An Interview with Evelyn Craft Belger, New Board Chair at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Evelyn Craft Belger (photo by Mark McDonald)

Her leadership at Belger Arts Center and Belger Crane Yard Studios uniquely prepares her for the post she will assume in May

Julius Karash: You have been a museum trustee since 2016 and will take over as board chair in May 2022. Could you briefly share your vision for the museum, and what you hope to accomplish?

Evelyn Craft Belger: It is a tremendous honor to be moving into this role and to come behind such extraordinary leaders like Board Chair Rick Green and Shirley Helzberg before him. Over the past year or so, the museum has been able to step back and really think about the next 10 or 20 years and what that could look like.

Julián Zugazagoitia is an extraordinary leader. In the midst of the COVID constraint, the staff was able to continue to develop really impactful programming and new ways to reach audiences. And because of all that work, the museum is poised to move on to the next level in the areas of exhibition and scholarly research, building the collection and connecting the museum to whole new communities locally, nationally and internationally.

Museums are changing. We’re able to connect so much easier now through social media, but seeing art in person gives us an opportunity to look deeper than a post on Instagram. Viewing art in a museum setting can touch us intellectually and emotionally. It can promote healing, can be a place of peace, or provoke difficult dialogue. My vision is to be able to help the museum build on this rich history and momentum that has continued to develop and take the next step to reach a new level of artistic excellence and connectivity to communities at all levels.

“Contemporary art is not the only place for dialogue regarding current issues. The wonderful thing about history and art is that history and art can give us other lenses through which to view contemporary issues.”

Evelyn Craft Belger

JK: You are a highly respected art person and a business person. What would you say to people who think the museum has put too much emphasis on the turnstile at the expense of the intellectual dimension of the museum as represented by scholarly curators?

ECB: I would invite those people to visit the museum and see some of the great work that the curators have been doing during this pandemic and before. They’re exploring different facets of the permanent collection through some extraordinary work, and in a short-staffed, limited budget. The museum has lost good people in all departments, but the talent and the dedication and the creativity of those that are in place is extraordinary. Museum staff is developing new programming, and they’re continuing to reach new audiences.

I think the way the question is framed makes an incorrect assumption. The board and museum leadership have made hard decisions to protect and maintain the Nelson-Atkins and its extraordinary collections in the face of these drastic funding decreases. The board and other community leaders stepped up and significantly increased their donations. But the museum still had to cut its expenses by 25%. And they were cut across the board in all departments. The decisions were prudent, and they were well considered, and extremely tough.

I would point out that unlike some other museums across the country, the Nelson-Atkins Museum was never in a position to have to consider deaccessioning from its collection as an option. I think Kansas City should be proud of the actions that were taken to preserve and protect the collection. That’s the primary role of any museum, to preserve and protect, as well as interpret and connect it to audiences. But first, it has to be there.

JK: What does the rise in base pay for hourly employees and three percent salary increase for staff mean for future hiring? Does the museum have plans for filling any or some of the many curatorial positions currently open?

ECB: The salary changes were made as a result of an independent salary study. They were the right thing to do. We want to remain competitive in our industry, to pay fairly, and attract and retain the best. But the salary question is not a zero-sum game. It’s not giving to one, taking away from the others. It doesn’t necessarily mean hiring fewer people in another area. There are a lot of factors that go into any budget, and it’s based on the future expectations and programming priorities. And whether through curatorial or exhibitions or education, those will continue to be developed with the vision and the mission of the organization in mind, and will influence the hiring decisions of the museum.

As always, community support will dictate budget parameters, and staffing decisions will be made in consideration of each of those factors. It’s impossible to say now what the new additions will look like. I’m sure that they will add to the curatorial staff. But they’ll be determined in the normal progression, being responsive to the conditions at the time of hiring. The current budget year is through the end of April, and a new budget is being developed.

JK: The release about the new strategic plan says the museum must also be a place for dialogue regarding current issues. Going forward, will that goal be reflected in major special exhibitions? The last big contemporary show was the 2019 “30 Americans” exhibit.

ECB: The museum is and has been working on a number of dynamic exhibition and programming ideas. It’s going to get better at connecting people with current names of artistic expression, as well as art and artifacts from the past. There’s a rich pipeline in place.

But while contemporary special exhibitions are under development, contemporary art is not the only place for dialogue regarding current issues. The wonderful thing about history and art is that history and art can give us other lenses through which to view contemporary issues. Dialogues about current issues can be woven into many cultures and times. That’s the beauty of an encyclopedic museum like the Nelson-Atkins. It offers different lenses to view other people, other cultures and our own current times.

Two visitors wearing masks enjoy the American galleries at the Nelson-Atkins, where masks or face coverings are required in all indoor spaces. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

JK: Understandably, due to the pandemic, the 2019-2020, “Eternal Egypt” exhibit, organized by the Nelson in collaboration with Museo Egizio, Turin and others, was the last major special exhibition shown at the Nelson. Under your tenure, will there be a drive to organize major shows like the Plains Indians exhibit that drew so much attention to the museum?

ECB: Stand back, because the museum has not been standing still. And coming out of COVID, there is a full and rich pipeline of projects under development. A major exhibition takes years of planning and much collaboration. Some are realized and some cannot be realized. But those that cannot, those ideas still remain, and they reemerge in other work in the future. And so it’s continual, it’s inspiring and it’s energizing. It’s not my place to talk about anything more specific than that. Ideas have not been standing still. Work that was done in the past that could not happen because of COVID, those ideas don’t go away.

And there is more to success than blockbuster exhibitions. They’re wonderful. They bring in people from all over the world, and they’re exciting to see. But there’s more to it, and the Nelson-Atkins is doing that work. There are deep connections you make with the community, partnerships with artists locally, as well as internationally, new interpretations and exploration of this permanent collection that is extraordinary. The work in those areas should be recognized on the same level of importance as blockbuster exhibitions.

The Nelson-Atkins is in discussion about the fate of this Benin Kingdom “Commemorative Head of an Oba” from the 16th century, which it acquired in 1987. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

JK: There has been a lot of discussion about the issue of looted art in Western collections, as reflected in Steve Paul’s recent story about the museum’s “Commemorative Head of an Oba.” Is the Nelson considering the possibility of returning that work, and perhaps others to their country of origin, as some other museums have decided to do?

ECB: Well, as you can imagine, there’s been quite a bit of discussion on this subject for a while now. And it’s a difficult one to sort through. The Nelson has been a leader in those discussions for quite a while. That is through Julián. And William Keyse Rudolph (Nelson-Atkins deputy director of curatorial affairs), who has served on international panels discussing all these issues, and MacKenzie Mallon (Nelson-Atkins provenance specialist), a leading and highly respected provenance researcher for the museum. She has been doing a lot of research on this subject as well.

It’s going to be a slow process, it’s complicated, there’s much to be done. We’re still learning and getting information, and it’s going to be a while before we are able to have all the information we need to really address the issue in a competent way.

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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