Original works of art are the lifeblood of any art museum. Without them, the visitors’ experience would be one-dimensional and dreary. The joy of encountering an unfamiliar work opens doors and windows to new worlds, emotions and avenues of exploration. Visitors love discovering new works and museum curators, such as myself, love showing new objects. We learn too — especially from collectors who have lived with their works for years and now want to share them with museum visitors.
The special exhibition Unexpected Encounters explores works of art that have entered the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art during the last nine years. These acquisitions have come from a variety of sources. Many were given to the museum, some were left as bequests by thoughtful donors and others were purchased by discerning curators. With over 250 works in the exhibition, we can only include some of the many new paintings, prints, photographs, ceramics, silver, furniture and jewelry that entered the collection since 2009. The exhibition also presents some of the newer collecting initiatives of the museum: works by underrepresented communities, such as contemporary art by women and African American artists.
One of the many challenges of the exhibition was how to create a dynamic installation that broke the boundaries of a typical museum display. We played with a chronological display (ancient to contemporary), or one by medium (paper, paint, metal or clay), or one by geography (Asia, Africa, Europe or America). Instead, we devised a provocative display: the unexpected. In this installation, you will see juxtapositions that you will probably never see before — some are esoteric — the void of a melted piece of glacial ice in the work of Olafur Eliasson’s The presence of absence (Nuup Kangerlua, 24 September 2015 #3), 2016 in proximity to a 16th-century drawing of a corpse by Giovanni de Vecchi. Both address absence but in completely dissimilar ways, from different time periods and in different media. Frequently, we let visitors find the connections or oppositions of the works. This is not a didactic exercise. We want this display to engender conversation and questions, not, necessarily, answers. We hope you find it stimulating and sometimes, even humorous. If you want more concrete answers, we invite you to see all the new acquisitions in the permanent collection galleries, called out with a special icon.
We also want to celebrate the numerous people who have generously given their cherished and prized objects and collections to the museum. Many of the donors are local, from Christy and Bill Gautreaux, who have promised a major work by the young British-Ghanian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boayke, The Fondess, 2010, to a Native American beaded bandolier bag from the renowned collection of the late Lee Lyon. Lee’s son, Mike Lyon, with his wife Linda, supported the acquisition of a multimedia print by KCAI professor Miguel Rivera. In turn, Sandy and Christine Kemper donated a self-portrait by Mike Lyon. It is a small and interconnected world.
Given the museum’s reputation, collectors from outside Kansas City have generously thought of the museum, from the great collector of African American art ET Williams, who donated several pieces by Claude Lawrence, to the daughter of Color Field artist Jules Olitski, who gave prints by her father. Some works, such as the magnificent painting Landline Tappan, 2015, by Sean Scully, are the results of exciting partnerships. The artist, along with noted oncologist and Philadelphia resident Dr. Luther Brady, a friend of the late Lee Lyon, collaborated with the William T. Kemper-Commerce Bank, Trustee to bring this transcendent painting to the museum.
Unexpected Encounters also aims to be fun and experimental. We are looking to draw back the curtain and reveal some of the ways we work. For instance, we ask the question: What makes a work of art worth collecting? Or, how has the museum’s collection grown since it was founded? Would you like to know what the museum acquired the year you were born? You can find out. We also ask the questions: How does the museum organize its collection and how do exhibitions come together? Who make them happen? We ask how you experience art: Is it a contemplative experience or one that you enjoy with family and friends over conversation? Finally, if you were to work at a museum, what would your profession be? Take the quiz!
Unexpected Encounters hopes to “break the mold” on traditional exhibitions and hopes that with a little bit of fun and unconventionality, we can all look at art, the museum and ourselves with new eyes and appreciate the generous collectors, donors, trustees, volunteers and staff that make our museum such a transformative experience.
–Catherine L. Futter, Director, Curatorial Affairs