Arts News: Saving a Kansas City Treasure

Although the Board of Education Building, which once housed the Kansas City Public Library, is being demolished, efforts are underway to save this whimsical Arthur Kraft mosaic mural attached to the building’s walls. The mural was originally designed as the entrance to the Children’s Library at the Kansas City Public Library.

Talented, sometimes troubled and often ill, Arthur M. Kraft (1922 – 1977) forged a major art career in his native Kansas City, while exhibiting throughout the United States and Europe. Now the fate of one of his foremost contributions to the city — a mosaic mural of a joyful, playful circus panorama, is uncertain. The historic Board of Education Building at 1211 McGee, where the mural is installed, is slated for demolition this summer.

“We are for sure keeping the mural in some kind of storage vs. demolition with the building as we look for a permanent place to put it,” said Jon Copaken, principal of Copaken Brooks, which bought the building last September. “The tricky part will be that the mosaics are attached to eight-foot-tall concrete slabs that are the actual walls of the building. We are hopeful that removal will keep the piece intact, but the stress of the concrete walls is already showing and cutting these pieces out without collateral damage will be tricky. We plan to do our best, for sure.”

The mural was originally designed as the entrance to the Children’s Library at the original Kansas City Public Library, and Kraft, the former director of the National Mural Society, received the national Craftsmanship Award for the mosaic mural in 1960. With its harlequin figure, fairy-tale depictions of birds, a lion, giraffe, penguins, children and other assorted creatures, the mural combines the best of Kraft’s work in Magical Realism with that of his celebrated book illustrations.

Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, has offered Copaken Brooks his assistance in fundraising to re-site the mosaic (estimated to cost around $100,000), noting that it “features many of the characteristics — fantasy, wry humor, drama and vibrant color — which personify his best work.” Hartman’s gesture reflects the Nerman Museum’s long commitment to Kansas City associated artists under his leadership.

“Kansas City is justifiably proud of its many and significant contributions to the art world,” Hartman added. “To respect and preserve this magnificent mosaic by a legendary KC artist is paramount to that pride.”

Born in Kansas City, Kraft began making art at age 5, and he exhibited oil paintings and decorated matchbooks at the Plaza Art Fair when he was 13. He took Saturday art classes at the Nelson Gallery (now The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) and attended the Kansas City Art Institute for one semester before leaving for Yale University’s School of Fine Arts. He served in WWII and then returned to Yale, where he became art editor of the Yale Record, and finished his degree in 1946.

That same year he had his first one-man exhibit, “Arthur M. Kraft, American Artist,” hosted in Paris by Jean Cocteau at Le Gallerie Palais Royale. He exhibited extensively after that, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1954, the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce named Kraft one of “America’s Outstanding Young Men” along with Robert Kennedy and Chuck Yeager.

Several months after his death at age 55, Kraft’s “Court of the Penguins” was installed in the Country Club Plaza. It remains one of KC’s most popular public art installations.

An exhibit of Kraft’s work continues at the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph through July 16. For information, www.stjosephmuseum.org.

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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