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Arts & Life

Art As Reparations: This Painter Is Cutting His Prices For People Who Live East Of Troost In Kansas City

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Julie Denesha
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Harold Smith dabs a bit of red paint onto a new work in the living room of his home in Kansas City, Kansas.

On the heels of a successful run of gallery shows and museum acquisitions, painter Harold Smith is offering collectors who live east of Troost special prices for his art work.

Painter Harold Smith is enjoying a period of professional success, and he wants friends who live east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City to share the rewards with him.

Smith's 2019 solo show at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art featured large-scale, boldly-colored paintings of a group of people he says he feared were becoming invisible: everyday, hard-working, Black men.

Next month, he'll be one of 35 local African-American artists to have their works included in an upcoming exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Both museums have added Smith's work into their permanent collections.

With success came the worry that some of the very people Smith raises up as his subjects might be priced out of his work. So, until the end of May, at a show hosted by the Natasha Ria Art Gallery, he’s offering steep discounts to collectors who live in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City. Paintings regularly priced at $1,500 are available to this group for $250.

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Harold Smith
Three of Smith's paintings from his celebration of Kansas City music history "Jazz Duet," (from left) "Baritone Sax" and "New Duet" are featured in the new show "East of Troost" at the Natasha Ria Art Gallery.

“I wanted to provide an opportunity for my friends east of Troost to own a piece of art,” says Smith. “And I say this in all humility — to own a piece of art by an artist who's in museums at a price they can afford.”

Smith carefully selected works from the past 25 years. Most of the paintings had never been shown locally. He regards his gesture to offer paintings at prices people can afford as a small way of responding to past economic injustices.

"When you look at everything that's happened in America, the result is hard on our nation, our culture and society," Smith says. "I'm offering discounts to people east of Troost and if you live one block west, then you've got to pay the full price. I really don't see that as unfair. I see it as reparations in a way."

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Harold Smith
Painted in bold hues are "Howlin' Wolf" (from left) and "Untitled" from the Man of Color series.

For decades, Troost Avenue served as the dividing line between Black and white in Kansas City. Neighborhood covenants, designed by developer J.C. Nichols in the early 20th century, blocked homeownership by both Black and Jewish families. Smith says this legacy has had a lasting racial and economic impact.

“The effects of slavery and racism have had an impact on art being pursued and collected in the Black community,” Smith says. “Art is one of those things that you need to have the disposable income to get and because of slavery, racism and other forms of oppression, there are multiple people that would love art, but they don't have the disposable cash to purchase it.”

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Harold Smith
"The Story of Us" is a work from Smith's series on Black love.

Smith says, early on, his parents discouraged him from pursuing a career in art in favor of a profession that would provide a reliable income. For 30 years he taught computer science and pursued art in his spare time. Today he’s teaching art to a new generation of students at Lincoln Middle School in Kansas City. He says it’s obvious to him that people in urban neighborhoods love art.

“You go to the Family Dollar east of Troost, go look for the art supplies and it's half empty,” says Smith.

He sees the same thing in the neighborhood where he lives, in Kansas City, Kansas. “I just went to the Dollar Tree up here and this is a Black neighborhood and I was looking for some small stretch canvases and there were just a few left.”

Smith says American institutions are beginning to acknowledge the gaps in their art collections, and rushing to fill those gaps with works by artists of color.

“For a long time 90% of the art in museums was by white men,” says Smith. “Museums, unfortunately, we like to think of them as bastions of progressivism, but many are scrambling right now to overcome the fact that they were stuck with these outmoded views on race and gender.”

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Julie Denesha
Paintings Smith selected from work he's produced over the past 25 years hang at the Natasha Ria Art Gallery.

Smith says he believes those disparities would have remained entrenched, were it not for the protest movement spurred by the death of George Floyd.

“Unfortunately, I don't think we'd be seeing this if George Floyd had not happened,” he says.

“It took what we've been talking about for eons, to be shown right in their face. This is what's going on. It’s at the cost of a man's life and not just his life. I mean, when these people get murdered by rogue police officers you've got to remember they leave behind children, grandchildren, cousins, brothers and sisters who have got to deal with that trauma for the rest of their lives.”

Smith himself has been drawn into the protest movement. In 2020, he designed one of six Black Lives Matter murals painted on the streets of Kansas City. Hundreds of volunteers helped paint. When his mural was defaced by vandals shortly after it was completed, he reinvented it using the black tire marks and white paint as design elements.

Smith says after a difficult year of seeing traumatic images of Black people, he is ready to see something uplifting.

“I want to see something that shows black people not being terrorized,” says Smith. “I want to see success, you know, people that got it going on and beauty, definitely beauty.”

He is pretty sure other Black people are ready for the same lift — and that they might find it in his paintings, at affordable prices.

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