Eager Artists, Twin Gallerys, Record Crowds: The Library Emerges an Art Destination

Some of the wishes were neatly spelled out. Others spilled out in a scrawl. Most all were warm and wistful, and from the heart.

I wish I could hug my mom again
I wish I could stop drinking
God forgive me

All told, visitors to the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown Central Library left some 7,000 handwritten expressions at an altar that was part of Ryan Wilks’ immersive exhibit, Here Where You Wish, earlier this year. “More than I could have fathomed,” he says. “The sheer number of people who came — I would assume mostly because they just stumbled upon it — was incredible. I’ve never reached as many people with art as I have with this show.

“I have eyes on me that I haven’t had before,” he says. “People know what I’m doing.”

It underscores the emergence of the Central Library and its two formal galleries as a presence in Kansas City’s flourishing art community.

Nearly 103,000 people visited eight exhibits in the first-floor Genevieve Guldner and second-floor Rocky and Gabriella Polony Mountain galleries in 2017-18, an average of 302 each day the Library was open. Both numbers were Library records. The daily average spiked further, to 375, in the first few months of 2018-19.

Wilks’ Here Where You Wish, a collaboration with fellow visual artists Ari Fish and Sean Prudden and musician Tim J. Harte, pulled in more than 28,000 people over a 10-week run in April, May and June. That made it KCPL’s most popular exhibit outside a 23-day visit — the only one in Missouri — by one of Shakespeare’s rare, nearly 400-year-old First Folios in June 2016.

Preceding the Wilks exhibit in the Mountain Gallery was Cattle, Cowboys and Culture: Kansas City and Amarillo, Building an Urban West, a sprawling collection of artifacts, photos and art illuminating the shared history of the two cities. It drew almost 33,000 people over an extended, 25-week stay.

A couple of traveling exhibits also have proven popular in the past year: Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration, 1917-2017, spotlighting the artwork of the comics and graphic novel icon, and the Smithsonian Institution’s inventive Things Come Apart, which exposed the inner workings of a watch, camera, iPod and other everyday possessions.

It further attests to today’s libraries as destinations for far more than books and other traditional library services.

“Usually, one thinks of having shows in the kind of tried-and-true places in the gallery circuit, the known spaces,” says noted Kansas City textile artist, designer and painter Jason Pollen. “But for art to branch out in terms of where it’s experienced is a pretty wonderful thing to happen.

“In the Crossroads, you’re preaching to the choir, right? Everybody knows about the galleries, and the people who love them go and do their thing. But art can happen in so many different places. You have people who don’t come to the library for that particular reason. But while they’re there, they notice there are galleries and they wander in, and they’re exposed to something they hadn’t imagined. Maybe by doing that, they become more curious about going to other museums or finding out what other artists are doing in town.

“Think of kids coming in and seeing something that’s not usually part of their agenda for the day. It opens them to possibilities.”

Pollen’s work was featured in a two-part exhibit at the Central Library in 2014 and early 2015. Housed in a newly made-over Guldner Gallery, it signaled KCPL’s intent to showcase regionally and nationally renowned artists with Kansas City connections. Later in 2015, the Library converted a mostly unused mezzanine-level area into its second formal art space, the Mountain Gallery.

Anne Ducey, the Library’s exhibit director, carefully selects the works that inhabit the spaces.

“I’ve seen a lot of work that’s really interesting, but I don’t think it would necessarily appeal to the cross section of people we get here,” she says. “I try to be cognizant of whether it’s relevant to local history. Does it use the Library’s collections in some way? Is it a local artist? All of that plays into it.”

Ducey has partnered with the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Kansas City Art Institute on separate yearlong series of exhibits. Meanwhile, she’s fielding an increasing number of inquiries from artists interested in displaying their work at the Library.

“I think it has become a place for up-and-coming artists to want to exhibit,” she says.

The 30-year-old Wilks was one of them, putting together a proposal for Here Where You Wish with Ken Petti of Kansas City’s Heidmann Art Salon. Ducey liked the sound of it, and both she and Wilks marveled at the connection the exhibit made with those who took in its multisensory experience.

“I absolutely don’t think that would happen in any other gallery in Kansas City,” Wilks says. “People have these weird concepts about whether or not they’re going to fit into a place.

“Openings at a place like Haw Contemporary or the Kemper are well attended, but they’re also well dressed. It’s great art, and these are great people. But it’s not as accessible to those who are a little more timid about branching into that world.”

The Library, he says, “is like a soft-landing spot. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter what you wear. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You can go in and enjoy art regardless of your social status.

“There are no limitations.”

–Steve Wieberg 

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