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May 2006
Volume 1, Number 5

Art at the Heart of Overland Park

Julie Haas

Whether they inspire contemplative reflection or provoke searing social comment, the arts are opportunities for growth. A painting, a dance, a musical passage reveal something about ourselves, our community, and our world that we didn’t know before. Not just beautiful or provocative, the arts are, at heart, educational.

Part of the mission of Johnson County Community College (JCCC), located in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, has been to develop an arts education program that fosters an understanding of the arts’ essential role in realizing core values in education and in life. Indeed, studies such as Harvard University’s Project Zero show that arts education boosts academic achievement in all students.

But the arts aren’t only inspirational and educational. They are also economic engines, helping to pump dollars into the local economy through jobs, tourism, and ancillary spending. Furthermore, a strong arts community attracts both the business and industry an area needs and the skilled workforce upon which those businesses depend. According to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, the arts create environments that attract and sustain a talented workforce.

HallwayRecognizing the important role that JCCC could play in cultivating an awareness and appreciation of the visual arts, in 1980, the college’s board of trustees approved a yearly art acquisition program. A guiding principle for the acquisitions was that the works be installed in a variety of locations throughout the campus. Accessibility and visibility were deemed vital to ensuring that art would be readily available to students and the community. Ultimately, the trustees thought, a permanent collection best enables students to directly engage with art on a daily basis. For many students, the works of art they encounter on college campuses are their first exposure to the richness and diversity of artistic expression.

Since then, JCCC has been collecting contemporary art from around the world, each year adding new pieces to the collection. Today, the work of almost 500 local, regional, national, and international artists is represented in JCCC’s prestigious collection, which features a diverse range of painting, photography, clay, sculpture, and works on paper. The college’s collection is installed in focus areas in the corridors, dining halls, and other highly visible and accessible locations around campus, sparking a spontaneous engagement with art for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. JCCC’s permanent collection includes works by artists such as Dana Schutz, Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Murray, Do-Ho Suh, and Kerry James Marshall.

Faculty and staff find it rewarding to observe students as they suddenly discover themselves amid major works of art, simply by walking to class or lunch. Faculty assign students to write visual analysis papers and contemplate the role of contemporary art in our society, increasing global awareness and visual literacy. For example, several drawing instructors assign students to choose three works that are representational, nonrepresentational abstraction, and representational abstraction and write a critical analysis supporting their interpretive arguments with visual and biographical information. Photography instructors view the works in the focus areas with their classes and assign students to write papers on a work of their choice, discussing style and content. Other instructors have students write reviews of exhibitions; some professors in English, history, humanities, art history, and psychology have their students write critical responses to objects on view. Also available is a research guide for contemporary art, so students and visitors can learn more about the artists whose works are on view.

In 1990, JCCC opened a Gallery of Art in its new Cultural Education Center, renamed the Carlsen Center in 1998 for the college president, Charles J. Carlsen. In its 3,000 square feet of exhibition space, JCCC’s Gallery of Art offers many of the region’s most important exhibitions focusing on contemporary art. Drawn from museums, galleries, studios, and private collections throughout the country, five annual exhibitions feature a broad spectrum of artistic expression and endeavor. More than 80 major exhibitions have been held in the Gallery of Art since it opened, including Contemplating War, with works by Do-Ho Suh, Melanie Baker, Dominic McGill, and Jesse Small, and shows devoted to the works of Dana Schutz, Jennifer Steinkamp, Josiah McElheny, Lynn Davis, and Kerry James Marshall, among many others.

More than 200,000 people a year enjoy the JCCC collection in a way that encourages them to experience art as an integral part of their everyday lives.

Now, JCCC is preparing to enhance its reputation as one of the cultural destinations of the region through construction of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, which will be the only contemporary art museum in Kansas. The museum is named for Jerome and Margaret Nerman and their son, Lewis, who are among the region’s most prominent collectors of contemporary art. Construction of the new museum began early in 2005, with completion anticipated in spring 2007.

The approximately 38,000-square-foot Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art will have a range of exhibition spaces, including galleries for temporary exhibitions, the college’s permanent collection, and the works of Kansas City-based artists.

The museum will also house the Oppenheimer Collection, composed of works by nationally and internationally recognized contemporary artists. Additional works from the collection are installed on the JCCC campus. The collection is funded by Tony and Marti Oppenheimer, Kansas City philanthropists, and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation. A new media gallery in the museum will also be named for the Oppenheimers. The museum will house an auditorium, classrooms, and a café as well.

In addition to exhibiting major works of art, an important component of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art will be an arts education program for area school children and adults. Possibilities include artists in residence, outreach programs to area schools, Saturday and summer classes for children and adults, tours of the museum and campus collections, and family events and programs. The intention is for the museum to become an accessible educational resource whereby patrons can understand what they see, make connections with the artist, and consider art in different ways and from other people’s perspectives. Programs will open social issues for discussion and offer creative expression, aesthetic pleasure, and social interaction as part of the visitor’s experience.

In addition, a new docent program has now been organized, so that these volunteers will be ready when the Nerman Museum opens. The volunteer guides will lead interactive tours, helping visitors appreciate and understand contemporary art in special exhibitions and the permanent collection. In addition to strengthening the museum’s connection with JCCC faculty and students, the docent program will help gallery staff serve high school, middle school, and elementary school children and welcome the general public to the museum.

Dining roomEstablished in 1991 as a gallery membership organization, the JCCC Gallery Associates, soon to be the Museum Associates, are integral to the success of the gallery through their support of exhibitions, acquisitions, and related programming. Gallery Associates events, such as the biannual Beyond Bounds fundraiser, have gained national recognition and participation.

Each Beyond Bounds event offers a challenge for artists and one-of-a-kind art purchases for patrons. There have been seven Beyond Bounds, for which more than 130 local, national, and international artists have transformed silk scarves, wooden boxes, wooden frames, shikishi (Japanese rice paper), vinyl LPs, 22-gauge sterling silver, and squares of 24-carat gold leaf into original works of art. The artwork is then sold at live and silent auction.

Proceeds from Beyond Bounds support gallery exhibitions, opening artists’ lectures, general operations, and the expansion of programs for the Nerman Museum. More than 600 people attend the auction, which has raised more than $414,000 for the gallery. Besides fundraising, one of the main goals of Beyond Bounds is to encourage new collectors of contemporary art, who can acquire works by national artists at affordable prices.

Johnson County Community College’s Gallery of Art and the much-anticipated Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art provide cultural inspiration, educational insight, and economic stimulus to Overland Park. Whether a student or visitor is 18 or 80, JCCC offers immediate access to important art, encouraging creativity, intellectual curiosity, diversity, and support of the arts by living with art.

Julie Haas is Director of College Information and Publications at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor