Arts News: Lennie Berkowitz (1929-2019)

KC Mourns the Loss of a Cultural Leader

Lennie Berkowitz (left) and her daughter Gail Berkowitz-Gifford with Kanzan from “The Laughing Monk Series” by Akio Takamori. The piece is a promised gift from the Lennie and Jerry Berkowitz Collection in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / photo by Don Ipock )

Lennie Berkowitz was a style maven and a trendsetter, one of the first in Kansas City to embrace contemporary architecture, furniture and design. But she was so much more than that.

An arts and education promoter, Berkowitz was a genius at enlisting others to work with her as she passionately sought, for decades, to benefit the city in a myriad of ways. Like many successful activists, she was always nice, but never went away until she got what she wanted. And what she wanted was for children to be introduced to and become excited about the arts, and for grownups to enrich their lives by attending — and funding — diverse arts events. She also wanted people to feel inspired about owning and living with art.

Berkowitz accomplished these goals and more. She was prominent in the Contemporary Arts Society, best known for its instigation of the Christo “Wrapped Walkways” project in Loose Park. She was involved with multiple cultural and educational organizations in Kansas City. When she became an ardent collector of ceramic art, she opened her own gallery and helped turn Kansas City into one of the major ceramic centers in the country.

One of Berkowitz’s greatest legacies is Kansas City Young Audiences, of which she was the major founder more than 50 years ago. Berkowitz had a graduate degree from the University of Kansas in special education, and in 1961, with her husband Jerry Berkowitz and a handful of volunteers, she began organizing free art education programs for children throughout Kansas City. Because of the dearth of arts programming in the public schools, many of these children had never been exposed to the visual or performing arts.

Gary Adams, pianist, composer and band leader, worked three years for Young Audiences in the early 1970s as part of a folk music group that performed in various schools in the metro area. “There were about five or so musical art groups in Young Audiences then,” Adams recalled recently, “and we all really loved it. Like any good leader, Lennie knew how to draw on the strong points of her constituents and let us develop our own programming.”

Berkowitz was still actively involved with KCYA when she collaborated with current executive director Martin English on the organization’s 50th anniversary. Today Kansas City Young Audiences is more vital than ever.

“Since 1961 we’ve passed the 5 million mark for the number of students served in Kansas City,” English notes. “During the last school year our artists — in all media — worked with over 108,000 students in 223 school buildings.”

A Passion for Ceramics

As a major player in the Contemporary Arts Society, Berkowitz championed all forms of contemporary media, but ceramics became her personal passion. In 1985 she began exhibiting and selling contemporary clay works in the jazzy new contemporary home she and her husband designed just off the Country Club Plaza. Her openings became such sought-after events that in 1994 she and Byron Cohen, another avid art collector, teamed up to open the Cohen/Berkowitz Gallery in the Crossroads Arts District. Cohen showed a broad range of artwork, while Berkowitz focused on ceramics.

Eileen Cohen, wife of the late Byron Cohen, remembers how “Lennie knew and became friends with all the ceramic artists at the Kansas City Art Institute. She had great style, flair and a real sensibility, and she showed the best ceramic art. She just got so involved.”

Dr. Irene Bettinger, a major art collector, became a client and then a friend of Berkowitz. “Many of us in KC started collecting because of Lennie,” she says. “She loved all aspects of the arts, but it was her incredible passion for ceramics, and her ability to connect with people, that hooked us all.”

One of Berkowitz’s major coups was to convince internationally known ceramics dealer and scholar Garth Clark to let her show the artists he represented in her Kansas City gallery. The two met when Clark came to Kansas City in 1983 to curate the exhibit “Echoes” for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. At that time Clark had a gallery in Los Angeles. In a recent interview Clark said that when Berkowitz showed up at his gallery to convince him to work with her, he said “no.”

“But she just kept coming back,” he said, “and finally I had to say ‘yes.’ And we worked together for years and never had a single disagreement.

“Lennie was also a lot of fun. In 1998, when I had my gallery in New York, I organized an AIDS fundraiser in the style of the infamous 1917 DADA Blind Man’s Ball put on by Duchamp and Beatrice Wood at Webster Hall in New York. My event, a costume ball for 1,500 people, was also at Webster Hall, and artists such as (Roy) Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns came. Johns was to be the co-chair with Beatrice Wood, but at the last minute she couldn’t make it. So Lennie dressed up as Beatrice Wood and took her place, next to Jasper. It was a great art event, and Lennie was just fabulous.”

In 2011 the Nelson-Atkins exhibited ceramics donated from the Berkowitzes’ collection. In a recent email, Catherine Futter, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, wrote that “Lennie transformed the Nelson-Atkins by adding depth to artists already represented in the museum’s collection.”

Lennie had an “amazing eye for form, color and technical skill,” Futter added. She also had “true love for these intimate objects.”

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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