The passing of Lennie Berkowitz marks the further diminution of a generation of Jewish art dealers and collectors who played a critical role in making the Kansas City art scene the vibrant place it is today. In the past decade we have lost Byron Cohen, Jan Weiner, Harrison Jedel and Jerry and Margaret Nerman, all of whom contributed to educating the public about and generating enthusiasm for contemporary art through their exhibits and gifts to local institutions. News of the city’s loss of two giants of the collecting and philanthropic communities, Henry Bloch and Morton Sosland, came shortly after this issue went to press.
Berkowitz, working with Garth Clark Gallery, exposed Kansas City to the top names in contemporary ceramics. Her influence can be seen not only in her own generous donations of works to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but in gifts to area museums from collectors who purchased works from her, including the late Dean Thompson who donated many ceramic works to the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The current issue includes a tribute to Lennie Berkowitz by longtime KC art critic Elisabeth Kirsch.
Kirsch also memorializes another beloved figure. Ray Starzmann made his name in Kansas City as a Harry Truman reenactor, appearing in the role at venues across the city, including the Kansas City Public Library’s “Meet the Past” program. For many years Starzmann was also a fixture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where he worked in the museum shop; others will remember him for his passion for politics and lively post-election parties.
Set against these losses is the good news we report in this issue, including significant milestones for local arts organizations: The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey turns 35, the Kansas City Civic Orchestra is now 60, and Musica Vocale founder Arnold Epley will celebrate his 80th birthday by conducting the ensemble’s May 19 “Resist” concert.
The Kansas City Symphony welcomes Daniel E. Beckley from Indianapolis as its new director in July; at MTH Theater, Tim Scott has received a richly deserved promotion to artistic director. Lenexa has a new library, and Overland Park will soon have a signature work of architecture by Preston Scott Cohen, who is designing the new sanctuary for Congregation Beth Shalom.
On the visual arts side, the American Jazz Museum’s loss is the Bruce R. Watkins Center’s gain. Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, who organized many significant exhibits as visiting curator of the Jazz Museum’s Changing Gallery, recently signed on with the Watkins Center to curate a new exhibition series highlighting KC-based African American artists. See Artist to Watch, page 48 for details about the inaugural exhibition, featuring works by Joseph Newton.
As summer nears, the art of fun is ascendant. May marks the opening of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s long-awaited Art Course, a nine-hole mini-golf course inspired by artworks in the museum.
And it’s not too early to begin planning summer art trips.
Opening June 1 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the outdoor exhibition “Color Field” will feature sculptures that emphasize color, including Spencer Finch’s billboard-sized grid, “Back to Kansas,” and interactive sculptures that incorporate sound by Sam Falls.
Opening May 5 at The Denver Art Museum is an exhibit that speaks to a favorite era of design for many Kansas Citians. “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America,” explores how 40 top designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand and Eva Zeisel, incorporated the idea of play in postwar American design for the home, children’s toys, play spaces and corporate identities — think Irving Harper’s “Atomic” Ball Clock and iconic Marshmallow sofa. And if you think you know Isamu Noguchi from the Nelson-Atkins’ Noguchi Court, Denver’s design exhibit shows another side of the artist, as creator of whimsical children’s playscapes.