Exploring public art in Downtown Kansas City

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I work as a bartender at a restaurant in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and on the back of the building is a large mural by Alexander Austin featuring baseball, jazz and imagery that evokes the city’s unique history.  Over the years of mixing drinks and pouring beers I’ve taken countless breaks out back to look up at this colorful wall.  It greets me at the beginning of every shift, and bids me farewell as I leave for my car in the wee hours of the morning.  As much as I appreciate this large mural, it has played a more or less passive role in my life Downtown.  Across the street, another similar mural by Austin was recently covered by the ever-expanding luxury-loft industry.  The construction removed a piece of public art that may have played a very similar role in a similar bartender’s relationship with their building.  This loss of art made me want to discover new pieces around Downtown.  I decided to engage with some major public art works that were not a part of my daily commute.

Kansas City seems to have a positive relationship with public arts.  There are a multitude of murals through out the city by artists such as Jose Faus, Gear and Scibe.  There is also no lack of sculptural works, especially in the Country Club Plaza. Subjects include Louis and Clark, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill. And, of course, Kansas City, The City of Fountains, has its fair share of fountains. Even the famous Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent time here to create Wrapped Walk Ways in Loose Park in 1978, where they covered the 2.7 miles of walkways in saffron-colored nylon. Some of this artistic proliferation is thanks to a 1970 city council resolution to set aside a small portion of funding from public building construction to go to public art.

After a little research I found just a few pieces across downtown to experience over the course of a day.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of public art in the city, but rather a very small selection of works that could be a catalyst to understand the roll of public art, their relationship to the environment, and an audience’s relationship to them.

I start on the west side of downtown: The West Bottoms. The tallest skyscrapers barely peeking over the horizon to the east, and large trucks roll past galleries and hip brunch spots.  Just outside of the American Royal is Robert Morris’s Bull Wall.  Built in 1992,  the sculpture is a large wall of milled steel with silhouetted bulls charging westward. Its fitting. The bulls are made more real by the smell of livestock coming from some event that was happening that morning.  The thick steel walls are brought to life by the train rattling by just southward of where the sculpture and I stood.  The piece, weathered and rusting,  is of the aging warehouses that populate the area. Bull Wall communicates well with its surroundings. Morris celebrates Kansas City’s relationship with agriculture and industry in a neighborhood where the two are inseparable.

Next, I head east to the Power and Light District.  On Walnut, between 12th and 13th streets, I walk between the tallest buildings in the city to find a parking garage. Oozing out of the 5th level is Barnacles, a 2011 sculpture by Rie Egawa and Burgess Zbryk.  80 feet wide the enormous piece is composed of hundreds of powder coated steel cones resembling an aquaticgrowth on the side of a great ship.  The playful sculpture feels like a reprieve from the seriousness of the block.  A welcome bit of life in a valley of right angles.  This bit of public art speaks to our city’s history in millennia rather than decades. The levels of the garage remind me of the geological stratum of sedimentary layers.  Barnacles references that ecological history, and does so in the midsts of the man-made.

Third stop is somewhere in the administrative section of downtown filled with courthouses, license offices and city hall.  The tops of those tall towers now slightly to my west as I search for the neighborhood for this next public art work.  This one is harder to find.  Walking through the tightly packed pedestrians and governmental buildings to find a small sculpture feels vaguely bureaucratic.  Nestled in a breezeway between the Kansas City Police Headquarters and a municipal courthouse I finally find Terry Allen’s 1995 bronze sculpture Modern Communication.  Its is a life-size statue of a man standing on a briefcase with one of his shoes in his mouth, fingers in his ears, and tie blindfolded over his eyes.  The piece seems easy enough to comprehend: Modern Communication speaks to our inability to truly connect with anyone in an age of being able to connect with everyone; failing to see beyond ourselves and our own realities even though we have all the tools to do so.  Old hat for a liberal arts major.   What challenges me about Modern Communication is not the content but the context.  Between two branches of the justice system is a piece implying that we can no longer connect with one another.  Is it a reminder to those people in seats of authority of their own human qualities or is it a note on the world their suspects, defendants and jurors live in? Does this sculpture evoke blind Lady Justice, the three wise monkeys, or just a stubborn plaintiff? i hang around the breezeway to maybe ask a police officer or someone in judges robes what they thought, but everyone was on their phones as they walked by and I didn’t want to interrupt.

Eastward again to the fourth and final piece of the day.  I found my self in the historic 18th and vine district looking for the monument to Charlie Parker.  It sits near the Blue Room and the American Jazz Museum.  Robert Graham’s 1999 work Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker is a large bust of cast bronze that sits atop a monolithic pedestal with the inscription “Bird Lives”.  Parker’s face is quiet and content with a slight grin and gently closed eyes.  There is a peace in the sculpture. The bronze shares its green tone with the statue of liberty, evoking patriotism in the most American of genres: Jazz.  The work sits in the center of a simple circular court lined with a few benches for meditation.  The space is calm in the late afternoon. The sun starting to fall to the west, same as the tops of those skyscrapers I’ve watched all day. The evening not in full swing, but jazz can be heard off in the background.  I feel like I’m standing in a sun dial as Parker’s head casts a long shadow across the rounded court. Time, rhythm, jazz, history are constant. They live on just as the Bird lives on.  The space is a quiet aside from the bright brass and syncopations of the fast paced district.  A space to find reverence in Parker’s calm expression.

I drive home to midtown with my radio off, entertained with thoughts of sculpture and site-specificity.  I notice other public art pieces in my brief drive home.  There are more days like today in my future I’m sure. Maybe more articles on those journeys as well. Public art I come to see can push our understanding of a place further. Its ability to engage an audience beyond conversations of form or materials, and widen their scope to the work’s context spatially or historically is invaluable for an engaged citizenry.  Art consumption is necessary in understanding a place or group.   On my next break at work I will look up and see a mural as a dialogue with the city it inhabits, and with me as its neighbor.

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