It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We have-nots who watched the changing landscape along Mississippi Street this summer could only think of Charles Dickens' description of Revolutionary Paris. Yet, in contrast to the millions we saw lavished around Memorial Stadium, a few thousand dollars has enabled the winning team of Director Saralyn Reece Hardy, Kansas University students, and museum staff to transform spaces within the walls of the Spencer Museum of Art. Working quietly and almost around the clock, the Little Engine that Could has demonstrated, yet again, that human ingenuity and determination can triumph!
Open the doors and walk in. This can be the "best of times." Stephen Johnson's brilliant "Abstract Alphabet" will enchant you. Roger Shimomura's prints will challenge you. Then let the visual history of humankind unfold around you until, in the new Gallery 20/21, you enter an attic of the mind. More accurately, the many mental attics created by Emily Stamey and a host of colleagues and consultants, including Phil Baringer (physics), Philip Barnard, (English), Carol Ann Carter (art), David Cateforis (art history), Sarah Crawford-Parker (KU Honors Program), Mary Dusenbury (research curator), Cheryl Lester (American studies), Judith McCrea (art), Barry Newton (architecture), Joshua Rosenbloom (economics), Gitti Salami (African studies), Joan Stone (dance), Bill Tsutsui (history) and Bill Woods (geography). In this startling, super-sized attic you can enjoy some of the treasures that have been stored away for all too long.
Who knew that hidden behind tired walls under a false ceiling was KU's own answer to Paris' Pompidou Center - all sleek lines and steel and concrete beams. Now revealed, the Spencer has a new space within the old. And such a space! Floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall you will find a veritable history of our times - a revelation made possible by generous gifts of the Friends of the Museum, who have supported the creativity and labor of Richard Klocke, Dan Coester, Doug Bergstrom, Amanda Schwegler, and fine arts student Kurt Funke.
On entering the space, one's eyes dazzle. The Spencer dream team presents art in conversation with art, arguing, agreeing, struggling, enhancing. Don Judd's "Stack" controls the long north wall, joining neat square floor tiles to the grid of the ceiling. Its gleaming panels repeat a rack supporting a magically floating "Showboat" and Roger Shimomura's "Dinner Conversation." Then Elizabeth Murray's lips whisper to the strange hairy language of Wenda Gu.
The sensuous undulations of Georgia O'Keeffe's trees call across the decades to a pale Sudlow landscape, while Dale Chihuly's "Lip Wraps" embrace the prairie serenade of Jimenez' howling coyote. A chair teeters; a head rolls. Hidden treasures abound in a cabinet filled with small pleasures. As the walls disappear, the museum is no longer a box for imprisoning works of art.
What a challenge for art lovers our Midwest now offers. Just as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum changed the dreary industrial port of Bilbao in the Basque country of Spain into a must-visit art center, so Steven Holl's brilliant Bloch Building has made Kansas City an art destination. Rolling green lawns now form the roof of a great underground museum. They recall the Flint Hills of Kansas, even as cubical lenses, like glowing grain elevators, push up through the grass. Director Marc Wilson has likened the complex to a buried skyscraper; large, yes, but scaled to human beings.
In galleries under the turf, paintings and sculptures control generous spaces and encourage the focused individual viewing characteristic of the inward turning, self-reflective 21st century. Dramatically different in every way, Gallery 20/21 speaks to another side of 21st century life: industrial and urban, often harsh, sometimes brutal, always exciting. As the Bloch Building provides respite from life in a big city, the Spencer's Gallery 20/21 reflects the energy and the jostling intellectual life of a great university.
Gallery 20/21 is encased in a mid-20th century building. Helen Spencer loved KU. Through her generous gifts of a research library honoring her husband, Kenneth, and the art museum that bears her own name, she tried to create an ideal of classical perfection, an ideal formed in part by the Nelson-Atkins Museum. In Kansas City, Director Marc Wilson has sensitively restored the building she admired. Surely the Spencer Museum of Art is just as worthy.
Consider - just across the parking lot and for a tiny fraction of the cost of buildings and fields that will glorify the physicality of the body, the winning team in the Spencer Museum of Art has created a sanctuary for those who value the mind and spirit. The best of times awaits you.