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Arts & Life

Nerman Family Members 'Get Joy' Sharing Work By Artists Of Color In Kansas City Art Institute Exhibit

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Anne Kniggendorf
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KCUR 89.3
Hank Willis Thomas' "Refusal" uses reflective vinyl which changes the image depending on the light.

A never-before-seen collection of work featuring artists of color collected by the Nerman family is showing at KCAI's gallery through October 17.

The Nerman family adopted an unusual modus operandi years ago: search, secure, and share. They’re a family of art collectors, starting with the late Jerry and Margaret who began the tradition before World War II, and Lewis and Sue leading the way now.

“I get joy when we acquire the work, but I also get an equal amount of joy in sharing. I really do,” Lewis Nerman says.

They’re the Nermans of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College.

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Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art
From left: Lewis, Sue, Margaret, and Jerry Nerman at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

For them, art collecting is partly about the search, the thrill of the hunt; Lewis and Sue have collected hundreds of disparate pieces from all over the world during the course of their lives, and now they are responsible for the elder Nermans’ collection as well. When asked, they declined to answer how many works in total.

Prior to Jerry Nerman’s deployment to France during World War II, he and Margaret hung art from old calendars on their walls. During the war, he mailed home street art, which has been lost to time. Once they had the means from founding and successfully running Arrow Truck Sales, the elder Nermans began to collect in earnest, teaching their children about the thrill.

But just as thrilling as the hunt is sharing the work.

The joy of sharing

Most often, the sharing has taken the form of opening their home to art enthusiasts or loaning pieces to galleries nationally and internationally. Currently, three pieces from their personal collection are on loan to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art which are simultaneously staging a retrospective on Jasper Johns.

But what the Nermans have not done until now is publicly show a curated portion of their collection. Through October 17, the Kansas City Art Institute Gallery is displaying “All Things Being Equal,” 16 featured works by 12 artists.

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Anne Kniggendorf
"Pain and Privilege" 1-4 by Harold Smith is on display at the KCAI Gallery.

Sue and Lewis Nerman thought of the title themselves, then collaborated with curator and gallery director Michael Schonhoff to figure out which pieces to include.

Once the couple decided to show works by artists of color, titling it was easy.

Sue says, “We mean that no matter who the artist is, there’s no difference between art by artists of color and art by artists of anything.”

Lewis jumps in to clarify and says, “When you walk in our home, you see Jasper Johns, and you see [Robert] Rauschenberg, and you see Chuck Close and all these very famous people. And then hanging next to those pieces are these pieces that are in this show.”

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Anne Kniggendorf
Curator Michael Schonhoff with one of Nick Cave's Soundsuits.

The 12 artists featured are formidable and include Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Hank Willis and Fred Wilson.

“Works by artists of color or any underrepresented group, we can’t show enough,” Schonhoff says. “I think there’s so much work to do there. And I think this builds on momentum, both what’s happening at the school, locally, regionally, nationally, that sort of thing.”

One of the newest pieces in the Nerman collection is Fred Wilson’s 2019 “Black Rain.”

Schonhoff explains that Wilson gained fame by looking at cultural objects, especially as part of the Black experience, and “reframing history and positioning them all in a different way, looking at colonialism, looking at slavery. It was never done before in a museum, and it just really kind of turned upside down what collections are and how we look at them.”

Schonhoff says that Wilson created a new narrative with objects that people weren’t used to seeing.

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Anne Kniggendorf
"Black Rain" by Fred Wilson is showing at the KCAI Gallery through Oct. 17.

“Black Rain” is a continuation of that line of thinking, and though it’s more “poetic,” as Schonhoff says, than some of Wilson’s previous work, the idea is the same: encourage viewers to extrapolate meaning based on their own experiences, the context of the show, or however else they might contextualize it in their own lives.

Lewis says that he and Sue didn’t use advisors in building their collection, instead they went to the work they liked piece by piece.

He says, “I think each one of those pieces holds up very nicely by those particular artists. Each one has its own unique message. I hope people come and see it and enjoy it as much as we do.”

Correction: Michael Schonhoff's name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

"All Things Being Equal: Selections from the Nerman Collection" at the Kansas City Art Institute Gallery through Sunday, October 17 at 4415 Warwick Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111. Free and open to the public with registration.

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