Originally built as a conservatory, the Kansas City Museum planetarium was the inspiration for creating a Skyspace for the Kansas City Museum. (Kansas City Museum)
After nearly three years of construction work and extensive renovations to Corinthian Hall, the Kansas City Museum at 3218 Gladstone Boulevard will reopen to the public early next year.
In 2014, the Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department assumed management of the museum. From then until construction started in 2017, residents were invited to visit and share their thoughts about the facility, their favorite memories of it and ideas for its future.
“We got really meaningful input,” says Anna Marie Tutera, the museum’s executive director. “I’m really glad we did it. We want to bring people into conversations about the city in which they live.”
Three things from the institution’s past came up often, she says — the soda fountain, the igloo and the planetarium. The last, a small domed building behind Corinthian Hall, was originally built as a conservatory for R.A. Long, the home’s owner.
in 1950, 11 years into the museum’s existence, the conservatory was converted into a planetarium, one that served local skywatchers for decades. But eventually, Tutera laughs, it became “more and more of a store-a-torium.”
Now the building is playing an exciting new role — as the catalyst for a major piece of visual art planned for Kansas City.
The Kansas City Museum Foundation has commissioned James Turrell, best known for his light-centric Skyspace installations around the world, to create a new work for the museum. As the artist’s website explains, “A Turrell Skyspace is a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.”
Whether installed in an autonomous structure or integrated into existing architecture, a Skyspace explores the ways that light and the human brain interact.
According to Tutera, the idea for a Kansas City project first bloomed in 2014. She found herself pondering the unique history of the conservatory/planetarium, its architecture and the diverse ways it had been utilized over the years.
Tutera had been a fan of Turrell’s work since 1992, when she saw his “Meeting” installation at PS1 in New York City. She hoped the building and its connections to the cosmos might intrigue an artist renowned for his explorations of light and perception.
She contacted Turrell in 2015. Discussions followed, slowly, since the main task at hand — to transform an aging mansion into a vibrant and engaging 21st-century museum, has required plenty of what she calls “heavy lifting.”
During the last week of January — five years since that initial call — Turrell and his design team came to Kansas City for their first official site visit. They met with museum staff and the renovation team.
Currently, the goal is to finalize the Skyspace design concept by the end of 2020. Plans call for construction and completion of the project in 2022.
For Tutera, it’s a logical step toward what the museum aspires to be.
“From the beginning of all this, light has been extremely important,” she explains. “This is a project about legacy and illumination. We’re trying to shine a light on untold stories. A Skyspace is an innovative and meaningful way to honor and advance the history of the planetarium and to create a new narrative bringing together art, architecture and history.”
Current initial funders for the Skyspace project are the Sunderland Foundation, the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation and the R.C. Kemper, Jr. Charitable Trust.
In 2009, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., unveiled Turrell’s “The Way of Color,” a Skyspace located on the museum’s grounds. Visit crystalbridges.org/blog/10-years-of-skyspace to see images of the piece.