Kansas City has had a strong base of contemporary art collectors for 50 years. Some of the credit goes to Ralph T. Coe, who became the curator of contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1959, and assembled one of the first American museum exhibitions of Pop Art in the early 1960s. He also championed the contemporary art galleries that opened in the ’70s, and encouraged donations of then controversial, now invaluable, artworks by de Kooning, Hartigan, Kline, and purchases of Rothko, Lichtenstein and Olitski to the museum. The presence of the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), founded in 1885 and one of the few remaining independent art schools in the country, has always been a stimulus for the provocative and the new.
Besides an active gallery scene, there are now two contemporary art museums in Kansas City-the Kemper Museum and the Nerman Museum-and major not-for-profits such as KCAI’s H & R Block Artspace, various exhibition spaces operated by the Charlotte Street Foundation, and the Belger Art Center venues. The strength of the city’s art scene is also propelled by a handful of serious collectors who not only acquire art, but are also activist-oriented. They are not interested in trophy hunting. Their collections are deeply personal, and they are keen on tilting the playing field to a more interesting and equable place.
Dick and Evelyn Belger are the art power couple of Kansas City. Dick Belger was CEO of Belger Cartage Services until this March, when Evelyn became CEO of the privately owned transportation company. Dick Belger founded the Belger Arts Center in 2000 in a great old warehouse building that still functions as the company headquarters. Belger’s offices are on the second floor, which also houses the print collections of Jasper Johns and Terry Winters, one of Robert Arneson’s full-size ceramic generals, a world-class group of Tiffany glass, and dozens of other artworks. Two gallery spaces are on the third floor, and the ground space has rotating examples of contemporary ceramics. Before marrying Dick in 2009, Evelyn Craft Belger was the director of the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. After moving to Kansas City, she transformed another Belger warehouse building into a major exhibition space, now called the Belger Crane Yard Studios, which is also home for the Lawrence Lithography Workshop and Red Star Studios, one of the premier ceramic residencies in the States. Evelyn Belger is director of all the Belger art spaces. The Belgers also live in the Crane Yard building, with a collection of modernist furniture, pottery and artworks.
Dick Belger began collecting military memorabilia while in grade school, and then began acquiring cars. He bought his first Tiffany lamp at 15 with his own money. In the ’70s he began acquiring photorealist paintings, while also focusing on a core group of artists: Terry Allen, William Christenberry, Jasper Johns, Robert Stackhouse, Renee Stout, William T. Wiley, and Terry Winters. As always, Belger collected in depth: he bought from 100 and often over 200 pieces by each of these artists in various media.
“I like to see how an artist processes changes in his or her life by repeating themes, touching the familiar before breaking through to something new… I believe that what you can learn from art can change lives and influence change,” Belger says. A number of these artworks now form the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation, named after Dick’s late parents, and are regularly exhibited throughout the country.
“We also have ‘units’ of other artists’ work that include 7 to 25 pieces each,” Evelyn adds. “Some of these artists include Robert Rauschenberg, Viola Frey, Wendell Castle, Don Reitz, and Akio Takamori. Additionally, we have what Dick calls my ‘encouragement’ collection of work by student and emerging artists… When I moved to Kansas City, Dick and I talked about how to add a studio and a hands-on component to what the Belger Arts Center was already doing. So, Belger Craneyard Studios was born…” It includes studio space for community and professional artists, a dynamic, juried artist-in-residence program, exhibition space, a metal studio, as well as a clay supply business.
Kansas City has long had a reputation as one of the top cities in the country for contemporary ceramics, and the Belger Craneyard has helped solidify that position. In 2016, the Belgers received the regional award of excellence from NCECA (the National Council for Education of the Ceramic Arts), but they are also major philanthropists for all the arts in Kansas City. “Dick talks about how graduates from KCAI used to leave Kansas City immediately for other cities after graduation. Now more stay or move back-not because of us, but because there is a community of people like us, who show support and encourage the creative process in our own backyard,” Evelyn notes. Another collector who began accumulating art at a tender age is Bruce Hartman. “My vocation is also my avocation,” Hartman says. “I live a life immersed in art; it’s my identity.”
Hartman wears several artfully placed hats. As director of the 10-year-old Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution he helped create on the campus of Johnson County Community College just outside Kansas City, he curates all the museum exhibitions. He has also amassed 400 paintings, sculpture, photography, ceramics, new media, and contemporary American Indian artworks that are placed both outside and throughout JCCC’s campus. Besides such well-known artists as Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, and Dana Schutz, the JCCC collection includes work by emerging and local artists, 40% of whom are female. In 2012, Public Art Review Magazine named the Nerman as one of the top 10 university/college campuses in the country for art in America.
While Hartman’s personal collection includes contemporary art, he is best known for his assortment of historic American Indian basketry. He was featured on the cover of ArtNews 20 years ago for these works, many of which he has frequently loaned and donated to museums. What is less recognized is his extraordinary collection of mid-century American Indian works on paper and a growing collection of Zuni jewelry.
Growing up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Hartman’s earliest memories are of going arrowhead hunting with his father. “Both my parents were obsessed with traditional American Indian art,” he recalls. “We went to Indian market every year, and the intertribal ceremonies at Gallup. In the 1970s my father bought a major basket collection and added to it.” At age 14, Hartman says, “I bought my first Native American Indian contemporary painting for $500.” In 1977 Ralph Coe, then Director of the Nelson Museum, curated “Sacred Circles,” the renowned, traveling exhibit of historic American Indian art that was the first comprehensive show of its kind.
“‘Sacred Circles’ had a big effect on me; I made dozens of trips to see it… Now,” Hartman says, “I buy these amazing works on paper all over the US and at auctions. This kind of art is so underappreciated and undervalued; I’ve found pieces in the most abject places. I have everything conserved and special frames made for each work. Every time I do this I feel like I’ve saved a life, hopefully for posterity. I embrace the fact that I’m only a caretaker, and that these works will have a life beyond mine.”
When “Piece by Piece: Building a Collection” opened last year at the Kemper Museum of Art, it was clear that Bill and Christy Gautreaux, the exhibition’s collectors, were committed to dealing with the issues of our time. The scale, visual punch, and edgy contents of the 30-plus pieces in the show gave clear evidence that the Gautreauxes are both confident and fearless in their selection process. Besides works by such internationally known artists as Vik Muniz, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, and Nick Cave, “Piece by Piece” included major works of art by Jamaican artist Ebony Patterson, New Delhi’s Vibha Galhotra, Nigerian Toyin Odutola, and a host of other politically inspired artists from around the globe.
In 2015, the Gautreauxes were named by ArtNews for the third year in a row as one of the top 200 collectors in America. “Piece by Piece” represented only a partial assortment of their acquisitions. They recently built an impressive contemporary home that is as much a work of sculpture as a house. As major philanthropists, as well as board members of the Nelson-Atkins and Kemper Museums, the Gautreauxes frequently offer their home for fundraising events. The entire bottom floor functions as a gallery space, with paintings, videos, sculpture, and photography that rotates regularly. Upstairs includes an installation by Maya Lin, paintings by Mitchiko Itatani, work by regional artists and others. Other artworks in the collection include paintings by such modern masters as Dan Christensen and contemporary videos by Michal Rovner and other young artists. Outside are large-scale sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard and Roxy Paine, with more sculpture on the way.
The Gautreauxes are their own curators. “Twenty years ago we bought our first piece of original art, a painting by the Belizean artist Walter Castillo. We get introduced to a lot of things by a lot of people, and I don’t mind getting advice. But when I see something I really like, I can’t walk away from it,” Bill Gautreaux says. “I’m the more addicted collector but Christy’s more and more involved. We hardly ever disagree, and a lot of time she makes a better choice than I do.”
Bill Gautreaux is the founder of a major energy firm. His BA is in history and philosophy from William Jewell College, a private, four-year liberal arts college near Kansas City. “I like the capitalist system,” Gautreaux says, “but I recognize that there are a lot of holes in this system. My liberal arts background did what college is supposed to do: it left me with a lifelong quest to understand the world around me,” he adds. “I look at our collection as a living history; my way to understand the world. The people who were my mentors taught me that the more you put into contributing and helping others, the more you get back. And you can never give as much as has been given you.”