The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art marks its 20th anniversary this year, but the celebration is bittersweet.
R. Crosby Kemper, the banker and civic leader who put the museum in motion with co-founder Bebe Kemper, died eight months ago, raising questions in the arts community about the museum’s future. Is there funding — and a commitment from his children — for the museum to continue?
“We have no thought of closing,” said Mary Kemper Wolf, an accomplished filmmaker who is the daughter of Crosby and Bebe Kemper (now a trustee emeritus).
In May 2013 Crosby Kemper installed Wolf as chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, a seven-member body that includes Wolf’s brothers, Sandy Kemper and Mariner Kemper.
“The museum will be funded the same way (it was) — from Kemper Foundations, earned income and fundraising,” Wolf said. “Our budget is $3.8 million in 2014.”
She added: “It was a very planned-for transition. Two years ago I decided to move back (to Kansas City). I was in New York for a decade.”
Wolf has served on the board of governors of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. Her “120 Wooster Street’’ documentary about artist Frederick J. Brown aired on PBS in 2004, and she is currently at work on a film about the Wyeth family of artists.
In a recent interview, Wolf and the museum’s executive director, Barbara O’Brien, laid out their vision for the Kemper.
Once the 20th anniversary gala is over, the first order of business is the creation of a five-year plan to determine “how we position ourselves, what are our priorities, do we need additional staffing,” O’Brien said.
In the meantime, she and Wolf will work to develop the museum’s membership and community support. They have created a new Kemper Ambassadors group, drawn from past organizers of the museum’s annual gala, who will help with fundraising.
Wolf and O’Brien will also stress the museum’s educational mission through projects including “No Boundaries,” an after-school program for metro-area teenagers that includes free food and transportation to Kemper Crossroads, the second floor of which is being renovated to create an education space.
That is the only brick-and-mortar project planned at present, other than the recent renovation of the museum parking lot.
On the art side, pending possible changes set out in the plan, the museum will continue much as it has in the past, mounting from eight to 10 exhibitions per year.
In planning and choosing exhibits, O’Brien and the staff work in concert with the board of trustees and the board of directors. A nonvoting advisory body, the directors comprise John Bluford, Bill Gautreaux, Tom Holcom and Lindsay Major.
“In the 2014-15 exhibition season there will be three big special exhibitions,” Wolf said. “We take it a year at a time.”
Shows currently on the boards are this fall’s Hung Liu retrospective, organized by the Oakland Museum of California, and a January show of international contemporary art from the collection of Bill and Christy Gautreaux of Kansas City.
In May, the Kemper will show works by Brooklyn-based Adam Cvijanovic, a widely exhibited artist known for his site-specific photorealist installations, such as his 2012 “Natural History” exhibit reimagining vintage dioramas, exhibited at Postmasters gallery in New York.
“It’s important to be on the leading edge of contemporary practice,” O’Brien said. “People look to us to introduce newness. We often do the first museum show for emerging and midcareer artists.”
“Trends (we are looking at) include the re-emergence of painting as a primary form, and a re-engagement with notion of realism, as seen in Hope Gangloff’s ‘Vera,’” she said.
The museum purchased “Vera,” part of the museum’s recent “Dressed Up” exhibition, for the permanent collection.
O’Brien described the museum’s orientation as “artist-centric.”
“We brought in all four artists from the ‘Dressed Up’ show,” she said.
In recent years, the museum also has shown a much higher level of engagement with the Kansas City art community. Kemper curator Erin Dziedzic’s recent “Center is a Moving Target” exhibit featured Kansas City artists, and KC artist Jarrett Mellenbruch’s “Float” installation of eight hammocks can be seen on the main museum lawn.
“We always strive for a balance of international reach and getting inside the studios of Kansas City. The big goal right now is to define our spaces,” Wolf said.
Going forward, the emphasis at Kemper Crossroads will be more guerrilla, she said, and the Uhlmann Gallery in the main museum will focus on video, performance and time-based works.
“Smaller more intimate experiences are our specialty,” she said. “(We offer) solace and private time. What sets us apart is the ability to provide our audience with a sense of ownership of experience.”
Over the past 20 years, Crosby Kemper played an active role in museum acquisitions, including strong examples of color field painting by Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis and Dan Christensen.
There were bumps in the road: A set of “Canyon Suite” watercolors by Georgia O’Keeffe was later deemed to be fake. More recently the authenticity of a drawing by Richard Diebenkorn and a Franz Kline, both purchased from now-closed M. Knoedler Art Co. in New York, has been called into question, and the museum has placed the works in storage.
But Kemper gave the museum dozens of works, most of which have not been problematic.
“I feel this collection is very soulful,” Wolf said. “It speaks well of the understanding and passion for art my parents had.”
As for future acquisitions, “We’re interested in cutting edge and honoring how the collection began,” she said. “Thought-provoking is what we are after. We want to draw people in with beauty and formal rigor and let the meaning come in a slow burn. We don’t plan to be stagnant and academic. We want to stretch imaginations.”
“People feel respected by our collection,” she added. “They don’t feel talked down to or patronized.”
The collection got a significant boost from gifts in honor of the museum’s 20th anniversary. Many of them can be seen in the ongoing “Depth and Meaning: 20th Anniversary Gifts,” exhibition curated by Dziedzic.
The gifts include works from artists already in the museum’s collection, such as Barry Anderson and Wilbur Niewald, as well as from galleries the museum has worked with in the past.
“Every relationship is an opportunity,” Wolf said.
And that’s what Wolf and O’Brien hope to build on.
“We’re stable, but we need the community,” Wolf said. “We want people to take possession.”
Celebrating 20 years
“Roar,” the museum’s 20th anniversary gala with a noir speakeasy theme, will be 7 to 11 p.m. Oct. 11 at the museum, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Individual tickets cost $200 ($100 for participants 30 and younger), and include food and drink from the museum’s Cafe Sebastienne, performances and dancing. For tickets, call 816-753-5784 or go to KemperArt.org. A party is scheduled Sept. 18 at the home of Lina and Dan Dickinson for patrons contributing $1,000. Call Sara Hale, development coordinator, at 816-457-6102 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about becoming a patron.