Artist Elise Gagliardi and a selection of works from her exhibition Remnants, which ran from January to April at the Kansas City Public Library’s Irene H. Ruiz Branch.
The Kansas City Public Library has long opened its spaces to art, going back to the opening of the city’s first gallery, the Western Gallery of Art, on the second floor of its old quarters at Ninth and Locust streets in the late 1900s. Today’s Central Library, a few blocks away, is home to two formal galleries and a regular rotation of compelling exhibitions.
That downtown orientation is shifting. The Library is looking increasingly to its nine outlying branches, identifying spaces that can hold modest exhibitions or perhaps an individual piece or two and inviting and booking local and regional artists to put selections of their works on display.
Craig Auge, who took over as KCPL’s exhibits specialist a little more than a year ago, sees the new ArtReach initiative as win-win. The system extends its artistic reach beyond the Central Library, adding touches of beauty and culture to branches in the process. And for the burgeoning creative community in Kansas City, there are more avenues for exposure.
“The Central galleries, they’re great opportunities for artists and curators and all kinds of different shows,” Auge says. “But I want to spread the love a little more, to as many artists as possible. Give them an opportunity to get exposure, add to a resume. All of that helps advance a career.”
It’s an understanding that comes from experience. Auge is a multimedia artist himself. Beyond his full-time role at KCPL, he serves as co-director of the nearby Plug Gallery.
His inspiration for ArtReach came in part from ArtsKC’s Now Showing program, which places selected artwork in corporate settings — lobbies, conference rooms and other office-type spaces — across the city. Public libraries offer another kind of audience, more diversified and conceivably more untapped. A lot of their visitors, including children, likely don’t frequent museums or dedicated galleries.
For them, stumbling across an art exhibition while, say, checking out a book or attending a story time session can be a discovery — “an extension of education,” as one local artist, Elise Gagliardi, puts it.
The Library launched ArtReach last September. Cesar Lopez’s Flag Kit: A, a series of flags and other geographic iconography borrowing from America’s red, white and blue, was on display for three months at the westside Irene H. Ruiz Branch. Two exhibitions followed in January, each running into April: heARTs,
a collection of heart-shaped, mixed-media works by textile artist KE. Griffin (known professionally as Art by .E Lewis) at the historic Westport location and Gagliardi’s photographic still-life series Remnants back at the Ruiz Branch.
Entering spring, Auge was homing in on other locations across the KCPL system. “There are … lots of old exhibitions that need refreshing, lots of blank space,” he says. “I see an empty wall, and it’s an exhibition opportunity.
“Each branch,” he says, “offers its own range of community-centered programs and will have an opportunity to set its own tone. If there’s a certain type of art or a certain theme one wants to promote, I can help facilitate that. It’s not just my vision. It’s working with the locations to develop what works best for them. Within that, I can source artists who are a good fit.”
Gagliardi, a gallery assistant at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, had shown Remnants in April and May 2022 at the Curiouser and Curiouser space in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. She leaped at Auge’s invitation to bring it to the Ruiz Branch.
“I’m interested in showing in spaces where there are new audiences,” she says. “And I like being able to take works into spaces that are outside the white box because people are intimidated by galleries and intimidated by museums. They don’t always know how to think about art or how to talk about it.
“So, yeah, when Craig asked me, I was delighted.”
Auge is open to works in any medium. Typically, he books ArtReach exhibitions for three to six months. They can be mounted on walls, freestanding, or displayed digitally (as is Community in Color at the Library’s North-East Branch, spotlighting more than 30 outdoor murals in the city’s Historic Northeast neighborhood). Auge also sees the potential for commissioned works for specific spaces and even outdoor sculptures.
The program also will encompass pop-up exhibitions, technical demonstrations, art classes, workshops and community art events, as well as artists’ speaking events. KCPL offers many of those things now, scattered across the system. ArtReach gives them a uniform, promotable brand.
When he arrived at the Library, Auge says, “I got the sense that there are a lot of big ideas that I still think could and should happen in the future as we renovate or build new branches, things that are down the road at least a few years. My thinking was, ‘We don’t have to wait. We have blank walls that should be filled with color. This is something we can do now.’”
That eagerness is shared.
“There are so many artists in Kansas City — we’re really lucky to have such a wealth of excellent art — but there aren’t as many venues,” Gagliardi says. “Craig starting this program is really good on all levels — for the artists, for the libraries, for the people who get to experience the art. I think there’ll be a positive response, for sure.”