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Robin Trafton of The Box Gallery in KC

This small art gallery is a little more than meets the eye

If you live or work in downtown Kansas City, you might have noticed the Box Gallery, quietly nestled in an arcade of shops and restaurants inside the Commerce Bank Building at 1000 Walnut Street. But look closer at this unassuming little storefront, and you’ll find a vibrant, engaging, ever-changing snapshot of the region’s cultural arts scene.

For many years, the space was a retail location. Then in 2011, its most recent occupant moved out, and the team at Commerce Bank decided to try something different with the space—converting it into a gallery that featured cultural art exhibitions with connections to the Kansas City community, designed specifically to appeal to the downtown audience.

Robin Trafton, who has served as the Box Gallery’s director since its inception, says the positive response from the community began immediately and continues to this day. The gallery attracts an eclectic mix of visitors, ranging from downtown workers and residents to groups from local schools and senior centers.

Art organizations appreciate the unique space in the heart of the city’s financial district, as it provides them with an opportunity to reach new audiences. “People who stop by here might not otherwise go to art galleries,” says Trafton. “We partner with local artists, cultural arts organizations, universities, museums, and businesses, attracting new audiences for each exhibition.”

As an example, Trafton cites the gallery’s recent exhibit on Harry S. Truman, which drew visitors interested in learning more about Kansas City’s place in American history. “An exhibit like that may attract different people than the one we did with Andrews McMeel Universal, which featured the history of comic strips,” she says.

The gallery’s presence has some unintended benefits as well. Tower Properties, which Commerce Bank engages to manage the building in which the Box Gallery is located, has noted that the other tenants enjoy having the gallery as a neighbor. “A number of people who work in the building stop in for each show,” says Trafton. “I think they respond to the energy of rotating shows, and the gallery is a unique amenity that most buildings downtown don’t have.”

At just 830 square feet, the Box Gallery is small, allowing for only one exhibit at a time. To keep things fresh, shows run for two or three months each, allowing for anywhere from five to seven exhibitions per year. The gallery has featured a number of local artists, as well as a geoscience fossil exhibit from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a LEGO architecture exhibit, and even an exhibit focused on high-end sound technology.

The exhibit on display from November 1, 2019 through January 31, 2020 is also one that Trafton believes will excite visitors. “For Home and Country: The Great War in Kansas City”, developed in partnership with the National WWI Museum and Memorial, will illustrate what Kansas City was like at the end of the Great War. “Although the war was overseas, Kansas City citizens were significantly impacted by the war.” she says, “Patriotic residents not only volunteered to serve in the military, but they also assisted thousands of soldiers coming home through Union Station, volunteered with relief agencies, and purchased victory bonds.”

Among the pieces in the exhibit are reproductions of elements that were familiar to residents at the time: war posters, photography, street car tickets (with war facts printed on them) and even video of soldiers’ homecoming parades. It also documents the grassroots movement that initiated the WWI Memorial, and the rapid fundraising that made it all happen.

Regardless of the exhibit, the feedback from visitors, according to Trafton, is always positive. “Our small gallery is perfect for a coffee break, and never a daunting visit,” she says. “People feel comfortable coming in. We try to add an educational element to each show, to help visitors learn something new.”

That context is important. “I hope visitors come away from here curious to learn a little bit more about the thriving cultural arts scene in Kansas City,” Trafton says. “We like to give them a little nugget of inspiration.”

The Box Gallery is located inside the Commerce Bank Building at 1000 Walnut Street in downtown Kansas City. Admission is always free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and free parking validation is available. To learn more, visit theboxgallery.org.

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