Albrecht-Kemper’s new director highlights local talent and collections in upcoming exhibits.

As a graduate student at KU, Brett Knappe wrote catalog entries for artworks in the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

Today, he’s running the place.

Last February Knappe left his longtime post as associate professor of art history and curator of the Baker Art Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., to become the Albrecht-Kemper’s executive director.

“I really wasn’t in the market for a new job,” Knappe said in a recent interview. In fact, he had just received tenure at Baker. But the challenge of heading up a museum appealed to him, and he was impressed by the permanent collection he had worked with all those years ago.

Knappe is still thrilled by the George Bellows painting he wrote about in graduate school. The Coming Storm (1911), one of the artist’s ocean paintings, is small — only 11 by 15 inches — but has tremendous energy, he said. He cites the museum’s portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale as one of the “gems” of the collection.

Knappe’s specialty is American modernism. At Baker, he was the only art historian; at the Albrecht-Kemper, he is one of a staff of six, and functions as head curator as well as director.

For him, one of the biggest attractions of the Albrecht-Kemper post was the opportunity to work with contemporary art. “I didn’t get to do that before,” he said. “I love the history of art, but it’s nice working with people who aren’t dead, meeting local artists and people who come to the museum.”

Knappe and his wife, Stephanie Fox Knappe, who is the curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, had been living in Lawrence. But when he accepted the Albrecht-Kemper job, the couple and their five-year-old daughter immediately moved to St. Joseph, settling into an updated 1920s house.

Eight months into the new job, Knappe is brimming with ideas for shows, from an exhibit focusing on monochromes in the collection, to a national juried exhibition of works depicting celestial bodies, timed to coincide with the August 2017 solar eclipse. “St. Joe is the dead center of the solar eclipse,” Knappe said. It will be a large event in town.”

Two upcoming exhibits will draw from the Kansas City collection of Jim and Virginia Moffett. Opening Nov. 18, “Printmaking in Kansas City: The Moffett Collection” will feature works by influential Kansas City Art Institute teacher and printmaker John DeMartelly (1903-1979), his students, and his successor, William Wind McKim.

Cori Sherman North, curator at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, is organizing the print show, as well as an exhibition of works by St. Louis-born New Deal muralist and American scene painter Joe Jones (1909-1963). As a young man, Jones was a member of the Communist party, and his depictions of Ku Klux Klan lynchings and workers’ strikes reflect his deep commitment to social reform. Opening in June 2017, “The Restless Regionalist: Art of Joe Jones from the Moffett Collection” follows a big 2010-11 exhibit of Jones’ work at the St. Louis Art Museum.

In addition to drawing from local collections, Knappe said he plans to continue the legacy of previous directors Terry Oldham and Mark Spencer, of putting Kansas City artists in the spotlight.

“I’ve been contacted by a lot of St. Joe people,” he said. “I’d love to hear from Kansas City artists. I love meeting people.”

January brings an exhibit of James Pringle Cook, a landscape artist from Kansas who has worked in the southwest and Flint Hills. In April, works by members of the Kansas City-based Society for Contemporary Photography will be featured, and in September 2017, Knappe plans an exhibit of Kansas artist Marguerite Perret.

A notable new emphasis under Knappe’s directorship will be the inclusion of decorative arts, spurred in part by a large donation of American and British silver from the 18th century. A sampling of works from the gift are now on view in the museum’s 18th, 19th and 20th-century gallery, he said.

Also in the works: an open-call postcard show, and the museum’s first-ever Annual Juried Undergraduate Exhibition, featuring works by college students within a radius of 100 miles.

Knappe wants to make the A-K “not only a place for great visual art, but non-visual art.” His programming has included poetry, and regular concerts by the St. Joe Symphony. Dance and theater productions are on the horizon.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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