“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Argentine literary great Jorge Luis Borges once wrote.
That would start with books, of course. But step through the double-leaf bronze doors of the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown Central Library, and the view of eternal bliss broadens. Artwork adorns the walls. Sculptures lend accent. The ONENORTH technology center that opened on the first floor a year ago is no everyday computer lab but a specially designed, art-appointed space that’s every bit as visually striking as it is functional.
To that, add two formal art galleries that last year hosted 10 original and traveling exhibits.
Art lives here, an essential element in the Library’s commitment to lifelong learning and community enrichment. KCPL has more than 200 pieces on display throughout the Central Library, ranging from paintings and prints of intricate historical maps to statues, figurines and a specially commissioned, English slipware commemorate plate created by famed Kansas City potter Irma Star.
A number of the works are originals. Many are reproductions, and the collection extends to Library artifacts and ephemera — perhaps not art by definition but very much a part of the artistic ambiance.
“It’s part of our history,” says Jonathan Kemper, the chairman of Commerce Bank, Kansas City Region, and president of the Kansas City Public Library’s board of trustees. He harkens back more than a century to the establishment of the Western Gallery of Art on the second floor of the old library at Ninth and Locust streets. When William Rockhill Nelson donated a collection of pictures in 1901, the space was renamed the Nelson Gallery of Art and became the forerunner of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“In a way,” Kemper says, “we like to think of the Library as the city’s oldest cultural institution. It’s not just about books. It’s about lectures and other programs. And about art.”
The Library commissioned a handful of works in the 1950s and ’60s, and heightened its focus on art after its 1988 split from Kansas City’s public school district and the establishment of an independent board of trustees. Kemper, who joined the board in 2001 and became president four years later, has driven the growth of its collection since then, donating half or more of the Library’s current holdings while working in concert with Library Director Crosby Kemper III.
The board created a library art fund in 2003, using proceeds from the sale of a painting by Indiana impressionist T.C. Steele. KCPL gave its holdings a fitting repository when it moved the Central Library into the reconditioned former First National Bank building in the spring of 2004.
Accompany Jonathan Kemper on a walking tour of the Central Library, and you’ll invariably wind up at the first-floor circulation desk and its striking backdrop: a more than 7-foot-wide, 5-foot-high reproduction of George Caleb Bingham’s famous oil painting “Martial Law or Order No. 11.” It immortalizes the 1863 edict that exiled several thousand people from their western Missouri homes during the Civil War-era border war with Kansas.
Bingham brushed two originals, now held by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the State Historical Society of Missouri. Kemper felt it important to bring the image to Kansas City — “this is who we are,” he says — and the Library received permission from the State Historical Society to create and hang an ultra-high-quality print in 2011.
A reproduction of an even larger mural, the 22-foot-long “Achelous and Hercules” by iconic KC artist Thomas Hart Benton, was unveiled outside the Library’s Genevieve Guldner Gallery in January.
A few steps away is ONENORTH, where an original abstract piece by acclaimed painter and longtime Kansas City Art Institute instructor Warren Rosser dominates one wall. A sequence of 10 relief prints by KCAI associate professor Laura Berman overlooks a nearby bank of computer stations. The sleek technology hub was designed by former Dolphin Gallery and frame shop owner John O’Brien, and is dominated by a large, colorful, computer-generated image of white matter fiber bundles in the human brain.
Opened in April 2016, ONENORTH was intended to consolidate all of the Library’s public access computer terminals in one location. “We said ‘that’s great,’ ” Kemper says, “but we wanted to increase our sights to also make it an attractive space with a sense of style.”
That sense pervades the Central Library, which itself is something of a work of art. First-floor Kirk Hall — with its high ceilings, stately columns and marble floor — epitomizes the overall elegance of a building that dates to 1906 and was home to the First National Bank of Kansas City and succeeding banks until 1999.
Among its contemporary features are the Guldner Gallery on the first floor and the 2-year-old Rocky and Gabriella Mountain Gallery on the second.
“Crosby thinks of the Library — and I think it’s right on — as being an instrument of civilization,” says Jonathan Kemper, whose interests also include serving on the Smithsonian Institution’s national board. “It’s complementary, but it’s also essential.
“Art should be part of that.”