A few years ago, a fellow named Rocco Landesman, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, came to town and shamed the attendees at a Downtown Council luncheon.
Kansas City, you see, did not have “a dedicated office in City Hall to facilitate arts growth.” Quel embarrass!
Forgive me up front for being unimpressed by Rocco Landesman. In a manner of speaking, our paths have crossed. In 2009, when I was doing my research on the authorship of Barack Obama’s books, Landesman weighed in heavily on the subject.
Landesman told a conference of grant writers—a disturbing concept in itself—“This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.”
Almost everything Landesman said was wrong. Wilson, Hoover, and Nixon wrote their own books. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage”—true, he no more wrote it than Obama wrote his, but Landesman would be the last to admit either. Finally, and indisputably, Abraham Lincoln never wrote a book. And this is the guy who is shaming us?
Apparently so. In response to Landesman’s appeal, the newly formed Mayor’s Task Force for the Arts is now kicking off a campaign called “Envision Arts & Culture KC.” As The Star reports, the “task force” will host a total of 25 “brainstorming sessions,” organize the results of those sessions, and present the findings in a report to the City Council.
When it comes to creating anything artistic anywhere, am I the only who finds words like “brainstorming” and “task force”—not to mention the number 25—just a little bit scary? “OK, Leonardo, the Florence task force has had 25 brainstorming sessions, and the consensus is that, if the lady’s is going to smile, we should at least see some teeth.”
Let’s bring the hypothetical closer to home. The year is 2014. A flood of Biblical proportions has inundated Kansas City. The Mayor’s Task Force recalls that in 1951, after similar floods, Hallmark founder Joyce Hall commissioned famed artist Norman Rockwell to create a painting that would remind the world that Kansas City is ever resilient and ready to do business.
“This is a story of a big man rolling up his sleeves and going to work—without whimpering and crying,” Hall told Rockwell in 1951. Rockwell returned some months later with a heroic representation of Hall’s vision, the instantly iconic “Kansas City Spirit.”
In 2014, although they hope to renew that spirit, the members of our task force shudder when they review Rockwell’s painting. Says one, “That image is just so non-inclusive.” Says another, “That plane over the guy’s shoulder shouts ‘carbon footprint.’” Says a third, “I weep when I think of that over-fed steer being led to slaughter.”
The task force convenes 25 brainstorming sessions—a “festival of ideas,” says the city’s public arts administrator—and three years later it presents its “findings” to the City Council.
After much debate, the task force has settled upon a multi-media presentation in which young people of all races, genders, and dietary preferences scold their parents for the environmental recklessness that led to the flood. The City Council loves the concept, but each member wants to tweak the idea to make it better. Three years later, they are still tweaking, and the taxpayer is still picking up the tab.
If this sounds a wee bit hyperbolic, consider the fate of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins. As the building was going up, impromptu task forces were not at all shy about sharing the storms emanating from their brains.
Wrote one typical reviewer, “What I had taken for an ugly old shipping container was actually the building closest to completion!” The “shipping container” dig was just a fresh variation on an already tired line of insults along an oddly agro-industrial theme. The folks at the Nelson had heard them all: “Butler building,” “corn crib,” “agricultural storage building.”
Having put up his own cash for the project, philanthropist Henry Bloch was free to ignore the caterwaulers and “envision arts and culture” as he saw fit. “There were some people who thought, ‘How could Henry fall for this?’” son Tom Bloch would later relate, “has he lost his mind to fall for a project so horrible?”
No, he had not, and fortunately he did not have a task force to report to. If he had, the City Council would still be haggling over building plans and the “Architectural Marvel” of the year 2007, as Time magazine called it, would never have been built.
Among the more immediate questions for the Mayor’s Task Force is whether to beef up the Municipal Art Commission. This is the first I had heard of the commission, but apparently its eleven members approve any new artwork on city property.
Given that all new municipal buildings must dedicate 1 percent of their construction budget to art, the commissioners have reviewed dozens of projects since the program went into effect in 1986. I am sure all the chosen projects are beautiful, but I am at a loss to recall any one of them. That is what committees do to art—render it unmemorable.
As Robert Trussell accurately observes in his Kansas City Star article on the Mayor’s Task Force, “much of the dramatic growth in the arts has occurred without much direct involvement by City Hall.” In recent memory, the city’s most notable contribution to the arts is the Kauffman Center’s parking garage, the kind of project that does not tax the city’s skill set.
When it comes to the creation of art itself, and the spending of taxpayer dollars on the same, I can make my recommendation to the Mayor and his task force in a word: DON’T!
Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.