A bold experiment in the gallery experience.

Photos courtesy Bob Greenspan

A small gallery space that looks quite a bit different from the other galleries is tucked behind the popular knight in shining armor at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Three large blowfish hang from the ceiling; a grandfather clock chimes softly in the corner; a large sword is flanked by Japanese masks. Objects from all over the world are assembled as part of a private collector’s home.

Why? It’s all part of a bold experiment that resulted when the Innovation Consortium brought together the Nelson-Atkins, the High Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art and Carnegie Museums. Last spring, six Nelson-Atkins staffers joined colleagues from the other museums for a two-day workshop at the Institute of Innovation in Ann Arbor, MI. The Innovatrium, as it’s called, is an idea market, think tank and research lab for innovation projects.

“Our goal was cultivating a conviction among 20 to 40-year-olds that art is relevant and meaningful in their lives,” said Rose May, Interpretation Head at the Nelson-Atkins. “Museums across the country are experimenting to find new and exciting ways to engage that demographic.”

First, the group defined the demographic, which includes Gen-Xers and Millennials. Gen-Xers, born between 1965 and 1981, are independent, skeptical and entrepreneurial, very curious and enjoy research. They don’t always trust the voice of authority and prefer to find their own way. Gen-Xers enjoy varied and stimulating experiences.

Photo courtesy Bob Greenspan

Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, demand diversity of all kinds and expect to be in touch constantly, since they have no memory of life without computers and cell phones. They continually document their experiences, travel in packs and have no concept of copyright–they take and post photographs all the time. And because downloading is a big part of their lives, they expect most things to be free.

“There were lots of ideas tossed around to attract these groups during the workshop, many of them far outside our comfort zones,” said May. “And that really was the point. We had to feel uncomfortable to know we were headed in the right direction.”

Among the green-lighted ideas at the Nelson-Atkins were pop-up activities such as an embroidery craft night, a large group yoga practice, and an exhibition called The Magnificent Collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove.

“Gilbert Hargrove is a fictional character invented as part of this experiment with innovation,” said May. “We wanted to change the entire process so it bore no resemblance to what we usually do at the Nelson-Atkins, which typically involves years of careful research and meticulous study before an exhibition opens.”

May and one of her partners in the project, Leesa Fanning, associate curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Nelson-Atkins, decided to go outside the museum to find someone associated with film making or theater to create a character that would inspire an exhibition.

“Since curators usually generate exhibitions, we stepped away from that concept to take a different approach,” said Fanning. “We looked to the Fringe Festival, since its foundation is uncensored artistic expression, accessibility and community development. That’s how Rose found Tara Varney.”

Varney has produced and directed plays for the Fringe Festival, which has provided Kansas City artists the opportunity to produce their work for the public since 2005. She was tapped to invent a character that would inform what appeared in the exhibition and to appeal to the desired audience.

Varney came up with Gilbert G. Hargrove, an adventurous Indiana Jones-type born in 1870 who travelled the world and collected all kinds of objects. While panning for gold in California, the story goes, Hargrove heard about construction of the Nelson-Atkins (which was built in 1933) and decided to “donate” his collection to the museum.

“The great thing about hanging this exhibition on the story of a fictional character is that we could adapt it to suit the objects we found,” May said.

Hargrove met his untimely death in Kansas City in 1938. He was run over by a street car.

“When I heard Tara’s story, I connected it to the idea of a cabinet of curiosities as the form the exhibition would take,” said Fanning. “I made connections with other curators from whose collections we borrowed, and also spoke with local collector Scott Heffley, who works at the museum and was generous enough to complete the exhibition in a way that really speaks to this idea.”

The result is a fascinating collection of objects that include an alligator skin suitcase, African shields, a crystal ball, globes, a gramophone–all relating to the intellectually curious Hargrove. Some furniture pieces were loaned by Kansas City Repertory Theater.

“This is an amazing room of wonders, and a fascinating experiment to undertake,” said Fanning. “I’m curious to see how the public will react.”•

Kathleen Leighton

Former television news anchor Kathleen Leighton has written for “The New York Times,” “Newsweek,” “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Wine Enthusiast,” among many other publications. When not pursuing adventures around the globe, she manages Media Relations at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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