“5M: Works from a Private Collection,” United Colors Gallery


In the small room that constitutes United Colors Gallery in Kansas City, Kansas, gallerists and curators Sam Haan and Cesar Lopez have managed to pack in a lot to explore in just one exhibition. The artwork in the exhibition is from the 5M Collection, the private collection of Matt and Mandi Strange. The work presented is exceptional, diverse, and worthy of this unique chance for public display. But in addition to the collection itself, there is also the conundrum this kind of exhibition presents, as well as the conversation Haan and Lopez seek to provoke in our local arts community. 

First things first: The collection itself. According to the gallery, the Strange’s collection of art consists of “global, regional, and local art while highlighting works created by women artists and artists of color. The Stranges worked with Haan and Lopez to select works from their home in Johnson County, Kansas, leaning on Matt and Mandi to select works that are important to their collection. Haan and Lopez also sought works that speak to their curatorial interest and make for interesting relationships in the gallery space they’ve curated for the past few years. 

Kennedy Yanko’s wall sculpture stands out among the work displayed. Twisted gray metal –of seemingly damaged car parts or other scraps– is dented and twisted into itself, accented by a bright yellow thick ribbon held in place among the mangled metal. As a sculptor himself, Lopez was most excited to display this piece. “I just wanted the chance to be around it,” he said, “and to give the opportunity for others to be around it, too.” 

Kennedy Yanko, 2018, “Canary Grey”

On the opposite wall, the softer side of the collection takes form in two pieces from Nastassja Swift. Forming small faces out of tightly knit wool pieces, “I Saw A Pink Bird Along The River Bank” is a meditation on the subtleties of expression, made all the more intriguing by the smallness of each face tucked up against the others. Swift’s other piece, “Passage, when momma lets my braids flow down my back,” is a photograph of one of her larger wool sculptures. In this piece, the head is life-sized, and the neck is wrapped in smaller faces formed into a scarf. From beneath the scarf, long braids flow down her back and torso. Although the photograph suggests the power of what the complete sculpture must look like, the zoomed image on the wall at United Colors stands on its own in its power of suggestion. 

Other works in the show include pieces by Zeh Palito, Jessica Alazraki, Will Tony, Wonderbuhle, Robert Peterson, and Brenna Youngblood. 

As for the conundrum: An artist-run gallery showing work from a private collection raises questions about the broader world of art, galleries, private collection, and art as currency. This is the second time in a year that United Colors has exclusively featured work displayed not directly from the artist(s) themselves, but rather from a private collector. When a gallery shows work from an artist, work can be purchased in a way that directly benefits the artist. When a private collection is shown, the works in the gallery are not for sale, and yet their inclusion in a gallery or museum exhibition stands to raise the value of the piece on display without directly benefiting the artist. Most small artist-run galleries in Kansas City tend to show work directly from artists, sometimes commercially, sometimes simply to show the work as part of a show or installation. There are plenty of commercial galleries that represent artists and show their work with mutual benefit: The gallery boosts the artist’s profile and work, and in exchange the gallery keeps a percentage of any sales. 

Zeh Palito, 2020, “Meu quintal é maior do que o Mundo,” “My backyard is bigger than the world”

The public display of private collections is more common in museum settings, and artist-run galleries are more known for displaying work directly from the artists. United Colors is doing something different. Typically, there are lines between the private collection economy and artist-run galleries. Depending on how you think of it, United Colors is crossing a line, blurring it, or transcending it altogether by creating a new kind of space. 

Located within a building owned and operated by the Community Housing of Wyandotte County (a community development nonprofit), the gallery is uniquely positioned to do something completely out of the ordinary in the greater arts ecosystem of Kansas City. Lopez talks about the gallery’s role within this particular neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. “Neighbors can walk down the street and see art that  would otherwise not be in this neighborhood; kids can visit the ceramics studio next door and have the chance to make their own art; and visitors from all over can come for the gallery and be exposed to the broader work we’re part of in this community.”  

“Sam and I were readily drawn to models that you see thriving in other cultures and countries, like Germany, where they have a Ministry of Culture that supports more civically minded galleries. So when we had this opportunity with the CHWC, we wanted to think of all the ways a community connects to art.” 

Jessica Alazraki, 2018, “Ballons”

Because of the broader view Lopez takes of the gallery’s role, he sees exhibiting private collections as one more aspect of the art world that is worth exposing and making more accessible to the public. While using gallery space for what could otherwise be used for directly showcasing an emerging local artist, this approach offers a different kind of benefit to local artists by giving exposure and access to a local collector. By giving local artists the chance to encounter a collection, United Gallery is offering local artists something that rarely exists in the Kansas City ecosystem: the chance to learn what different collectors are drawn to, whether they are collecting local, national or international artists.  

Art collecting is not restricted to those who can afford participation in the museum economy, and the 5M Collection is a testament to what becomes possible when someone finds their entry point into art collecting. For the Strange family, collecting art began small and followed their own simple desire to put good art on their own walls. “We didn’t want store-bought decorations. We wanted our kids growing up around good art.” 

The first piece of art they ever bought was for the wall of the nursery of their first child. Soon they found themselves going to galleries and art festivals, seeking out artists they liked, and adding to their collection. “It became an addiction,” said Matt. “So we finally had the conversation: What are we doing? Are we just buying stuff we like?” 

Wonderbuhle Mbambo, 2020, “Seen By the Moon”

Those questions prompted Matt and Mandi to bring their kids along for a deeper conversation about art and collecting. “We educated ourselves as a family,” said Matt. “We wanted to consider the art and artists we liked the most, and also found ourselves wondering: Who has something to say? And who has been limited in what they can say?” 

For the Strange family, in their years building this collection alongside their children, a big shift came when the COVID-19 pandemic moved so many interactions online. They suddenly found that so many artists they loved became even more accessible; making it possible for them to form closer relationships with national and international artists that they didn’t realize was possible before. “This didn’t just expand our collection more broadly,” said Mandi. “It put us in contact with artists in such direct and meaningful ways, which makes our collection even more special. Not because it has value as currency in the art world, but because it has value to our family, to our kids, and because we are getting to cheer for these artists as we watch their work and careers grow.”  

United Colors is seeking to expand conversations such as this. While displaying the 5M Collection and other privately owned collections raises plenty of important questions about our local arts ecosystem, Haan and Lopez welcome those questions as part of a broader conversation about who has access to collecting art, creating art, and being in close proximity to art. 

“5M: Works from a Private Collection” continues at United Colors Gallery, 611 N. 6th St. Kansas City, Kansas, through May. Hours are noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, unitedcolors.gallery or info@unitedcolors.gallery.  

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Michael Johnson is the author of two books: “The Thread” and “On Earth As It Is.” His essays and poems have appeared in “The Sun,” “Image,” “Guernica,” “Crazyhorse” and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Charlotte Street residency, an Arts KC Inspiration grant, a Rocket Grant, a Vermont Studio Center residency and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. 

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