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Arts & Life

Talent-Scouting Curators Discover Kansas City Artists At H&R Block Artspace

C.J. Janovy

People who go to the Kansas City Flatfile show at H&R Block Artspace get to do something that feels wrong: touch the art.

That’s the fun of the Flatfile exhibition, which takes place every two years. The show features work by 160 Kansas City artists, and visitors get to pull it out of the metal files themselves, spending as much time as they want having what Artspace director and curator Raechell Smith calls an "unmediated" experience with the art.

But there’s one group of visitors who aren’t only touching the art: out-of-town curators who are scouting for Kansas City talent. For each Flatfile exhibition, Smith invites visiting curators to go through the files and make selections for the gallery walls. Pinned to the wall salon-style, these mini-exhibitions change every few weeks, based on the rotating curators.

By the time the show closes this weekend, nine of these special guest curators will have made selections for the walls. Many are from museums and galleries around Kansas City, so they’re looking at the newest work from artists they know. But for the curators who come from out of town, it’s a way for Smith to get outside exposure for Kansas City artists.

"I spent pretty much the whole day going through the Flatfiles one by one looking at each of the artist’s entries," says Jodi Throckmorton, who curated the walls in June. At the time, Throckmorton was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University.

"Making the selection for the wall was really difficult because there was so much great work," Throckmorton says. "I ended up going through my own creative process and picked what I thought was a great group of Kansas City artists."

Throckmorton might have thought about showing their work someday in Wichita – but she recently took a job as curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, so she’ll be taking her list of Kansas City artists with her to the East Coast. She might not have any immediate plans to show their work, but she’ll remember it, and there might be opportunities down the road.

However, one New York gallery owner did sign up an artist for a solo show almost immediately after seeing his work in the Flatfiles.

Andrea Smith Zieher has run New York's Zieher Smith & Horton gallery since 2003. Having lived here for a decade when she was younger, Zieher makes an effort to keep up with the Kansas City arts scene, which is why she stopped by the Flatfiles in 2012. There, she was struck by a piece from Kansas City Art Institute graduate Paul Anthony Smith.

“It was a work on paper, it was really striking both for its power and sophistication despite seemingly simple means," Zieher says. "It just struck me as something I hadn’t quite seen before.”

Back in New York a couple of weeks later, Zieher and her partner spent time on the phone with Paul Anthony Smith, looking at his work online. Soon, she began representing him. In December 2012 he showed his work at the Miami Beach art fairs that draw tens of thousands of people each year. At his first solo show in New York, he sold almost all of the work to collectors. He’s since had shows in Dallas and Chicago.

Paul Anthony Smith’s whirlwind success is unusual – but Zieher knew she had found something special in the Art Institute graduate.

“The Flatfiles were really crucial – we never would have discovered him had it not been that fortuitous visit,” she says.

David Everitt Howe, a Brooklyn-based independent curator, was recently in town to give a talk at the Kansas City Art Institute and visit the studios of artists whose work he saw in the Flatfiles. As an independent curator and writer, his job is to discover new talent.

“There’s good artists here," Howe says of Kansas City's art community. It was his first trip not only to Kansas City, but to the Midwest. "It’s really nice for me as a New Yorker — all I see is the same New York artists, or international artists, day in and day out. I feel like it’s just the same names over and over again. It's nice to meet new people and see new stuff.”

To see that new stuff, even an art-world professional like Howe had to overcome the odd sensation of handling the art.

“To sort of pull out these drawers with white gloves on felt like a violation," he says. "What if I tear off the glassine that protects the surface? What if I drop it? What if my finger (smudges the surface)? It’s very delicate work, some of it. There's a lot of charcoal in there. It felt very invasive.”

But Howe says he’ll probably keep track of the artists he discovered in the process. That means art museum visitors in New York might someday be keeping track of them too.

Kansas City Flatfile, H&R Block Artspace, 16 East 43rd Street, Kansas City, Mo. 64111 , through Sept. 27. The Artspace celebrates its 15th anniversary from 6 to 10 p.m. Sept. 26.

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