See Hear: As a New Season Arrives, There Are Many Ways to Catch the Spirit

It’s a given that much of what makes Kansas City great is the arts. The growth and energy of the city’s cultural institutions have been contagious in the last dozen years. The spark and savvy of individual artists; the boldness and fortitude of small companies of actors, musicians and dancers; the innovation and drive of cultural creators — all of it has shaped the city into becoming a perpetual-motion machine of art and spirited magic.

I love it when that spirit takes over and especially when it strikes in unexpected places.

There it was at a Kansas City Symphony Happy Hour Concert last spring when two quartets played quite different and first-rate pieces of chamber music (by Ravel and Steve Reich) for a packed house. (Those regular, hour-long shows, programmed by Symphony musicians, are free, by the way.) And when Vanessa Severo channeled the spirit of Frida Kahlo for her one-woman show at Kansas City Rep’s Copaken Stage. And in the East Side church where Hank Willis Thomas, speaking about his work and the “30 Americans” exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, asserted that “all art is political.”

I could go on about quite a few eruptions of spirit this year in galleries and performance spaces around town. But one program continues to resonate for me:

Outside its regular season, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City gave a workshop-style staging of “Penelope,” a contemporary retelling of a piece of “The Odyssey.” It didn’t hurt that I had recently finished reading Emily Wilson’s gorgeous new translation of Homer’s epic. But here a young soprano, Annie Rosen, sang the title role in an hour-long drama performed with a stage set and musicians in the Lyric’s back-shop production facility. The Odysseus actor, portraying a traumatized veteran just home from war, was mostly silent.

The work’s composer, Sarah Kirkland Snider, was in the house. She confirmed my suspicion that her contemporary influences stretch even to the soundscapes of Radiohead. (You can stream, or buy, the whole song cycle at sarahkirklandsnider.com.)

“Penelope,” with a libretto by Elizabeth McGlaughlin, has been evolving for a decade or so. It’s indicative of the inventive energy that new music generates below the tier of operatic traditions, which, of course, tend to pay the bills. Such experiments by the Lyric Opera are risky, but ought to be applauded for their ability to expand audiences, repertoire and expectations.

So: Another fall arts season descends upon us. It’s like a regeneration. It’s certainly an opportunity to go in search of
the power of the arts, to poke around the crevices and to catch the spirit.

Kemper Museum and “Canyon Suite”

As this issue of “KC Studio” contributes to the quarter-century celebration of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, I can’t help but recall one of the city’s most profound and embarrassing art experiences. This is not to be snarky. But the museum apparently has scrubbed the memory from its history. I’m referring, of course, to Kemper Museum’s inaugural exhibit, a collection of 28 watercolors presented under the title “Canyon Suite” and attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe.

The museum’s benefactor, the late R. Crosby Kemper II, had acquired the art works from a prominent Santa Fe dealer for no small amount of money and other considerations. Five years after the museum’s opening, the watercolors were judged to be inauthentic, and a public unraveling ensued.

I spent the better part of a year, along with the late Mike McGraw, investigating how such a thing could happen. Our series of stories for “The Kansas City Star” traced a trail of bad and reckless behavior, a kind of microcosm of the worst side of the art market. Among our discoveries was the existence of a 29th watercolor that the dealer had withheld from Kemper’s view, a piece so questionable it should have undone the whole sale from the outset.

If nothing else, the museum’s experience with the “Canyon Suite” — it published a catalogue and sent the show on the road to other small museums — occasioned a learning experience about the nature of art and the perils of collecting. Such lessons should not be forgotten.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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