“People like having a good time,” a recent KC Star editorial about Mayor Sly James’ planned Kansas City arts festival observed.
True. But the mass media’s stress on the arts as entertainment, therapy, economic driver and decoration — on the increase with the elimination of so many critics and specialists — works to overshadow the arts’ most important and fundamental contribution.
Artists take the pulse of a culture, registering threats and dilemmas, probing values and priorities, commenting and raising questions about the issues and decisions that will shape the future.
Coinciding with the nation’s election of the next president, the current issue of KC Studio is all about this pulse-taking dimension of the arts. Amid the season’s flurry of exhibition openings, new theater and opera productions, and a classical music lineup that won’t quit, issues loom over all.
For acclaimed, Kansas City-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the most pressing issue is peace, the driving theme of her new album, In War & Peace: Harmony through Music.
“I was going through all kinds of possible arias to record for this album, and what kept hanging over my head was the sense that I wanted to put out a message of peace,” DiDonato told KC Studio’s Libby Hanssen. (See “Concert to Come,” page 48.)
Kansas Citians will have an opportunity to experience DiDonato’s message in person on Dec. 7, when the Harriman-Jewell Series presents DiDonato and the Italian ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro performing In War and Peace at the Folly Theater.
At KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, the ambitious “Temporal Turn” exhibition (see page 68), curated by Kris Ercums, serves to promote the kind of intercultural understanding that is vital to achieving peace. Inspired by Asian history, philosophy and pop culture, the featured works reflect the move by contemporary Asian artists to reconnect with aspects of their respective cultures which were repressed under Western colonialism. The exhibit explains Asia in a way, with a particular focus on differing concepts of time.
Understanding, not only among the peoples of this world, but among the culturally diverse inhabitants of this country, is another top concern, driving ventures like the Melting Pot Theater, Kansas City’s first black-owned theater, which opens the “anti-lynching” play Rachel on Nov. 10.
Earlier this fall, the new Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City delivered a stirring rendition of Dream Girls for its inaugural production. In a recent interview with KCUR’s C.J. Janovy, the theater’s founder, Damron Russel Armstrong, explained the importance of black theater this way: “With the number of black men who have been shot down in the streets, there’s a sense they’re not adding anything to the pot, that we’re not really benefiting from the lives of ‘those people.’ And until we start releasing the stories of African Americans and their contributions, I think we’re going to be stuck there.”
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s acquisition and display of Nick Cave’s Property (see page 26), a mixed-media sculpture incorporating racially charged found objects, is also meant to spark dialogue and thought about the issue of race in this country, as is The Unicorn Theatre’s production of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, opening Nov. 30.
KC Studio’s November/December Artist Pages put a number of issues on the table, including race and inequality, environmental degradation, economic justice, and, notably, immigration. Many Americans may be unaware of the Depression-era Mexican Repatriation, which deported people of Mexican descent, including U.S. citizens, to Mexico, in the face of dwindling jobs and overburdened social programs. Kansas City artist Adolfo Martinez’s mother, whom he portrays on the arm of his father in his Artist Pages artwork, Aqui estamos. . ., was one of them.
Martinez’s piece resonates with themes explored in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s current “Domestic Seen” exhibition (watch for our review in the January/February issue), which includes paintings of luxurious Architectural Digest-style environments by Ramiro Gomez. Gomez’s renditions of these scenes, based on his perusal of AD while working as a nanny in an upscale home, include the manual laborers who keep these homes so pristine and perfect.
“Looking at these environments minus all the people I was working with . . . was an erasure of us,” he told the LA Times earlier this year. “So it became very clear what to add. It was this simple act. It was just inspired by saying, ‘I’m here. We exist.’”
Ramiro, Martinez, and the other Kansas City artists whose work is showcased in this issue’s Artist Pages, function as our society’s conscience in a way, calling our attention and inviting us to ponder our acts and attitudes toward others.
Post-election, the country’s attention will shift to the holidays, which many will celebrate by attending The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol or a festive concert. In Kansas City, the holidays bring an abundance of programs and exhibits, from the Kansas City Symphony’s Christmas Festival to the Toy and Miniature Museum’s exhibit, “Victorian Photographs of Children and Their Toys.”
These programs and others will be featured in KC Studio’s first Holiday Supplement, arriving to subscribers on Nov. 21. Delve into our illustrated calendar of exhibits and events; get an up-close look at the new Nutcracker in a photo essay by Jim Barcus, and check out our ideas for artist-made gifts.