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Kemper Museum Uses Contemporary Art To Connect Two Centuries Of Missouri’s History

Frederick James Brown's "They Had the Right to Sing the Blues."
Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
Frederick James Brown's "They Had the Right to Sing the Blues."

This year marks Missouri’s bicentennial. A new exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art explores the state's 200-year history and some of its untold stories through the lens of art.

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Like many cultural institutions around the country, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has made a push, especially over the last decade, to showcase the artwork of more female artists and more people of color.

Back in 2017, the museum tapped an advisory group to broaden the conversation around an exhibition featuring Black women artists called “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.” The museum returned to the collaborative approach with a new exhibition “Contemporary Art and the Missouri Bicentennial,” which opens Thursday.

“It gives people an opportunity to come at the work from their own experiences,” says Erin Dziedzic, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs.

She adds, “This isn't necessarily a didactic exhibition that uses artwork to kind of walk you through the Missouri bicentennial, but it's a great way to allow people to open up deeper conversations.”

Dziedzic says the curatorial staff reached out to long-time cultural partners and forged new relationships with other organizations.

Thirteen artists, cultural leaders, curators, and educators worked with the museum to identify themes around Missouri’s bicentennial and to select artwork from the Kemper's collection.

“We really wanted the opportunity for advisory groups to have access to our entire permanent collection,” says assistant curator Jade Powers, "and really showcase what they think is important from Missouri's past, present and future.”

Romare Bearden's "Family," incorporates paint, photographs, fabric and paper.
Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
Romare Bearden's "Family" incorporates paint, photographs, fabric and paper.

Dr. Dina Bennett, the American Jazz Museum’s director of collections and curatorial affairs, teamed up with Lee Wong Medina at the Consulate of Mexico in Kansas City to explore themes.

“So, of course, my theme was going to be music given that we're at the American Jazz Museum and also my background as an ethnomusicologist,” Bennett says. “And music has been central and is still central to Kansas City and its history.”

Dziedzic and Powers created a spreadsheet — excluding "resting" works from the 1,400-piece collection, ones that had been on display recently and works not ready to view.

As Dziedzic puts it, they offered "a full list of available works to choose from,” and then, based on suggested themes, “a shortlist of objects for them to consider.”

Polly Apfelbaum's "Squiggles" from 2018.
Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
Polly Apfelbaum's "Squiggles" from 2018.

Paul Gutiérrez, director of visitor experience and public programming at the Kansas City Museum, embraced the process.

Gutiérrez worked to identify themes with Toya Like, associate professor and interim chair of Race, Ethnic and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, and Joey Orr, who is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator for Research at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

“Two themes that came to our attention were untold Missouri or untold stories, and filling in the gap,” says Gutiérrez. ”And it was trying to highlight representations often missed when we think about the state of Missouri, whether they're art or music or performing arts.”

Other themes included the relationship between indigenous people and the Missouri landscape, the human impact on the Missouri River, and the global reach of Kansas City jazz. All shaped the selection of the more than 50 works in the exhibition.

There’s a recent promised gift, a quilt work by Bisa Butler, shipped from her recent solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. And another newly acquired work, a rug piece by Polly Apfelbaum, “Squiggles.” Two vivid portraits of jazz musicians by Frederick James Brown along with a 1960s abstract painting by Kansas City-based artist Wilbur Niewald called "Current River II.”

An early abstract painting by Kansas City artist Wilbur Niewald, "Current River II" from 1965.
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
An early abstract painting by Kansas City artist Wilbur Niewald titled, "Current River II" from 1965.

Powers, who also organizes the public programs, says the museum developed programming to extend the conversation around the themes.

A panel discussion with Kansas City Art Institute and Haskell Indian Nations University students is in the works, as well as an opportunity to hear the voices of the advisory members.

"We're really excited because we'll have an app tour and additional didactics that have the advisory members speaking about works that excited them," Powers says. "So you'll be able to hear firsthand why each person chose both the theme and the work.”

For Dziedzic, the exhibition marks an opportunity to not only spark conversation and engage with the community, but also to shape visual representation that's “reflective of the state’s history, but also something that looks forward.”

“Contemporary Art and the Missouri Bicentennial,” September 16, 2021 – February 20, 2022, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

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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