The Max’s Kansas City Project Offers Help to Artists in Need

Kingston resident Yvonne Sewall works to make sure artists are treated with respect.

In the 1960s and 70s, Max’s Kansas City was New York City’s most buzzworthy nightspot, drawing an eclectic, electric crowd of stars, creatives, and counterculture celebrities. Restaurant owner Mickey Ruskin prized creativity and wanted the city’s artists to think of Max’s as a second home. It’s that legacy that today inspires Kingston resident Yvonne Sewall to help artists through the Max’s Kansas City Project.

“Mickey was a huge patron of the arts,” said Sewall, who waitressed at Max’s and eventually married Ruskin. “If you came there and said, ‘I don’t have any money, I’m down on my luck this week,’ Mickey would make sure you had a meal. He always put out free food every afternoon — chicken wings, or chili, or whatever was left over. That fed a good part of the downtown arts scene. A lot of people lived off that food.”

As well as feeding artists, Ruskin offered them a tab in exchange for their artwork, some of which he displayed in the restaurant. Emerging artists had a place to showcase their work and the tab provided a way to entertain agents and gallery owners, helping to catapult some art careers.

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Located in a neighborhood with many photo studio lofts, Max’s also attracted nearby fashion photographers and their models. Park Avenue South neighbor and music entrepreneur Albert Grossman requested a tab so his clients — Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Band — could eat there. Andy Warhol filled the back room with his favorite celebrities and the charismatic figures that inspired Lou Reed’s song “Walk On The Wild Side.” Warhol supposedly moved his studio from midtown to Union Square so he could more easily dine at Max’s. “Naked Lunch” author William S. Burroughs is said to have called Max’s “the intersection of everything.”

Actress Jane Fonda and singers David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Bruce Springsteen are just a few of the celebrities that frequented Max’s before it finally closed in 1981. Ruskin, who left Max’s in 1975, opened more venues, including the bar/restaurant nicknamed One U in Greenwich Village. He died shortly thereafter, at the age of 50, in 1983.

Since then Sewall has worked to protect the artistic legacy of Max’s. In 2001 she received 501(c)(3) status for the Max’s Kansas City Project, which helps artists in need. The project provides emergency funding and resources to pay for housing, medical and legal aid, with one-time grants of between $500 and $1,000.

“Your life can change in seconds flat, as it did for me when Mickey passed away,” she said. “Just like that. Things happen that we really don’t anticipate and artists aren’t always the best in terms of saving. Even if they are, it doesn’t take long to go through your savings.”

An artist can work hard, said Sewall, and achieve success, then suddenly be sidetracked by something insurmountable.

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“We helped a writer who had 12 books published and now has MS. As it advanced over time, it became harder for her. She couldn’t write and she was behind on her rent. That’s where we came in. We had a dancer who had to have back surgery, then it didn’t fuse properly and you’re not talking about six weeks of recovery, you’re talking about six months, sometimes longer, without work.”

Sewall also refers artists to other sources of financial assistance.

“We mentor people on where to get more funding. If you’re a jazz musician, you may qualify for the Jazz Foundation and I can make a call for you. Or there’s PEN if you’re a writer. We have a resource page on our website with all kinds of organizations that provide emergency relief.”

The project is funded through donations, fundraising events, and by the sale of art created and donated by Max’s alumni, with prices ranging from $75 to $7500.

“Max’s alumni have been very generous,” said Sewall. “Between the visual artists, the rock photographers, the musicians, the writers, and composers, they’ve all donated over the years. That’s one of our resources.”

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Ideally, Sewall would like to see the collection housed in a museum that will dedicate a room to the notable pop culture hub. In February, the project’s current art collection and a recreation of Max’s interior was temporarily displayed at Los Angeles’s first annual Frieze Art Fair at Paramount Pictures Studios. The pop-up exhibit, created in partnership with Bombay Sapphire, included work by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner and Anton Perich, a Max’s busboy-turned-photographer.

“It was a wonderful experience,” said Sewall. “Bombay Sapphire works with emerging artists, so we’re very simpatico.”

Yvonne Sewall’s 1998 book looking inside the legendary happenings of Max’s Kansas City Project. 

As well as helping artists, Sewall has been developing a Fearless Youth program to offer teens resources to counter substance abuse and suicide, as well as recommending the arts as a creative outlet. Sewall wrote the book High on Rebellion and recently began a Drop Into Max’s podcast, in association with Woodstock Radio, as a way to share the venue’s pop culture history. She is also developing a documentary about Max’s.

“I think it would make a great docu-series. The Studio 54 documentary just came out. They’re doing one on Candy Darling, who was one of Max’s femme fatales.”

In the 1960s and 70s, transsexual icons such as Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn faced overt discrimination in more conventional venues. The Warhol superstars were not only welcome at Max’s but often socialized gregariously in the VIP back room with the likes of filmmaker Federico Fellini or Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.

“Mickey was a visionary. That was before the Stonewall riots. Once you walked through those doors, once you were accepted, you were treated like a star. And you were treated with dignity and respect.”

Treating artists with dignity and respect is a legacy that Sewall’s charity aims to continue.

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