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Nelson-Atkins Museum Director Says Police Presence On Its Grounds ‘Exactly The Opposite Of What We Stand For'

Paul Andrews
Julián Zugazagoitia sits in one of the galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City says he did not like the Kansas City Police Department using the museum's grounds as a staging area for protest response.

Organized protests in response to the death of George Floyd began on the Country Club Plaza on Friday, May 29. On that evening, the Kansas City Police Department looked for staging areas to park squad cars and asked Nelson-Atkins Museum security to use museum property.

Museum director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia says he had no idea.

And when he found out well past midnight on Friday, he immediately called the police department and asked that they vacate the premises. The department complied.

“Knowing that the presence of police would be badly perceived by our community, by the people we’ve worked so hard to embrace, to build bridges, and to create a sense of trust with, I felt that that was not right,” Zugazagoitia says.

But Twitter and Instagram had already lit up with images of squad cars behind the reflecting pool, along with responses to the scene.

Another tweet said seeing squad cars seemed a direct contradiction to last year's popular "30 Americans" exhibition.

Zugazagoitia says he’s aware of the images now and is hurt by them, too.

“It is exactly the opposite of what the Nelson stands for, what the museum stands for, what we want to do as work and what we have been doing as work,” he says.

The director identifies himself as apolitical, and says his grandfather's history may help people understand why. His grandfather was a journalist and politician in the years around the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

The elder Julián Zugazagoitia was outspoken against fascism, arrested in Germany by the Gestapo, and executed in Spain under General Francisco Franco, according to research by journalist Steve Paul.

“These riots talk about humanity and talk about injustice and that is not politics. Injustice is injustice. Humanity and the right for everyone to be equal is written in our constitution. It should be the way we see things, and we still have to fight to get it there,” Zugazagoitia says. “But that is not politics.”

He says the decision to call the police department was simple — nothing like the stands his grandfather took. It was simply that the cars weren’t in keeping with the museum’s image of diversity and inclusion. “My grandfather is a hero, and I’m in no shape, form or anything close to that,” says Zugazagoitia.

He cites the museum as an expression and voice of at least 5,000 years of humankind: “The freedom of expression is represented so well in our museum, and we want to embrace all of it.”

But while Zugazagoitia says he did not like the police presence, he does not want to encourage protester presence, either. Though the museum is closed due to the pandemic, the grounds are still open and function as a sanctuary for those who need it.

He says, “This is a time when there are so many feelings and so many hurts. It is important to have place of solace where you can do it, and perhaps our grounds can be a good place for that.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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