The museum is best known for it's extensive collection of Chinese art and artifacts. The whole top floor of the museum is dedicated to the collection. The best known artifact in the collection, or at least the artifact that I like most, is a dress made entirely of Jade. Each piece of Jade is hand carved and the dress is meticulously sown together by hand. I can't remember how old the dress is but it is well into the hundreds of years.
The museum also houses the entire collection of Missouri's favorite son artist, Thomas Hart Benton. The only things that are missing from the collection are the murals that Benton painted and still exist today in places like the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and the Capitol Building of Kansas in Topeka. Why Benton painted a mural in Kansas I will never understand nor forgive him for. The paintings are of a distinct style that any student of art can recognize as being a Benton. As a side to this part of the museum, Benton's studio where he did his painting and sculpture is located in the Valentine District of Kansas City. The studio sits just as it was when the great artist died, a sculpture in the works on one of the tables, unfinished.
With the Nelson-Atkins having the prestige that it does hold, a lot of traveling exhibits come through Kansas City to be put on display for those of us who do not get to travel to the larger centers of culture in the United States and the world. I go to see a lot of these exhibits. One exhibit that I recall with total fascination was the joining together of all three panels of Monet's "Water Lillies". One of the panels is a fixture at the Nelson but one year they got all three panels together and took them for a trip around the world. The fantastic painting took up a whole room by itself as people lined up as if it were a national funeral and the painting was the body lying in state. I remember when people got into that room their voices became whispers as the overwhelming beauty of the painting as a whole overwhelmed the senses with it's beauty and technique.
Another exhibit I remember fondly was one based on time. It held various artists works on what they considered their concept of time. I remember there was one artist who took a picture of himself for one second at the same time of day for a three year period. He then put the pictures together as a motion picture and there before your eyes, you could what him age. His would grow long then be shaved off. He would quickly grow a beard that became a mustache and eventually he became clean shaven.
Another part of the "Time" exhibit the artist had taken pictures of various people every five years or so over a fifteen year period to show how they aged as time progressed. It was a very interesting exhibit and we spent most of the day there without seeing much of the rest of the museum.
The exhibit that I remember most though was the one I was most excited to see. It was back in the late seventies when the museum announced an exhibit of Music Album Art. You must remember that vinyl was still the main way that music was sold and played. The musicians and producers of this music back then considered the jacket that held the disc as part of the actual album. The covers for the albums were indeed works of art. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Klauss Voorman, and other famous artists of the day were putting their work on album covers. This was something that I was indeed interested in as I had a fairly large collection of Albums of my own.
I anticipated the day when Barb and I would go to the Nelson-Atkins to see this collection of album art. I imagined it to be the original artwork that ended up on millions of albums sold around the world. Albums cover art from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Santana, and The Velvet Underground would surely be included in the artwork that ended up printed on my albums at home. There wasn't that long of a line when we got there but long enough of a line to help build up the anticipation of seeing the art. We waited and we talked and we slowly moved forward until we finally came around a corner and entered into the exhibit. "Stunned" is too light of a word for how I felt as I walked into the exhibit. There were rows of tables covered in glass as though something priceless was being protected from the harm the general public could place on such works of art. But the art wasn't the original art as I expected
What sat before my eyes were album covers. Album covers that were exact duplicates of many that I had at the house. We walked up and down between the tables covered with glass looking at album covers. There was not a single piece of original artwork on display here. I could have taken my collection of records and placed them under glass and it would have made just as fine of an exhibit as what I was looking at. Yes, there was Warhol's Velvet Underground album cover that he had painted for the bands first release. There was the Rolling Stones Sticky Finger's album cover, another Warhol masterpiece that I had at home..only mine was in much better shape than the one on display. The Beatles were well represented with almost every one of their album covers. There were some rare ones like Rare Earth's In Concert album that was designed like a back pack that held the two discs, but again, I had this album at the house. What Barb and I ended up doing was walking around a set of tables covered in glass with essentially my album collection underneath the glass. To be fair there were some rare album covers that I did not own. The Count Basie Super Chief album cover was there. There were album covers of music that had not yet come into my life such as a Marvin Gaye album and a few Miles Davis album that I now own.
We went home and I started pulling all of the albums that I could remember that were on display to make up my own display of what we had seen at the Nelson-Atkins. I remember asking Barb if she wanted to pay me two dollars to look at my album cover collection. She declined having already seen them for years before they made it to the museum.
To be fair, the album covers did represent art. Printed art. Mass printed art. I felt totally disappointed in the museum. I wondered for years after that, and still do, who made the decision to put this display on at the famous Nelson-Atkins. I felt betrayed by the museum. It was and still is one of my favorite destinations, but this was so far below the standards that the museum has set for itself over the last century that I could see where putting this exhibit on display could knock it down a few notches.
The museum seemed to survive the "Album Cover Art Exhibit" and continued to hold it's reputation as one of the premier art museums in the world. I had just gotten to the point where I thought the Nelson-Atkins was back to it's former self, bringing in exhibits of true art when it happened again.
One day out on the vast lawn of the museum, three Shuttlecocks (badmitten birdies for those of us less refined) showed up. They stood about ten to twelve feet tall with big orange tips on them. The were placed as though a game of badmitten was being played by the gods and they had just landed in the lawn of the great museum. I could not believe it. To me they looked stupid and embarrassing. Soon they became the signature for recognizing the Nelson-Atkins. Every photo of the museum had those stupid Shuttlecocks there. Visitors would stop on forty-seventh street and go up to them and have their picture taken next to the giant birdies.
|Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo|
I was wrong about the Shuttlecocks. They are still there and are as much of a draw to the museum as the giant Henry Moore sculpture that sits on the corner of the lawn. They have been there well over a decade now and they don't seem to be going anywhere soon. When you arrive at the airport in Kansas City there is a series of lighted signs of things to do in Kansas City. One of them is a picture of those stupid shuttlecocks on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins.
My Uncle use to say "If the artist says it is art, then it is art." This seems to be the case of the shuttlecocks. Most of the world must see them as art instead of an eyesore as I do. I soon came to appreciate the shuttlecocks a little more palatable. When they expanded the convention center across the highway downtown, the city commissioned an artist to put four "sculptures" on top of the four spires that hold the convention center over the highway. These too have become synonymous with Kansas City. They are truly the ugliest things in the Kansas City skyline. After seeing those things go up, the shuttle cocks didn't seem so bad.
|Sky Sculptures-Bartle Hall Kansas City, Mo.|
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art should still carry shame over bringing that display of album art into their building. Art is what you make it to be. I still hold to this day that album covers that anyone could buy at their local dime store, should not be considered "art" but the representation of art.