Editor’s Letter, November/December 2019

KC Studio editor Alice Thorson, photo by Mark Berndt.

Recent months have been a time of changes and challenges for Kansas City’s visual arts organizations.

On Aug. 2, the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Erin Langhofer at First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District was met with shock and sadness, and a decision to dial down the hectic carnival atmosphere and refocus the event on art and artists. The change has been welcomed by many longtime participants in the event, as Randy Mason reports in his story in the current issue.

In mid-August, Catherine Futter, director of curatorial affairs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, announced her intention to leave that post and return to New York and hands-on curating. Futter’s departure brings to seven the number of curatorial openings the museum is seeking to fill; it also changes the timeline for hiring. The Nelson-Atkins had planned to fill six of the open curatorial posts by the end of 2019. Now the museum has hit the reset button. According to director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia, finding Futter’s replacement will be the priority, and that person will be charged with filling the other six open posts.

In July, “The Pitch” reported that last year’s Open Spaces event was almost half a million in debt to participating artists, vendors and the event’s artistic director, Dan Cameron. A recent development has reduced that figure.

Announced in September, the recent sale of three artworks to the R.C. Kemper Charitable Trust will allow Open Spaces to recover its fabrication costs for the works. That will help toward repaying the debt, according to Cheryl Kimmi, executive director of KC Creates, the non-profit that served as fiscal agent for Open Spaces. The event, a collaboration with the City of Kansas City, was founded by philanthropist Scott Francis assisted by Susan Gordon, with support from the city and a Founders Circle of large donors and arts leaders.

“We’re making headway.” Kimmi said. “There are still six works available for sale.” KC Creates hopes to retire the remaining $230,000 Open Spaces debt by the first of the year, Kimmi added.

On Sept. 1, a demonstration organized by Kansas City artists Carmen Moreno, Alex Martinez, Kiki Serna and Chico Sierra took place outside Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Protesters held banners proclaiming: “Kempers Make Money Off ICE Detainees & Private Prisons” and “Tell Mariner Kemper & UMB Bank to Stop the Exploitation of Our Country.” Mariner Kemper, a member of the museum’s board, is CEO and chairman of the UMB Financial Corp (UMB Bank), which represents bondholders for the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The facility houses ICE detainees.

First reported by “Hyperallergic” Aug. 31, the controversy included a campaign by the East Coast-based FANG Collective of activists calling for Kemper’s removal from the board, and a response to “Hyperallergic” from UMB, in which the bank pointed out its obligation to bondholders and its lack of an investment stake or operational involvement in the detention facility.

“We do not represent the facility or their decisions,” Mariner Kemper said in a statement. “Furthermore, we took on this business before the facility held any ICE detainees.” In a “Kemper Museum Community Statement” on its website, the museum reiterated its commitment to being “a safe and welcome space for dialogue and discussion.” Beyond all the statements, the museum’s programming under curator Erin Dziedzic speaks volumes about the institution’s moral compass.

The controversy was still simmering in the weeks leading up to the museum’s scheduled Oct. 3 opening of the 2019 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artists Award exhibition, posing a dilemma to the exhibiting artists and the Charlotte Street organization.

The show went off as planned, accompanied by commentary. In conjunction with the exhibit’s opening, a letter from the Charlotte Street Foundation board of directors and staff lauded the dialogue initiated by the Kansas City demonstrators and their prompting of “necessary and uncomfortable conversations about the ways in which we are all linked to and are complicit in systems of oppression (including racism and xenophobia) that perhaps we were neither fully aware of, nor have clear answers as to how to unravel.”

The letter also expressed support for the artists in the awards show and belief in the power of their art.

Controversy also surrounds the commissioning of more than $5 million in public art for the new Kansas City International Airport. The issues include the role of the Municipal Art Commission in overseeing and approving art for the airport and the need for an experienced curator to run the selection process. As this issue went to press, the announcement that James Martin, a respected Kansas City art critic and curator with extensive knowledge of public art, has been hired to fill the post of Kansas City Public Art Administrator marks a step in the right direction for the future of public art in Kansas City.

Growth and change are part of the life of an organization. Fortunately, there is every reason to expect that fall’s flux and uncertainty will subside, and that Kansas City’s strong arts organizations will emerge all the stronger.

About The Author: Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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