site, the overall vision for the rest of the building was not yet clear. Thus began the exploration, ideation, and debate around what was possible at 8788 Metcalf Avenue. After many meetings and community engagement, the Johnson County Museum would become part of JCPRD and this building would eventually house the Culture Division, the hub for all things arts and culture in Johnson County. Since the building’s opening in 2017 – complete with the Johnson County Museum, Theatre in the Park, Fine Arts, Performing Arts, Public Art, and Facility Rentals – roots have really taken hold, creating something even greater than many imagined.
It turns out that really great things come when you build a team full of historians, artists, performers, event organizers, educators, and public servants. When museum professionals invite colleagues from Theatre in the Park to the table to improve storytelling through design, exhibits become next level. When Educational experiences are infused with history, performing arts, and fine arts in this multi-disciplinary manner, the impact on students and adults alike is profound. When cultural events are created by the community for the community, important community building follows. Working with community partners, the JCAHC has proudly hosted Hispanic Heritage Month Celebrations, art exhibition events, author talks, and (later this month) our very first Juneteenth event, just to name a few examples.
TIP has also flourished in this new site at 8788 Metcalf Avenue. Prior to 2017, TIP launched one season out of the year at Shawnee Mission Park in the outdoor amphitheater. This Johnson County summer theatre tradition of blankets on the lawn, under the stars, has showcased local talent for 52 years and counting! The dawning of this renovated building made way for a black box theater space allowing community theater to expand into the other three seasons of the year. To date, TIP has hosted many productions inside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center – with one of those occurring online due to the pandemic. Housing TIP inside of this incredible building has also paved the way to welcome two theater in residence companies who use The Black Box theatre when TIP is not active in this space: Spinning Tree Theatre and The Barn Players. We are so proud to increase access to quality theater right here in Johnson County!
The Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center also helps members of our community mark important life moments in our event spaces. The facility rental staff makes these gatherings possible seven days a week, hosting hundreds of milestone events each year, including weddings, quinceañeras, reunions, anniversaries, and celebrations of life, as well as business retreats and gatherings. Providing space where our community can gather is an honor and we are proud to facilitate these important moments.
This building is also a site where we are able to further JCPRD’s impact on the community by forging strong partnerships. None have been as strong as those that reside in the building alongside JCPRD staff. The Overland Park Historical Society has had a presence in the building since the opening in 2017, telling the story of Overland Park, the city where this building resides. The Arts Council of Johnson County also offices at the JCAHC, providing valuable advocacy and professional resources to help the arts community across Johnson County flourish. This building is also the proud home of the Emerging Artist Program, managed and staffed by Johnson County Development Supports. This studio boasts the talent of artists with physical and developmental challenges showing us all how art transcends through the work of these gifted artists. Supporting our partners and JCPRD with excellence is the Johnson County Facilities Department making sure the facility is in tip-top shape and ready to welcome visitors each and every day!
As I reflect back on the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center’s first five years, I am proud of the many special milestones our team has achieved. The Johnson County Museum has realized accreditation through the American Alliance for Museums for the first time in its 55 years, Theatre in the Park celebrated its 50th birthday milestone stronger than ever, and we have earned several national, state and local awards for exhibits, programs, building design, and even landscaping. All of this representing the commitment our organization has to serving the public with excellence.
The collaborative work of JPCRD staff reaches far beyond the walls of 8788 Metcalf Avenue. Thanks to forged partnerships with the Kansas City Symphony and the Lyric Opera, cultural experiences have been extended into JCPRD parks across the county pairing culture with our green spaces that help us all breathe a little bit deeper. Particularly during the pandemic, when outdoor spaces were the only places experts advised us to gather, these experiences were life giving – and they continue today. The JCPRD public art program has also been launched out of this building with plans to activate parks, trails, and facilities with public art that is accessible, inclusive, and reflective of our beautiful natural spaces. History in Parks is another initiative that was born from building collaborations. Starting with John Barkley Plaza in Shawnee Mission Park, museum staff conducted research on the history of this site, creating interpretive panels that deepen our connection to the park and our place in it. Interpretive panels have also been installed at Arthur & Betty Verhaeghe Park with more panels to come in the near future.
While numbers are just one measurement of impact, it is worth sharing that 690,188 patrons have been served over the last five years through history, arts, and cultural programs, events, and experiences. This summer alone our talented staff will host 40 distinct arts and cultural camps for youth. With all those numbers, we know there is an individual behind each one, each with a unique story. We are committed to serving the whole community through all these creative mediums. It is our collective ‘why’ and we commit to bringing even more joy, beauty and meaning to our community in the coming months and years. Cheers to five years and a big thank you to our community for supporting this cultural hub every step of the way!
Special thanks the following partners for their financial support marking this five-year milestone of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center: