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Public Art Will Go On Display, Despite Withdrawal Of Commission

The Kansas City metropolitan area has had its share of controversies over the years when it comes to public art. Remember the 2012 petition drive to remove the statue of the headless bare-breasted woman at the Overland Park Arboretum? Or the artists who were encouraged to drop arrows from their terrazzo flooring design at KCI, so as not to confuse travelers?

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples: Shuttlecocks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Shuttlecocks, from "silly" to iconic

When the white-and-orange Shuttlecocks - four, almost 18-foot badminton birdies - were placed on the grassy lawn of the Nelson-Atkins nearly 20 years ago, critics came out of the woodwork. Yael Abouhalkah of The Kansas City Star called them "offensively silly looking." At the time, the city's Park and Recreation department owned the museum lawn - and some members tried to block the installation.

The artists, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, toyed with other imagery - from basketball to tornadoes - before an inspiration came from inside the Nelson (as recounted in a 2009 article in The Star):

After an exhausting day of brainstorming, van Bruggen was relaxing in the museum and found herself drawn to a Frederick Remington painting of American Indians. More specifically, she was drawn to the feathers.

Feathers and flight led to the idea of badminton - and the creation of the Shuttlecocks. They're now considered one of the most popular works at the museum.

Another iconic sculpture inspires controversy

In the fall 2008, Missouri Bank started commissioning works by artists - such as Jaimie Warren, Archie Scott Gobber, Adolfo Martinez, Anne Lindberg - to display on "Artboards" at its Crossroads branch. These double-sided billboards, facing east and west, were converted to create a prominent site for the work of area artists.

One work called The Scout, slated to be put on display in July 2013, was recently "de-selected," says artist A. Bitterman. According to a release sent by Bitterman, Missouri Bank Senior Vice President Julie Nelson Meers told him, "When we looked at the work nine months ago we loved it. We didn’t think about how we would feel [nine months later] putting it on our building."

The "Artboards" are administered by the Art through Architecture program, a partnership between the Charlotte Street Foundation and the American Institute of Architects-Kansas City, in collaboration with Missouri Bank.

Both Missouri Bank's Nelson Meers and Charlotte Street Foundation's Kate Hackman were unavailable for comment; voice mail messages and emails stated that they were out of town.

Update: Wednesday, 9:30 a.m.: In an email Charlotte Street Foundation co-director Kate Hackman wrote, "Since 2008, Charlotte Street Foundation has worked with Missouri Bank to make their billboards a dynamic, highly visible site for Kansas City area artists' work. Charlotte Street facilitates an annual call for proposals soliciting diverse and compelling work. Missouri Bank representatives review the proposals annually and select the artworks for commission. To date more than 30 artists have been commissioned for the Artboards. This is the first time any commissioned work has been withdrawn."

Bitterman's proposal for The Scout includes two photographs. One shows the Kansas City skyline and cheery text proclaiming: "Discover Kansas City!" In the other, the artist stands on a chair, on top of scaffolding, with a rifle in hand, taking aim at "The Scout." This bronze sculpture depicts a Sioux on horseback; it's sited in Penn Valley Park, at 29th and Pennsylvania, looking toward downtown Kansas City.

In his artist statement, Bitterman writes that the city:

"is divided by a legacy of discrimination and neglect where poverty and blackness have been engineered for failure in neighborhoods east of the future, where countless narratives lay unclaimed in the wake of westward expansion. The artist stands on a chair atop a makeshift plinth and takes aim at the Scout, an expired narrative, the hollow emblem of a city full of reservations."

According to Bitterman, Nelson Meers told him that Missouri Bank didn't "want to invite controversy." In response, the artist has leased billboards across the street from the bank, at 19th and Baltimore. He says The Scout will go on display for a four-week run starting September 23.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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