When I was growing up, my father traveled throughout the week and came home on weekends. The last thing he wanted to do for summer vacation was pack up and leave again, so he would take a week off in the summer and stay home with us.
This, by the way, was a time long before Disney commandeered the definition of the American vacation. Many families in those days would pile kids into a station wagon and head to a national park or to visit relatives as my husband’s family did. But my parents were not campers and long car rides held no appeal for them whatsoever. So we stayed put and made the rounds of all of our city’s local attractions, like the zoo, the city museum, and the magnificent world-class art gallery, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
I might have complained that we went nowhere, but now I know we went everywhere. The Nelson at once feels to me like home and like it is all mine. This is the magic of well-designed public spaces: they can be shared by all and owned by each.
What I know about art I didn’t learn in a class. Oh sure, I once took an Art History class after college—not because I had to but because I wanted to— though it turned out to be a futile exercise in rote memorization, which proved just painful for me. Hundreds of slides clicked onto the screen in rapid-fire succession and I remember absolutely nothing of them today except the blur in which they sped past.
What has stayed with me is what I gleaned firsthand by frequenting the Nelson. The art gallery was always a second home for all of us. My siblings and I attended preschool there where we created our own art and later took numerous school field trips to learn through docent-led tours about the artists and their works of art.
And what I learned most was that I must go there. And, if I did, I would be generously rewarded each and every time. I would see something new or anew. Each visit, I charted a different path through space and time, literally and figuratively, whether I went with friends and family or alone. There was never any pressure to do or see anything in particular unless we were attending a special exhibit. I was free to see whatever I saw and connect or disconnect from pieces, engage and be transformed or just skim the surface of objects. And occasionally, I would bump into someone I knew, yet another source of pleasure, that of realizing that others shared my interest.
So it really was a summer vacation that never ended, one through which I could be transported instantly to worlds away from the heartland, to places I might only get to know through art. I actually worked there one summer as a guard back when they hired college kids from the art institute and conservatory nearby to staff the museum while the real guards took their vacations.
It was fascinating to see the gallery from the inside out. Since it opened at 10:00 AM and closed at 5:00 PM, this summer job offered an ideal schedule for a teenager. Even more amazing, they paid me to look at art all day! Yes, it was only minimum wage, but still—they paid me to look at art all day!!!
And look I did. I would eat my sack lunch on a stone bench in the large outdoor courtyard in the center of one wing of the museum and gaze straight up at the azure square formed by the four stone walls, imagining by the appearance of the cloudless sky, back-lit by the summer sun, and the intense mid-summer heat that I was in Persia. In the center hall, I swear I could hear the jousting of the faceless knights in gleaming armor, looming high above vistors from their perches atop regal horses on marble pedestals. I could walk by the floor-to-ceiling tapestries lining a dimly lit hallway and believe I was striding through a dark castle in another century.
Every way I turned something captured my eye: the statues of Greek mythological figures folded delicately into each other in pristine creamy marble, the brilliant lapis of Renaissance paintings, the saturated but subdued palette of Pre-Raphaelite masters, the impressive collection of Impressionists, a shadow box of dancing lobsters, or even the gigantic melon-colored vinyl light plate and switch suspended on a wall in the contemporary gallery that made you want to leap up and swing from it. A single piece in any room could be riveting enough to grab hold of you for days.
And this is how I found out that art could be ridiculously fun: An artist who created lifelike sculptures of humans had a couple of pieces on display in the contemporary gallery. One was of a man with longish hair sitting on a museum bench, leaning forward. People would circle this piece desperately trying to tell if this was a human being or a statue.
But the real fun came because this artist had produced a sculpture of one of the older, longtime museum guards who was well liked by the staff. It could not have been a more lifelike capture of Roy. And when Roy worked the contemporary gallery, well, you can imagine how startled people were. And Roy had a good enough sense of humor to stand perfectly still in the pose of the statue, his hands clasped in front of him, letting people get really close in their attempts to determine if he was alive. Before he moved.
Art, I learned even later, could also be controversial. The giant shuttlecocks were positively scandalous when they were first dropped on the expansive lawns, moving the gallery from the staid look of a grand estate to that of a stately museum with a quirky sense of whimsy. If those shuttlecocks didn’t make you curious about what the heck was inside this building, I don’t know what would. The city eventually warmed to them and now they seem almost a city mascot of sorts.
If you ever find yourself at the Nelson, the shuttlecocks will beg you to walk toward them, to touch them, to prance under them, or dance among them. Go with children and they will want to play in them in precisely the same way we wanted to clamber up the statue of The Thinker, the only sculpture that sat out front when I was a child. In the mid-1960s, my impish cousin from Texas posed in imitation in front of it with his hand tucked under his chin and his elbow on his knee.
The shuttlecocks help define the Nelson and the city as places where past meets present on a daily basis and the conventional coexists comfortably with the creatively controversial. The Nelson is also where east meets west domestically since it points up that culture can indeed be found west of the Mississippi, but it is also where east meets west globally since it boasts one of the finest and most extensive collections of Asian art in the world. Yes, the world without hyperbole. Midwesterners can be remarkably resilient on most matters, and that surprisingly includes their perceptions of art.
The new building attached to the old invites you into the museum’s collection in a completely different way. It’s boldly contemporary and light and stands not just in visual contrast to the original museum but also in the way you move and are moved throughout it.
Like the shuttlecocks, everyone had an opinion about the new building as it was constructed, mostly that the director was just plain crazy. And, like the shuttlecocks, once this building landed on the east lawn, it was impossible not to be drawn to it and into it. And once again the director’s seeming craziness proved to be prescient genius and intelligent vision instead.
When they were young, my children took art classes in the same rooms where I created my masterpieces and sat at the same tables on the same primary-colored stools. Their art hung in the hall just as mine did. There is something powerful about having your art on display in a real museum even when you are only five years old. While I waited for them, I would sit in the restaurant in the courtyard, now enclosed, and read and write and sip coffee. I would take in a few rooms before picking them up at their classroom. It was the most amazing alone time I’ve ever treated myself to.
The gallery has offered other opportunities in addition to its collection proper. I attended films there on Sunday afternoons when I was in high school and once drove two hours from college on a weeknight with a dear friend to see our favorite movie Rebecca. I had an opportunity to enjoy the marvelous acoustics in the auditorium a couple of times when I sang there with choral groups.
I’ve taken my daughter’s Girl Scout troop there several times, for an official tour and to earn an architecture badge where we learned about the arrangement of space and what buildings can tell us about who we are.
As an adult, I also learned what this place meant to my father, a child of the Depression. The gallery was just south of the area where he grew up. He spent hours there as a child when it was fairly new because it was free, he could walk to it, and it offered him an escape from the difficulties of his young life with an alcoholic father. He found himself transfixed by displays of intricate drawings which sufficiently inspired his imagination to forge its own designs of complex machines based on simple design principles.
My siblings and I all became idea people one way or another, my father’s true legacy. We pursued radically different professions, but each of us landed in positions that called on our creativity to fuel our work, creativity rooted in hours spent devouring and considering all kinds of art from all times and all cultures, causing synapses to fire in all directions and illuminate new neural pathways, leading us to who we are now.
John Updike wrote of the lure of museums in his short story, “Museums and Women:”
“What we seek in museums is the opposite of what we seek in churches—the consoling sense of previous visitation. In museums, rather, we seek the untouched, the never-before-discovered; and it is their final unsearchability that leads us to hope, and return.”
For all the consoling sense of previous visitation that the Nelson has offered me, I always go knowing that I might be changed. That some new image might come into focus, that a new idea is bound to emerge, that a new thought will bubble up even when I’m looking at an art object for the hundreth time.
And if you don’t happen to bump into to someone you know while you’re there, you’re likely to find at least a few old friends from the past. Just go.