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Arts & Life

Kansas Is The Focus For Nerman Museum's Gift Shop Turned Gallery

EG Schempf
Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

The largest collection of Kansas City artists in the metropolitan area can be found at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, according to executive director Bruce Hartman.

And now, there's also a gallery exclusively devoted to artists with ties to the state of Kansas called the Kansas Focus Gallery. 

JCCC started collecting art in 1980 with works by Kansas City artists and "the art of our time." Early acquisitions included a Dale Eldred sculpture and ceramics by Ken Ferguson and George Timock.

Hartman says he's continued to build on those initial efforts. 

"We always felt it was important to not only exhibit artists that have that connection with our community, but actually collect the work. That to me is the ultimate show of support is when you actually write a check to an artist," he says. 

Susan McSpadden

In February 2014, when the Nerman Museum's gift shop closed due to campus budget cuts, Hartman reached out to longtime patron Mary Davidson Cohen. He knew Cohen was looking for a home for her personal collection, amassed over decades of travels across Kansas with her late husband, Bart. 

Cohen donated this collection of about 200 works from artists such as Albert Bloch, the Prairie Print Makers, and Birger Sandzen. The Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust also contributed $700,000 for the project, including $50,000 for additional works by Kansas artists for the museum's permanent collection. 

The process of converting the first-floor museum gift shop into a gallery, says Hartman, was a "major renovation." The ceiling and floors were removed, and the walls were re-sheetrocked and reinforced with plywood to support a heavier load. 

"But, very fortunately, Kyu Sung Woo, the architect for the museum, agreed to design the space," Hartman says. "It ended up just being a very elegant, minimal space — completely in keeping with the rest of the museum."

courtesy the artist and ClampArt, NY

The gallery opened Feb. 4 with an exhibition of six photographs by Lori Nix, an artist who was born and raised in rural Norton, Kansas, and now makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. 

"Her experience in Kansas has very much informed her work," says Hartman. "Her earliest bodies of work dealt with natural disasters, like tornadoes and lightning and thunderstorms. And that has continued to be pervasive." 

Large-scale works on view by Nix through May 29 are from an ongoing series, started in 2005, called The City. The post-apocalyptic images of a laundromat, a Chinese restaurant, a library, are filled with deterioration, and no sign of human life. The elaborate dioramas are constructed, and then photographed, in Nix's Brooklyn studio. 

Hartman says he hopes the Kansas Focus Gallery will serve as a source of inspiration for JCCC students, visitors to the museum, and to the general public. "[It] allows them to see that yes, important artists have come from this state, important artists are living and working in this state," he says. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.

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