A campus-wide installation program and commitment to contemporary art shapes Johnson County Community College as a cultural destination in the heartland.

Photo courtesy the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

While the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art bears the words museum and art within its title, students and guests to the Johnson County Community College need to keep their eyes open for other “pocket” installations of art. As an example, 45 large paintings can be found near the dining hall. Sixteen significant sculptures are scattered around the campus grounds.

As Nerman Museum Executive Director Bruce Hartman says, “New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith told me that we didn’t give the students a chance to catch their breath as they are always surrounded by art and challenged by what they see. The campus is all about the exposure. In other areas, we have clay and works on paper. Art is more than imagined on this campus. It’s simply a powerful testament to campus leaders who wanted to make sure art was reaching as many people as possible. These focused destinations are teachable locations for professors too.”

The culinary center which opens in the fall will be home to a significant collection of contemporary ceramics. The General Education Building will be filled with clay as well. Hartman expects the college to be a destination if Kansas City wins the bid to host the 50th anniversary conference in 2016 for the National Council on the Education for Ceramic Arts. He says several ceramics professors and professors emeritus from the Kansas City Art Institute may have the pull to bring this conference to the area.

Another expanding area can be found in the Regnier Center. The American Indian collection is substantial now, with clay pots, beadwork and fetish animal carvings located on the second and third floors. Students heading to computer classes on the second floor are exposed to significant works. Many of the works represent Southwestern tribes. Hartman, who grew up in the metropolitan community, had parents who collected native art and plans on adding Northwest Coastal tribes and some more plains art to the mix. “While the Nelson’s exhibition is anthropological in nature, ours represents the contemporary. I suppose we could be that next stop after people visit the Nelson.”

Being at the Nerman, there is a palpable energy. Not only do professors bring their students to look at the art, adult learners spend time in one of the classrooms, finding out about Middle Eastern art. Perhaps in the larger Hudson Auditorium, adults and students alike can participate in a lecture on fly-fishing or on Third Thursdays, two artists are brought in and paired with a professor who serves as a moderator. Kansas City artists Anthony Baab and Jarrett Mellenbruch are scheduled for March 28 for a Third Thursday lecture.

Hartman says they have hosted seminars for local law enforcement. “During a break, some of the officers noticed the Do-Ho Suh’s Some/One (2004) piece with its elegant silver shining down the hall. Then they looked closer at the thousands of dog tags and that sparks a conversation about service. In that moment, these officers are impacted by the art. Perhaps some of them returned to take a stroll. That’s what we believe … exposure is the key.” The work is a tall, hollow robe that represents Suh’s two years of compulsory service in the South Korean army. The tags are printed with meaningless Roman letters and Arabic numerals, which are designed to emphasize the anonymity of soldiers massed together.

The community college boasts an enrollment of around 40,000. The Carlsen Center is also on the campus, which brings in thousands to witness the performing arts. Many come early and see the museum as well. “However, we know many people who come here have not been to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. This may be their first experience to a museum and it is up to us to bring them in, enrich them and share modern art.”

The 41,000-square-foot museum opened in October 2007. Architect Kyu Sung Woo told the trustees that he wanted to create an experiential museum that is transparent – thus the 200-foot glass wall on the first level. “We want students and visitors to look into this building. We are aware that we are competing for their attention with cell phones and other electronics today. That is why we enjoy the changing media that is contemporary art.”

The museum has about 1,000 pieces on permanent display. During the year, temporary exhibitions move in and out. Two opened in late February with two more opening in the near future. Dark Light: the Ceramics of Christine Nofchissey McHorse, a Navajo artist, opened in late February and runs through the end of May. She works in clay and fires her works to have a dark, almost contemporary finish rather than adhering to the traditional methods. “She has a progressive nature that somewhat mirrors the works of more modern sculpture like Henry Moore.”

Another exhibit is Asad Faulwell’s Pins and Needles. It’s his first museum solo show and will feature nine medium to large scale pieces. He is a young artist based in Los Angeles and graduated with an MFA from Claremont Graduate University, just as Hartman did. “The interesting thing about Asad’s art is his subject matter. While it is beautiful and colorful as we expect with Middle Eastern art with the textiles, mosaic patterns and colors, his subjects include Algerian women who served as freedom fighters against the French. He talks about them as martyrs, victims, aggressors and terrorists, but never seen as heroes in their own country. Once the French left, the Algerian men rose up and these women were cast out. In light of Arab Spring, this work may resonate a little louder.” This exhibit remains through the middle of April.

Hartman says the Art on Campus started in 1980 with a progressive board that saw the importance of art for a college and interaction on a daily basis. “The other joy to all this is that half the collection has connections to the Kansas City area. It’s extraordinary to think that a collection would have those kinds of ties. “The Nerman has become a resource to the city and an eye to the community. Last year we offered Abstract Kansas City and the exhibition came from our own collection. That is strength to be celebrated.”

Another asset comes from supporters and art collectors Marti and Tony Oppenheimer. The 20th anniversary of the Oppenheimer art collection was just celebrated last fall with more than 500 artists, art dealers and art aficionados from Chicago, Wichita, Little Rock, Ark., and other cities across the nation in attendance. They also included friends from Sotheby’s in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hartman and the Oppenheimers also unveiled more than 15 new gifts from the Oppenheimers. They included another painting from Dana Schutz, whose Swimming, Smoking, Crying graced the cover of Art in America in November. Other artists are Nick Cave, Kim Dorland, Asad Faulwell, Kirk Hayes, Angel Otero, Cordy Ryman, Kent Michael Smith, Stefanie Gutheil, Lonnie Powell, Ian Davis, Allison Schulnik, Leidy Churchman, Brian Calvin, Warren Inessee and Brian Tolle.

The Oppenheimer Collection has grown to become the core of the museum’s permanent collection. It includes sculptures, paintings, photographs, ceramics, new media, textiles and American Indian art. When construction of the Nerman Museum was initially announced in 2003, the Oppenheimers immediately offered to take on the challenge of filling the museum’s galleries. They also understood the importance of providing an art experience throughout the campus.

“We were part of history in October 2007. We opened just a couple months after the Bloch Building opened. You don’t get that very often that any metropolitan area sees two substantial spaces for art to open in the same year. We have to be around so we can be in the same league as other cultural cities in the United States,” Hartman says. “The more art we offer, the more we are seen as a major cultural destination.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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