After 30 years as executive director and chief curator of the JCCC Gallery of Art and then The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Bruce Hartman retired Dec. 31, 2020. (See Arts in Brief, p.18, Mar/Apr 2021 issue.) His departure from the post marks a watershed moment for the museum and the community.
Hartman’s tenure at the museum coincided with Kansas City’s shift in identity from Cow Town to Culture Town, a change he had everything to do with through his work at the Nerman and his contributions as juror, panelist, tastemaker and collector to the broader Kansas City art scene.
At the museum, Hartman quickly earned a reputation for presenting challenging, cutting-edge shows assembled with a keen attention to issues and a connoisseur’s eye for quality. His exhibits brought Kansas City viewers and artists up to speed with national trends and ideas, upping the level of sophistication of the art made and collected here.
In the early 1990s, many held the view of Kansas City art as inferior to what could be found in New York galleries and not worthy of serious attention from area arts institutions.
Hartman bucked this trend by exhibiting and collecting Kansas City art alongside national and international names. Thanks to his efforts — and his focus not only on artists working here, but on artists who lived or studied here before pursuing careers elsewhere — the Nerman Museum now boasts the most comprehensive collection of art from the region of all the museums in the area. For artists, having work in a museum collection not only conferred prestige, but put money in their pockets. Under Hartman, the Nerman also played an important role in supporting the Kansas City gallery economy.
“A powerful force for the arts,” is how Mary Wessel, a Kansas City artist who has taught at the college, shown at the museum, and has work in the collection, describes Hartman. Wessel has also regularly contributed work to the Nerman’s biennial Beyond Bounds auction, which Hartman initiated.
The enthusiastic participation by KC artists in the auction attests to the gratitude and goodwill he has engendered from artists in the community. Since 1992, Beyond Bounds raised more than $1.3 million to benefit the museum, with a portion of those funds going to purchases of Kansas City art. In conjunction with sponsorships and donations, the 2020 auction, held online due to the pandemic, raised a record-breaking $317,000.
In addition to mounting exhibits of Jean Michel Basquiat, Elizabeth Murray, Dana Schutz, Stanley Whitney, Ken Price and many other major artists, Hartman will be remembered for stellar acquisitions such as Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Altgeld Gardens)” (1995), Do Ho Suh’s “Some One” (2004) and Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking Man (On the Edge)” (1995), which is part of the museum’s renowned Oppenheimer Collection and one of many outdoor works sited around campus.
But the most enduring aspect of Hartman’s legacy may well turn out to be his groundbreaking exhibits and acquisitions of work by contemporary American Indian artists, an expression of his lifelong mission to engender respect and recognition for the aesthetics and ideas of Native Americans.
Known for his booming laugh and dawn-to-midnight pursuit of the best art he could exhibit and acquire, Hartman brought energy and enthusiasm to every project he tackled. He leaves behind enormous shoes to fill.