Whose Museum?

Kansas City artist A. Bitterman has been getting some attention this week for a thought-provoking proposal.  He wants to trade a valuable Henry Moore sculpture on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with an abandoned house on nearby Troost Avenue.  Sheep Piece, the rotund abstraction by the iconic British modernist sculptor would switch places with a dilapidated home from one of the city’s poorest areas.

A. Bitterman

Bitterman’s proposal has generated some conversations concerning income inequality in Kansas City.  Although the art museum is surrounded by luscious parks and upscale homes, this gives way to a low-income area just a few blocks east.  Troost Avenue is viewed as a dividing line in the culture of Kansas City, feared by many suburbanites and the butt of many jokes about where not to visit.  Bitterman’s proposed work, entitled City of Fountains, would make it a little bit harder to ignore a large segment of our city.

This story, re-posted on social media this week by many members of the Kansas City art crowd and even getting a re-post from Hyperallergic, comes on the heels of a local rally for better wages.  On Wednesday, fast-food workers joined forces with other low-wage employees, including home healthcare workers, and autoworkers to demand $15/hour and a union.  Adjuncts also came out in force, asking for $15,000 per course per semester.  This was all part of the national Fight for $15 movement, which inspired actions in over 200 cities on Wednesday.  In Kansas City, the rally took place right across the street from the art museum—at Theis Park—and it got me wondering: do most of the city’s low-income families have the chance to enjoy the museum? I don’t know the answer to this.

The Nelson-Atkins arguably does a good job of overcoming some possible barriers for low-income families.  First of all, it is free to the public.  Amazingly, the Dallas Art Museum went free a couple of years ago and others have been embracing the free trend to greater or lesser degrees, but it is still the exception rather than the norm.  Additionally, the Nelson offers numerous community programs for underserved communities and scholarships for children’s art classes.

The modern public museum was founded in the Industrial Revolution.  In the 19th century, English prime minister Sir Robert Peel advocated for the National Gallery as a public resource.  He argued that its purpose was “to cement the bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state.”  This was the first art museum that was not developed either from a monarch’s collection or a teaching collection.  It was purely for the enjoyment of the public.  And it was purposely placed in a busy area of London where it would be accessible for both rich and poor neighborhoods.*

Bitterman’s City of Fountains is a compelling proposal that would highlight poverty in Kansas City.  I’m all for it (although the Nelson has expressed no interest since it was first proposed in 2011).  And I’m also grateful to have a free, public museum in a diverse area of my beautiful city.  It’s one of those things that makes me glad I never did something silly like pick up and move to Chicago.

*Neil MacGregor, “A Pentecost in Trafalgar Square,” Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust, James Cuno, ed. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), 28-29.

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