It didn’t take Tony Jones long to figure out a distinct problem facing the Kansas City Art Institute, which he had been recruited to lead last winter as interim president.
Its 16-acre campus took up a good swath of midtown, but most Kansas Citians had little idea what went on there. People driving by didn’t have a clue. Passersby couldn’t get a decent glimpse of Vanderslice Hall, one of the most historic mansions in the city.
The institution’s profile failed to register among the general public despite its rich history, the many global accomplishments of its faculty and alums and the fact that art institute teachers and graduates had essentially created on their own the sizzling downtown art scene that came to be known as the Crossroads Arts District.
But at 45th and Warwick, as the art institute marks its 130th year in existence, whether anyone knows it or not, artists make art and teachers guide students to learn the practice of very old technologies and up-to-the-minute ones.
The general perception of the school may be poised for change, given the announcement last week that it had received the largest single gift in its history: a $25 million anonymous donation made through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
It’s transformational, Jones says. The school “has a terrific reputation, but it’s hidden a little under a bushel here, within the city itself. So we’re going to do something about that.”
Jones was walking on proverbial air in the days before the announcement, but kept the news very close to the vest before springing it on faculty members, the full board and other stakeholders. The air in the room during a reception was certifiably electric, one professor told me later.
After a few years of campus turmoil, including a faculty rebellion over his predecessor, Jones arrived last December to fill a leadership vacuum. He promised to spend 18 months righting the ship and eventually writing a job description for someone else to take over by mid-2016 or so. He’d spent 18 years as president of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As a practicing artist he worked as a sculptor, and he tells a cautionary tale of the near-death experience he had 40-odd years ago inside a tall fiberglass piece he was fabricating. Overcome by gaseous fumes and essentially glued to the interior walls, Jones passed out and had to be extracted from the piece and hospitalized. After that he turned to painting and other pursuits.
With his shock of white hair and lilting British accent, Jones is also a historian of architecture and design, especially the transitional period between the Arts and Crafts movement and early modernism. Among his books is a study of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish designer of that time. Jones very much appreciates the potential of burnishing the look and feel of the campus, which he thinks of as a productive place within an arboretum. “Did you know there was once a Japanese garden on the grounds?” he likes to ask.
Vanderslice Hall was built in the 1890s by civic leader August Meyer, who, reflecting his German heritage, named the ornate brick edifice Marburg. The art institute moved there in 1928. The building is soon to receive some tender loving care, but beyond that, Jones wants to rebuild the school’s shabby entrance gates and remove some verdant clutter.
“What we need here is a Downton Abbey moment,” he says. “When you’re standing on Warwick or driving by, you need to be able to look up and say, oh my God, what is that? — and see this magnificent mansion here.”
Jones, the Art Institute board and the faculty are revving up the conversation to take the school into a newly invigorated future.
“We need a bit of noise up here on this hill,” Jones says. “We need some cranes. Somebody asked me the other day, do you like music? I said, yes, my favorite song is the song of the concrete mixer. I want us doing things.”
With an unexpected gift of $25 million, that seems rather possible.