Kansas Free for Arts kicks off $3 million capital campaign | Free

Nearly two years after closing its studio space amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas Free for Arts is ready for a new beginning. 

The nonprofit arts advocacy and outreach organization has kicked off a three-year $3 million capital campaign, which director and co-founder Hank Osterhout said will expand programming and arts-based services to the community. 

“The bulk of that is just finding a building, remodeling it and getting it up to ADA-spec,” he said. 

KFA was founded in 2014 by Osterhout and Megan O’Brien. In 2017, they opened the KFA Studio, staffed entirely by volunteers and college interns, who facilitated a number of arts activities for people of all ages, interests and abilities. The studio also provided a space for artists and musicians to come together to be creative.

In 2019, KFA kicked off Halfway 2 Everywhere, a free arts and music festival. The first event brought an enormous crowd to downtown Emporia to hear musican across multiple stages. The festival was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but was able to return in 2021. 

“It was more stressful  than it needed to be,” Osterhout said of the 2021 event. “In the week leading up to it, we were starting to get more COVID flare-ups and I think two acts couldn’t show up just because of sickness. I had a handful of crew that couldn’t make it. And then it rained. It was just a perfect storm.” 

Osterhout had decided to close the KFA studio in Dec. 2020, also due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were really trying to get back on track in 2020, really putting a lot of cash into things,” he said. “We were renting a small studio space on Seventh Avenue, and even after the fact when it started loosening it up a bit and we were able to open — with conditions for how many individuals were in the building.” 

Osterhout, a stay-at-home dad of three, said he would hit max capacity just bringing his children to the studio with him. Feeling that studio space wasn’t right for KFA anyway, the doors were closed and most programming came to a halt, but the KFA mission continued on. 

Recently earning of masters of business administration, Osterhout said he was inspired to revamp KFA’s business model. 

“We want to relaunch all of our programs,” he said. “The idea of the [Halfway 2 Everywhere] festival was it was supposed to be this culminating thing. We were supposed to be creating programs, doing concerts and having all these workshops throughout the year. The end of the year celebration was Halfway, and we want to be able to tie that back in.” 

And, the KFA’s new business plan takes all of that into account while continuing to fill existing gaps in the market. Osterhout said he doesn’t want to compete with organizations like Emporia First Friday and the Emporia Arts Center, rather he wants to work alongside them to bring more arts and music programming and education to the area.

He’s also been speaking with the city of Emporia to bring reliable electric service to the Peter Pan Park amphitheater, in order to hold programs there as well.

Osterhout’s building design includes dedicated studio space for the arts and music, including spaces that can be rented by the public, on both the first and second floors. The building would feature a shared office space for No Coast Film Festival as well. 

“I have designs for video and audio recording studios and a partition that we can move if we need to,” he said. “There’s a locker space that are rentable for artists. I always think of the starving college artists, living in the dorms who don’t have space for their canvases. So, we want to provide this kind of space.” 

Osterhout said over three years, KFA will move forward with community involvement and outreach. He will hire staff to take on roles within the organization, such as an outreach director, a studio director and more. 

“We’ve restructured the way we operate, instead of me as the executive director and decision maker of all things, it made sense to diffuse that out,” Osterhout said. “Up to this point, it’s been me doing all of those roles for free.” 

“It’s a relaunch and we’re really looking at is as a fresh start,” he added. “We want to be a little more sustainable so we’re creating a very low fee structure, because a lot of our stuff is free. Concerts are always going to be free, the festival is always free unless you want to buy a VIP pass, which gets you a meal and drinks and all that.” 

Osterhout said there are a number of ways people can support KFA, including becoming a “sustaining member” at as low as $10 a month. Donations can also be made through the Emporia Community Foundation. 

“All of this on the web site, it gets you discounts,” he said. “So, Halfway 2 Everywhere, a VIP pass is $150 but if you’re a member it’s $100. We kind of have this discount throughout the year. There’s a couple of people who I’ve had in mind for doing our ‘infinity membership’ for $1,000, or $90 a month. That will get you into the studio, the VIP area and all that kind of stuff.” 

Osterhout knows he has a large goal, but a large part of the expenses are related to finding and renovating a building. He estimates a $400,000 per year operating cost. 

Those interested in donating or learning more about KFA, can visit ksfreeforarts.org.

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