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Controversial Public Artwork Back On Display In Downtown Kansas City

For two decades, the public artwork Modern Communication has caused controversy in front of Kansas city's police and fire department downtown. A bronze businessman stands on a briefcase – he has a shoe in his mouth, fingers in his ears, and a tie flapping across his eyes. 

In 2011, the sculpture was put in storage to make way for a building expansion. And now, it’s back — in a slightly different location.

"Modern Communication is an important piece in the city’s one percent for art collectionWhen we learned it would have to be relocated to make way for the new KCPD boardroom, both the artist and the Municipal Art Commission recognized that keeping the piece on display in the collection was by far the preference," wrote Porter Arneill, executive director and public art administrator for the Kansas City Municipal Art Commission, in an email. 

"We worked with Eric Bosch, the City Architect and Helix, the project architect, and determined that re-siting the artwork in front of the new entry to the Communications Center ― between the KCPD HQ and Municipal Court―is congruent with the artist’s original intent and an ideal solution." 

Artist and musician Terry Allen spoke by phone from Santa Fe, New Mexico about some of the ideas behind the work, on display in study drawings at the Belger Arts Center: 

On getting started 

"It's a pretty open-ended process. But it all goes back to the hand and writing and making an image." - Terry Allen

"The first thing I do is make notes and walk around and then start doing drawings and sketches, just the possibilities. It's a way of thinking out loud and getting it down on paper, so I can look at it and think about it as a physical possibility.

"And I usually don't make any attempt to restrain myself when I put ideas down on paper. I just pretty much let my mind go wherever it's going to go, and try to keep it at least in the ballpark of the site and the place that I'm doing the piece. It's a pretty open-ended process. But it all goes back to the hand and writing and making an image."

On the influence of a site

Credit courtesy of L.A. Louver
courtesy of L.A. Louver
'Modern Communication' (detail), 1993. An exhibition at the Belger Arts Center includes this drawing, as well as others from Allen's public artworks.

 "When I knew it was (sited in front of) a communication building, I immediately thought about how we communicate, which immediately makes you think about how we don't communicate, how we block communication. So both of those kind of ideas, kind of took precedence in the way I was thinking about it. And I just started drawings about it. 

"A lot of people have connected that piece with 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Say No Evil.' I actually never even thought about that when I was doing it. I'm sure that was there somewhere floating around. But I had been doing some bronze pieces at the foundry here at the time doing some busts. And I'd done a bust called Shoe, which was just a guy with a shoe in his mouth. And I'd done a piece called Tie where a tie had completely wrapped around a guy's head. So I was kind of interested at that time in how we block communication.

"All of these things were playing into the way I was thinking about it — and that it was a new communications center, and that it was by the police department, by the jail. It was fire department, police department, communications, it was the courthouse, kind of looking across at City Hall. It became obvious that I was going to do a person in a business suit and deal with that kind of an image. That's where I started making drawings and building the idea of the piece."

On the potential of a new location 

"It was never presented to me that it would come back to me. That never became an issue for me. Part of the contract was that if the piece was ever moved and changed sites, it had to be mutually agreeable — that's pretty much in all of my pieces, either agreeable with myself, or down the line, an estate. So it was never irritating or an issue or anything for me, it turned out well I thought. 

"I like it (the new location) every bit as much as I did the original site, if not even better, because I think there's something more mysterious about it."

Terry Allen’s sculpture 'Modern Communication' is on view in front of the new entry to the Communications Center, between the police building and municipal court, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The exhibition 'Possible Impossible: Terry Allen Study Drawings for Public Works' runs through May 2nd at the Belger Arts Center located at 2100 Walnut in the Crossroads Arts District. 

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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