The Art of Our Time

Creating a cultural and civic dialogue around contemporary art, an interview with Barbara O’Brien

Barbara O’Brien first joined the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009 as a curator; in June 2012, she was named executive director. Since then the museum has gone through a milestone anniversary and turned an eye toward education and civic involvement. Kansas City Spaces recently caught up with O’Brien to discuss the museum’s future, education programs and role as a partner in the community.

Kansas City Spaces: The museum recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary. Milestones are always a good opportunity to reflect on the past and look toward the future. What do you see as the museum’s biggest accomplishment in the past 20 years?

Barbara O’Brien: By being the first public institution to focus primarily on modern and contemporary art, I would say that the Kemper Museum really opened a dialogue for the art of our time in Kansas City. And I think that dialogue has spread to the performing arts and the visual arts, to the campuses of the region, including the Kansas City Art Institute, UMKC and even the University of Kansas.

KCS: Looking toward the future, what do you envision for Kemper?

BOB: We have just transitioned through both a 20th anniversary and the loss of our founder, Crosby Kemper, in January 2014. His daughter, Mary Kemper Wolf, has come into her own as a visionary leader of the board of trustees. As we move toward the future, the executive staff of the museum is working closely with the board of trustees to initiate a strategic plan for the institution to dialogue more with the Kansas City community and to think about where we go as a cultural and civic partner.

As a scholar and advocate for the arts, my passion is shining a light on the opportunity for the museum to provide meaningful art education to the youth of Kansas City. In 2014 we started No Boundaries, a truly innovative museum program for teenagers who are 13- to 15-years-old, from private, public, charter and home schools on both sides of the state line. We took 21 teens through an 8-week artist-mentor program at our campus in the Crossroads. For the mentors, I wanted artists who had come to Kansas City from somewhere else and had chosen to make Kansas City their home. I wanted those 21 students to recognize that Kansas City is a vibrant community that they can choose to make their home. That you don’t have to go to either coasts or Minneapolis or Dallas, but that Kansas City is a place of meaning for artists. We are really proud of No Boundaries. In terms of being a civic and cultural partner, museums must find ways to educate and support the growth of the youth of Kansas City.

No Boundaries is also our first dual-language exhibition. If you visit the exhibition at Kemper at the Crossroads, you will see that all labels and descriptions are in both English and Spanish. It’s my goal to make the Crossroads campus a fully dual-language campus. This is a really important initiative for us; 25 percent of students in public schools speak Spanish at home. We need to reach them and their families. We’ve always been a strong cultural partner, but what we’re doing now is becoming a stronger civic partner. We are building bridges to a wider community and using Kemper at the Crossroads as a springboard.

KCS: You’ve worked in places like San Francisco and Boston. What is it you love about the arts scene in Kansas City?

BOB: Access, access, access. We have affordable, available, world-class art on every platform: performing arts, music, theater, visual arts. The Nelson and the Kemper are free. The Nerman is free. Kansas City is breaking down the barriers to experiencing art, and that will help create the next generation of art lovers and supporters.

There is also a very collegial attitude among arts professionals in Kansas City. It’s very cooperative, I feel, where the cultural leaders of Kansas City know each other. I was at Classic Cup having breakfast recently, and Sly James came by my table and said, “Hi, Barb.” The fact that the mayor knows and appreciates the cultural leaders is such a boost.