The Kansas City art world suffered a big loss this spring with the passing of Tom Deatherage, longtime owner of The Late Show gallery, which he founded in Hyde Park and later moved to the East Crossroads. Like its owner, The Late Show was a quirky, wonderful space, which specialized in emerging artists, but also carried veterans like Jane Pronko and Philomene Bennett.
As an art dealer, Deatherage exerted an inimitable presence — smoking, drinking coffee (or a cocktail), cackling with glee over the latest bit of gossip, bristling with indignation over situations he thought unfair, enthusing over the merits of his latest show and proudly displaying the blooms in his garden. On June 3 his friends honored him with a Mardi-Gras-style parade from YJ’s Snackbar at 18th and Wyandotte to The Late Show at 16th and Cherry.
Tom Deatherage was one of a kind. He loved art and he loved artists — although they often made him nuts and he did not hesitate to say so. He had a moral compass that wouldn’t quit and a sense of fun that was second to none. He worked hard, but didn’t obsess over money, as long as he made enough to survive.
Deatherage mastered the art of living, surrounding himself with good friends, a happy little dog, a rambling urban garden and art everywhere. He died as he lived — at home, with friends gathered around, his little dog on the floor nearby and a newly installed exhibit in the gallery space below. For the Kansas City art world, his loss is profound, although Tom being Tom, he will be remembered with nothing but smiles.
The art world will also feel the loss of two talents who are vacating longtime posts. Readers may notice that the current issue of “KC Studio” does not contain the usual blurb: “KC Studio and KCPT have teamed up to cover the arts more fully,” announcing overlapping content with KCPT’s “Arts Upload.”
In February, the station aired the last segment of the 30-minute look at all things arts in Kansas City, co-hosted by Randy Mason, KCPT’s executive producer of cultural affairs. In May KCPT let Mason go, following a tenure of more than 30 years that included work on arts programs ranging from “Marquee” to “Rare Visions & Roadside Revelations,” which ran for 12 seasons and won 10 regional Emmy Awards.
From outsider art to opera, Mason brought it to KCPT’s viewers, producing a five-part history of the arts, “Uniquely Kansas City,” in 2000. With Mike Murphy, he received a national Emmy award in 2004 for the documentary “Be Good, Smile Pretty.” His perspective and knowledge will be missed.
May also marked the end of Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin’s tenure at the American Jazz Museum, where she served as curator in residence for the past eight years.
Thompson-Ruffin, an award-winning visual artist known for her intricate quilts and textiles laden with social commentary, brought an artist’s sensitivity to bear on the more than two dozen exhibitions she organized or co-organized for the museum’s Changing Gallery.
In keeping with the museum’s mission, jazz was a recurrent touchstone, whether she was showcasing the accomplishments of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald, or highlighting the careers of nationally known artists such as Ed Dwight or Tony Ramos. In fall 2015, she organized the “All Hail to Hale” exhibit at AJM, which ran in conjunction with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” exhibit.
Thompson-Ruffin, who is now organizing an African American Artists Collective in Kansas City, was also uniquely attuned to the achievements of Kansas City artists, mounting a major exhibition of works by Harold Smith in 2011 as well as group shows featuring KC art. She found a frequent creative partner in Glenn North, the inaugural poet laureate of Kansas City’s 18th & Vine Jazz District.
In her years at AJM, Thompson-Ruffin proved herself to be an ace collaborator, working with artists, museums and galleries from all over town as well as national organizations to produce shows and events. One of the most memorable collaborations was her work with the David C. Driskell Art Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, on the 2014 “Convergence: Jazz, Films, and the Visual Arts” exhibition. A noted artist and leading authority on African American art, Driskell himself came to Kansas City to speak at the opening, drawing a standing room only crowd to the museum.
It is a mystery how Thompson-Ruffin managed to do so much, with so many, at the museum, and continue to produce her own extraordinary artworks. As she ended her tenure at the American Jazz Museum, she was honored with an “Every Street is Charlotte Street” exhibit — part of the Charlotte Street Foundation’s 20th anniversary celebrations of award fellows — at the KCAI Crossroads Gallery.
Titled “Revolutionary Awakening,” the exhibit, on view through Aug. 4, pairs new works by Thompson-Ruffin with words by Glenn North and a documentary film by Rodney M. Thompson. As always, Thompson-Ruffin, a 2010 CSF fellow, brings something new to our awareness: the themes are social activism and the history of African American women’s social clubs in Kansas City.