Kansas City Children Know Something About The Chiefs Kingdom That Many Adults Don't
The Kansas City Chiefs' museum-quality art collection at Arrowhead Stadium aims to lift regional artists and better the lives of area students.
Kids don’t seem to have much trouble connecting art and football. When tours of the Arrowhead Art Collection were still a regular part of the business week at the stadium, and Chiefs players could sit with youths around a table scattered with art supplies, that connection is what they’d tease out together.
Sharron Hunt, a member of the Chiefs founding family, loves art. In 2012, she announced the start of the collection and convened the first Kansas City Chiefs Art Council, which included art luminaries like Nelson-Atkins CEO Julián Zugazagoitia and Kemper Museum director Barbara O’Brien, to help in the selection process.
Hunt’s aim was to populate the newly enclosed club level with museum grade art by artists from a six-state region — that is, the Chiefs Kingdom — and use it for community outreach.
“There’s a wide range of media, which is something that should be applauded. That’s kind of hard to do in a stadium,” says Meghan Dohogne, a PhD student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who has been working with the collection on a fellowship basis for about a year and a half.
She works directly with Andrew Smitka, the Chiefs manager of youth outreach. He says the collection is unusual in the NFL; the only other collection he can think of is owned by the Dallas Cowboys, but it doesn’t have the same emphasis on regional art.
With the Chiefs headed for the 2021 Super Bowl as reigning champions, Kansas Citians are well versed on most details of the team and the organizations. But, while the Arrowhead Art Collection is not any sort of secret, Smitka and Dohogne say they’re frequently surprised at how many people don’t know it exists.
In normal times, regularly scheduled groups of students tour the stadium, and athletes and artists visit schools or nearby community centers. In fact, many area children are more familiar with the collection than adults. Fans have to be in the stadium on the club level and facing away from the field to get a good look at the art. Dohogne says she’s working to expand programming to include more adult events, like corporate parties or painting and wine activities, but children will remain the focus.
Dohogne says that interest in the Chiefs draws in the youths and holds their attention, creating a platform for other types of educational opportunities.
Along with the art lessons, programming for youth includes a wellness component, Dohogne says.
"I think it’s about helping develop the kids in the community in all aspects; the art is a platform or a segue for that,” she says.
Smitka says visiting students definitely have football on their minds when they first engage with the collection in person or during the virtual meetings they’ve held lately.
But, he says, “it’s really interesting to see some lightbulb moments go off for them when they’re kind of comparing art and sports and seeing similarities and realizing that they kind of work hand in hand.”
For instance, a painting by Kansas City artist José Faus, “Unbearable Lightness,” is an adaptable piece with no prescribed orientation or viewpoint. Its colors have shifted a little with age — the painting is 17 years old — but originally included quite a bit of yellow in with the predominant red. White, black, and grey curved lines seem to act as netting around bulbous shapes that are close to pink and a darker crimson.
Smitka says that a student once said of the piece, “If you put bright colored markers on the bottom of all the Chiefs players’ cleats, and you traced them as they ran around during the game, this might be what you come up with.”
If the painting had been on the wall of the Nelson-Atkins, Smitka suggests, the student might not have made the same connection between painting and football.
Faus agrees it’s largely the suggestion of football that causes students to find connections like that one. He says that when he was able to partner with the Chiefs at student workshops, he purposely tried to stay away from similar nudges in that direction.
When he’s teaching about abstract art, he thinks if a viewer looks at a painting expecting to see football, that might become all she’s able to perceive.
“As an artist, that’s not what I see. I see color, I see lines, I see movement potential,” Faus says. Those are all components of interest when he watches a game, though.
While Faus says he’s not intent on capturing sporting moments in his work, what he loves about football, in particular, is the ballet that takes place.
“The acrobatic catch; the tension; the movement in the line; the explosiveness of the players that meet at the front line,” Faus says. “I’ve always loved that idea that at that moment there are so many potential things that can happen and eruptions of movement.”
Another artist in the Arrowhead collection found similar inspiration.
Thomas Hart Benton sketched the players during practices in 1969 for a bronze sculpture called “Forward Pass,” which is tucked away in the Signature Lounge on the stadium’s club level.
The didactic for the piece quotes Benton: “Being so close to the players has opened up a whole new dimension of the game. For the first time I really appreciate the action… and the color and the spectacle of the game knock me out.”
For the most part, the 40 or so pieces in the collection don’t appear to have as much to do with football as with the region the team is part of. Many of the paintings are landscapes, portraits of the “kingdom,” if you will. But some of the larger three-dimensional installations do work a football theme, and a few of the more abstract works like Faus’ subtly refer to the game — or allow room for that interpretation.
During the pandemic, and between what the city hopes will be back-to-back Super Bowl wins, the collection remains a constant at Arrowhead. Any new installations planned for 2020 were halted with the pandemic, but community outreach has continued, albeit in virtual form.
Faus says he looks forward to returning to working with students. Though he’d never imagined an NFL team owning his work, the team has a special place in his heart, which he’s reminded of when he works with local kids through Arrowhead’s program.
When he came to the United States from Colombia as a 9-year-old, the Chiefs were one of the first things he learned about his new city. He saw his first game in 1966.
“It was like an entry, a form of acceptance with other kids. That was one thing we had in common: we loved this game; we loved this team.”