Episode 1: Something’s in the Air
(Distant chanting, “Too many! How many lives? Too many!”)
Glenn North: May 30, 2020. Kansas City. My hometown.
(Music fades up, a little introspective and a little mournful. Chanting continues, “Everybody, we don’t need spectators, we need y’all to join or leave.”)
“Everybody, we don’t need spectators, we need y’all to join or leave.” Those are powerful words. Said through a bullhorn at a Black Lives Matter march that went right by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
(Chanting and music continue under narration.)
My name is Glenn North. I’m a poet, a spoken word artist, and maybe most importantly, a Black man. Born and raised in this place. There’s America to the east. America to the west. And here we are, smack dab in the middle. A racially divided city at the crossroads of a racially divided country. The way I see it, you can’t talk about anything in our country—museums, barbecue, football, whatever—without talking about race. Even choosing not to talk about it, you’re talking about it.
So, I get what that guy meant. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, in the middle of trying to make change, anybody standing on the sidelines is not helping. Spectating is not doing the work.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially because I do a lot of work in museums. When you go to a museum, spectating is the main activity, right?
(Echoes of people talking and moving in a museum gallery fade in.)
You look around. You find something that catches your eye. You look deeper. There’s a lot of power in that act.
One of the most important things a poet like me does is look, observe, and pick up on details other people might not see.
A lot of people are having conversations right now about how to be more than a spectator. The Nelson-Atkins is trying to do that work, too. As a museum, as a symbol of Kansas City, they’re taking a long, hard look at themselves.
(Theme music by The Black Creatures comes in with high vocals at a strict and even rhythm, and a piano and sax swing dancing over the top.)
So, this is the part where I say, “Welcome to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.” I have the honor of being your host, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Feeling welcome is a complicated subject. More on that later. I personally have a somewhat complicated backstory with the Nelson-Atkins, but for now let me just say that this podcast is one part of an overall effort to confront the past and chart a course for the future.
Now, do I believe a podcast will, as one of my colleagues put it, “fix racism”? No, I don’t. What I hope is that this podcast, however flawed it may be, will be a step in the right direction. I can’t think of a better place to have this conversation than a nationally recognized museum in the middle of the United States, in the middle of my hometown.
So we’re gonna talk to a lot of people in the community over the course of this podcast. ‘Cause sometimes to really see ourselves, we have to start with what others see.
(Theme music fades out and a dramatic musical flourish comes in.)
Old-timey Announcer Voice: Kansas City. Into this crossroads metropolis flows the wealth of the Great Plains. At harvest time, wheat sweeps into the mills like a golden avalanche. Into the pens of the famed Kansas City stockyards comes a steady stream of bawling beef. Better than half a billion dollars worth each year.
Glenn North: So just in case you’re confused about this, let me clear something up. We are not in Kansas. We are in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s amazing to me how many people get that wrong. Alotta people think this is a cow town, you know, a fly-over state. Like that announcer said, wheat fields and corn. And oddly enough, alotta folks have no idea that Black people live here.
(Bebop jazz keys fade up with retro static.)
This cracks me up. A lotta Black folks live here, people. I mean, we are the birthplace of Negro League Baseball.
My city is pretty cool. We are synonymous with jazz. We have two champion sports teams—the Royals and the Chiefs. We have beautiful neighborhoods and amazing architecture and so many public fountains, the only other place that rivals us is Rome. And without question, we have the best barbecue in the entire world. And if that isn’t enough, we have a world-class art museum. The Nelson-Atkins. Most of us call it the Nelson for short.
Rachel Nicholson: Whenever I tell people in Kansas City that I work at the Nelson, I feel a little bit like a celebrity. Most people I speak to in Kansas City have some memory or some story of the Nelson-Atkins.
Chiluba Musonda: It is the one place that brings the world to us as residents in Kansas City.
Muenfua Lewis: It’s a place where people in the community come to congregate, and I love that about it.
Chiluba Musonda: Perfectly lit, beautiful trees, people playing frisbee.
Visitor on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins: (birds chirping, wind swirling) It’s like a little kind of quiet, peaceful oasis, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the super busy part of the city.
Vi Tran: I love the sacred space inside and being contemplative about the paintings and the sculptures.
Lucky Garcia: I love the festivals. I just love the outdoor space there, I always have, because it extends the museum, you know. I don’t feel like I’m just, you know, looking at art on the walls, it’s something that’s interactive and there for people who live in the city.
Erik Stafford: There’s so much culture. And it’s free!
Glenn North: A lot of people ask me how we got the name the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. To answer that, we’ve got to go back in time to the late 1800s, when Kansas City was just getting established. I brought in a special guest to help, the director of the museum, Julián Zugazagoitia.
(Bebop fades down and out.)
Julián Zugazagoitia: Let me first share a little bit about what I know about Mary Atkins. Mary Atkins was a schoolteacher who was from Kentucky and who came to Kansas City late in life to marry a real estate man, Mr. Atkins. She led a very modest and a very self-effacing life. She was known to not want to own a carriage but take public transportation or walk. So, in a way she was very reserved, perhaps even eccentric, could you say. Her husband dies early in their marriage, and she becomes the businessperson, inheriting the business, very modern in that sense. But the other thing she does to mourn the passing of her husband was to start traveling to Europe. And in those trips, that’s where she discovers art. It gave her a solace and a peace of mind. And she reflects a lot upon that and the great joy that these works of art bring to her and wants Kansas City to have a museum like that. So in her will, she gives her fortune that all of a sudden it’s a surprise to everyone that such a discreet lady would have amassed such a fortune, and bequested so that Kansas City can have a museum of art.
Glenn North: OK, so that’s the Atkins side of the equation. Now for Nelson.
Julián Zugazagoitia: William Rockhill Nelson was a baron, a titan of industry, of the newspaper. He was the publisher and the founder of the Kansas City Star. Very outspoken, very controversial figure. And through the newspaper, he uses that platform to incentivize people to make Kansas City nicer and better. There’s one quote saying that when he arrived, there was no paved streets downtown. So he says that he’s going to transform all that. He is like an entrepreneur and a very opinionated person, leading campaigns to beautify Kansas City.
Glenn North: We’ll get into how all that played out in episode two.
Julián Zugazagoitia: During his travels to Europe, he would visit museums, discovered the beauty of art, and wanted that for Kansas City. So his dream was to create a great museum. And in his will, requests that all his fortune goes to the creation of a gallery of art.
Glenn North: So after a lot of wrangling between these two estates, Nelson’s money for art was combined with Atkins’s money for a museum—and that’s how you get the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Julián Zugazagoitia: What is fascinating is to see two people at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, were seeing a city transforming itself, and dreaming of a world-class museum, each in their own right. And then through their legacies, being the creators of a world-class museum today that neither of them got to see.
(Playful beat fades up.)
Vi Tran: I think of it almost like the Nelson and I, we, we love each other when we see each other, you know, like if we run into each other at Harry’s Bar and Tables, we’ll buy each other a drink, you know, and we’ll have a good conversation.
Angel Tucker: I go to the Nelson every single week. I walk there either with my husband or my children or my friends. The idea of walking up and up the hill of the lovely pathways, past the glass house, past the tree, up the main building steps to sit down and to look out on our city. To me, the Nelson is like, I feel like it’s at the heart of the city for me.
(The playful beat is now in conversation with more sustained notes gliding between pitches.)
Glenn North: I’ve sat on those same steps just like that, thinking about the poems I want to write. And over the years I’ve wandered around inside the museum, too, looking for inspiration. I remember vividly the day I ran into this one painting, Lynch Family by Joseph Hirsch. It stopped me in my tracks. You see this grief-stricken Black woman holding her infant son in one hand and hiding her face with the other. It’s like she’s holding back the tears and trying to muster up the strength to keep going after her husband has been lynched. I spent hours looking at it. I came back over and over. And I began thinking about what we don’t see in that painting. A crowd of white spectators gathering around to celebrate a man’s murder.
(A slow, driving groove by Eclipse fades up. Keys swing like a breeze, a low bass paces up and down, drums and cymbals keep us moving forward with light taps.)
And this poem just spilled out onto a page of my journal. It’s called “Lynch Family Blues.”
Went out swingin last night, Baby
hope you didn’t wait up for me.
Said I was swingin all night, Baby
did you stay up late for me?
I wasn’t swingin in no joint, Darlin
I was out on the limb of a tree.
Now I’m walkin on air, Baby
feels almost like I’m free.
My feet steady kickin the wind
yeah, I’m close to bein free.
And for the first time in my life, Baby
white folks is lookin up to me.
Hear me, son, your daddy loves you
keep hangin on to hope.
You the man of the house now
gotta help ya mama cope.
Daddy won’t be comin home no more
cause I reached the end of my rope.
Many years after I wrote that, the Nelson asked me if they could hang my poem next to the painting. Like one of those official art labels you always see. So if you ever decide to visit Kansas City, you can see the humble work of this Black poet hanging right there on the walls of one of America’s finest museums.
(Eclipse groove fades out.)
Glenn North: So I was truly honored that the Nelson-Atkins asked me to post my poem on their walls. And you can bet, anyone that comes to visit me here, I take them to see that painting. But my first invitation to work with them? Well, let’s just say, it was not such a pretty picture.
(Music comes in, building tension and some apprehension.)
In the fall of 2008, I got a call from the Nelson-Atkins’s Adult Programs Specialist asking me if I’d be interested in facilitating a poetry workshop in the galleries. Sounded like a cool gig, so I said yes.
Well, a few weeks later, she called me back. She told me that some of the folks at the Nelson had some concerns. Concerns about my professional background and what the content of my workshop might be. She was obviously embarrassed. She asked me if I would do a presentation in front of some sort of advisory committee to address this. Now, at this point in my career, I had facilitated hundreds of poetry workshops, and no one had ever challenged me in terms of, like, “What are your credentials?” or “What is it exactly that you’ll be doing?” And I am gonna be honest with you, the question in my head was, “Is this because I’m Black?”
I don’t remember who those people on that committee were, exactly, but thinking back on how it all went down still makes me mad. I stood there in front of a table of skeptical faces. They asked me questions like “Where did you say you went to school?” “How long have you been doing this?” It was like some sort of hostile press conference. Maybe they meant well, but there was just this condescending tone. You know that term gatekeepers? They were gatekeepers.
Now, let me just say, when you are Black you develop a sixth sense. It’s a sort of intuition that we have that’s like a survival mechanism. So they’re looking at me, and I am talking, and my sixth sense is telling me loud and clear that the answer to my internal question “Is this because I’m Black?” was a definite resounding yes. No one ever said anything, of course, but you know it when something’s in the air.
I don’t know what those people saw when they looked at me or what they thought they were gonna see. But by the time that uncomfortable meeting was over, they decided I passed muster, I guess. And I remember walking out of there feeling like, I’m going to show them. And that’s exactly what I did. The workshop was a huge success. Then I got hired to do more workshops at the museum, and then performances, and then later I was asked to be on an advisory panel. And almost fourteen years later, when I look around, I don’t see any of the folks that were on that committee anymore.
But I’m here. With my poem hanging on that wall.
(Music transitions to a long, confident tone. Theme music fades up.)
Thanks for listening to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Next episode we’re gonna look at where the museum sits in the layout of Kansas City. You can bet it’s a nice neighborhood. Looks a lot different than where I grew up. Come along with me to see how that came to be.
This episode was co-written and produced by me and Christine Murray, with editing and sound design by Brandi Howell. The voices you heard today belonged to Black Lives Matter organizers on the streets of Kansas City, visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum on a sunny afternoon, and Julián Zugazagoitia. Interview recording by Tim Harte and studio engineering by Simpson Sound Lab. Fact checking by Kate Carpenter. Our theme music is by The Black Creatures. Additional music by Eclipse. Our cover art is by Two Tone Press. If you liked this episode, please leave us a review. It’ll help other people find us.
This five-episode podcast is produced with generous support from Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the John W. and Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust.
See you next time.
(Theme music fades out.)