Episode 4: Under Construction
(Optimistic and celebratory music that evokes the glam of a 1930s newsreel.)
Glenn North: The year is 1933. The Great Depression is in full swing. And the brand-new Nelson-Atkins building is ready to open. Invitations have been sent out around the country. Kansas City is breathless, on the verge of stepping onto the world stage. Journalists and art dealers and all kinds of bigwigs arrive for the event, including a local judge who would later become president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. Museum trustee J.C. Nichols makes a speech saying the Nelson is a place for all people, all creeds, all races. And then the doors open. Smiling supporters cross the threshold and walk onto freshly polished marble floors. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art officially exists.
(The music ends with a big flourish.)
I’ve always wanted to do that, be a radio announcer in one of those old-time newsreels. Back to being Glenn. I just wanted to give you a sense of that big opening and how much it mattered to Kansas City’s sense of self. Reading about it in the newspapers, it seems like that moment gave people a spark of hope in the middle of the Great Depression. People said things like, “I never could have imagined it.” For them, the museum was a glimpse into the future. It maybe even helped them believe that there would be an end to that terrible, dark time. To think a museum could do that, bring people together to heal a common wound.
(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.)
Welcome to A Frame of Mind. I’m your host Glenn North. This is episode four, “Under Construction.”
(Theme music fades out.)
Tara Laver: You can see, most of them are in overalls. Obviously they look like laborers.
Glenn North: I went back down to the basement archives to visit Tara Laver, the keeper of the Nelson’s historical records. I wanted to know more about the early makings of the museum and if there were any Black folks involved. She pulled out this huge black and white photo of a bunch of men standing shoulder to shoulder. Behind them, the museum is under construction, sort of a half-finished frame. There’s about 125 men in the picture and almost all of them are wearing overalls, sitting and standing four rows deep.
(Music plays underneath. It’s calm but searching, curious.)
Tara Laver: It’s labeled as the builders of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, dated February 3, 1931.
Glenn North: You know how in old photographs no one is ever smiling? That’s always puzzled me. This one is no different, it’s a lot of serious faces. Some of the guys have their arms draped over the shoulder of a friend. One guy has his shirt sleeve rolled up tight so you can see his muscles. Another guy with bushy eyebrows is holding a tool in front of him like a trophy. They’re all different ages. They have big hands and dirty boots, and there’s pride on every single face.
Tara Laver: One of the things that always strikes me when I look at this photograph is there’s a group of African American builders over here on the right, who are grouped together. And that begs the question of, why are they apart? Was that how the photo was arranged, was that they stood by people they knew? You know. But it is a stark—you know, you can’t look at the photograph and not notice.
Glenn North: So if this was one of those History Channel TV documentaries, we’d zoom in on some of those Black faces right now. I counted them—there’s 23 total. Here’s what I see: each one is strong and proud. And also there’s a heaviness to their gaze, like they are presenting their best selves. They are a lot less relaxed than the white guys. Most are looking straight at the camera. A few of them are wearing those newsboy caps that were big in the 1930s. One guy has his collar turned up, and I wonder if he did that to be fly or if it was just cold out that day.
There’s also another thought I have that’s painful when I look at that picture. I hate to say it, but I’m kinda surprised the Black guys were asked to be in it at all.
Tara Laver: We’ve contacted The Black Archives of Mid-America to see if they knew if there was a certain labor union that this might’ve been. We’ve reached out to one of the local unions, but we’ve not really been able to uncover much information.
(New music fades in, a little sharper, a little more pointed.)
Glenn North: This is what happens. It’s frustrating. We have their faces, but not their names. The museum’s reached out on social media and dug into libraries, but none of those workers have been identified. I want to know their stories. All of ‘em—Black and white. I wanna know about digging the foundation, and climbing up ladders, and laying down pipes. I wanna know about their friendships, and fights, and working in the cold, and which one of them secretly hid a matchbook between the bricks to say “I WAS HERE.” Did they count their lucky stars every night because they had a job when so many other people didn’t? Or was it just a grind? Did they go to the grand opening? Were they invited? Did they go inside and look at the art? You know, you always hear about the architects and the organizers and the donors who put up money for a museum. But the place wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for those laborers. You can’t separate their history from the building. Their sweat is inside of it. Their hands were in that dirt. I want to thank them for that. We should all thank them for that. So the next time you find yourself at the Nelson—or the first time, if you’re not from around here—do me a favor. Just reach out your hand out and touch a wall. And remember the guys who put it there.
(Music transitions to a dark, low sound by Eclipse. The bass compresses and pushes, the drums are almost one sustained, shimmery note, the keys make occasional electric jolts.)
I sing of Langston and Parker,
Ms. Bluford and Mary Lou. Old Buck, Leon Jordan,
Horace and Bruce.
Sara Recter, Junius Groves,
Tom Bass, and Anna Jones.
Count Basie, Chester Franklin,
Bernard Powell and D. A. Holmes.
There is a little brown girl in a classroom who has no idea how beautiful
her afro puffs
are, and she needs to know.
There is alittle brown boy
who doesn’t see himself
reflected in a biased curriculum
so he loses interest, gets labeled
as having a behavior disorder,
drops out, runs across the right cop
on the wrong day and becomes
a headline and a hashtag.
He needed to know.
There are white children
in schools all over America
being taught that the world
revolves around them.
Before they grow up
to believe that it does,
they need to know.
I know of a place
on the confluence
of jazz, blues, baseball,
home of countless
Black lives that certainly mattered.
I have no choice
but to sing their names.
(Eclipse music continues and fades out.)
Emanuel Cleaver II: I was in a conversation with a well-known corporate leader and I started talking about Charlie Parker and how we need to have monuments up to make sure that generations don’t forget. And he said, well, who’s Charlie Parker, did he play with the Monarchs?
Glenn North: This is Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II. You met him in episode two talking about Sunday drives. Some of this sounds weird because Zoom recordings aren’t great.
(A jazz bebop swings in.)
Emanuel Cleaver II: And I thought to myself, oh boy, you know, we’ve got a problem. This is not some ignorant guy. This is somebody who is brilliant. But he had no idea who Charlie Parker was. And I thought, it doesn’t matter what color you are. You’re in Kansas City, Missouri. And Charlie Parker is probably the best known African American over the years that this community has existed. I was in Tel-Aviv, Israel, on a bus with my wife going down the street and looked over on the side of the building, and there’s a huge painting on the wall of Charlie Parker. And I thought, we’ve got to preserve the history because people don’t realize that at one point Kansas City had exported the number one music and a number one dance in the world, the Kansas City swing. It had taken the country by storm. We had created our own music in Kansas City, the bebop sound. Count Basie was a Kansas Citian and Jay McShann, Big Joe Turner, Claude Fiddler Williams, Mary Lou Williams, I mean this place is rich.
Sonié Ruffin: I mean, we can talk about Black Lives Matter all day long, but do they? Real talk. Do they?
Glenn North: This is my good friend, Sonié Ruffin. She’s a textile artist and a major truthteller.
Sonié Ruffin: Our experiences have to be shared by us. The African American narrative has got to be shared by African Americans. It’s a necessity.
Glenn North: Sonié is getting at something that I’ve heard a lot while I’ve been working on this podcast.
Erik Stafford: I want representation at the museum.
Linda Battle: I want a place to not only learn and grow, but to also see myself reflected somewhere in the museum, you know, and just to see my culture in there.
Alvin Brooks: I’ve talked to about three or four folks who are in their eighties like I am, and we remember going to the Atkins Museum. We were fifth and sixth graders, we were old enough to see ourselves, and if someone who was taking us through and saying, this is African art from Africa, and this is the artist or the sculptures, this particular name, we could identify with that. But it never happened. Those folks who took us through were all white males and females who took us through and they showed a certain thing. I never recall any Black art in the museum.
Angel Tucker: It’s about representation. Whose stories are being told and whose stories are not.
(Cool, quiet music comes in. It has a kick to it.)
Glenn North: It’s hard to describe how much it means to walk into a museum and see people who look like you. White folks have this experience all the time. But I’m talking about Black and brown faces, melanated people. And I don’t mean the security officers or schoolkids on field trips or even guest artists like me doing workshops. I mean what’s on the walls, hanging up there alongside Picasso and Monet. Because everybody knows, being on the walls means somebody decided your story is worth saving for the future. And I’m gonna be blunt here. If your museum has a few pieces in its collection by Charles White or Kehinde Wiley or Basquiat, that’s great. You’ve checked off a few boxes on your Black Art Bingo card. But it’s not enough. It’s just not. That’s the thing I keep hearing over and over.
Muenfua Lewis: There’s no infusion of us in that museum.
Glenn North: This is Muenfua Lewis. He and his creative partner Justin Ikerionwu started a lifestyle brand and magazine called By Design, which is by—and for—Black creatives.
Muenfua Lewis: There was no aspiration for Black creatives to try to make it into the Nelson, because a lot of us don’t think we could get into the Nelson. And it’s not to say we don’t believe in our work. It’s just, we never see ourselves there.
Justin Ikerionwu: Black creativity goes a long way in defining what overall culture looks like.
Glenn North: That’s Justin.
Justin Ikerionwu: From our day-to-day thinking, the way that we talk, the way that we think and see the world. And if that was more felt within the museum, I’d feel more compelled to spend my time there.
Muenfua Lewis: There’s, like, a weird classist barrier thing with museums nowadays. Like it’s just, it just feels so out of reach to the everyday person, all we can do is just look.
(Music starts to build with longer, more sustained sounds and hand claps.)
Sonié Ruffin: I do know how others felt and others were made to feel, and no, it has not always been that institution that has been welcoming to African Americans, absolutely not. As a lot of our museums and institutions across the country have not been. What we have to do, and what we have to understand, is that these institutions are there. What art has the ability to do is changing the trajectory.
Julián Zugazagoitia: There’s a quote by Goethe that says that museums are always alive and always moving and always changing.
Glenn North: This is Julián, the director of the Nelson-Atkins.
Julián Zugazagoitia: And I love that quote because civilizations are always building and shifting. If we use the museum as a way of looking at history on the walls, you see that systems and regimes come and go, you know, and civilizations and ways to structure our thoughts or what we hold dear can come and go too. Today’s world is asking all of us to question everything and reflect upon things, criticize them, to make them better. Because we know there is no one truth, that it’s always like a horizon that you have to pursue, that you have to go forward. And I think as much as our walls may be perceived like, well, they have always the same works of art, nothing changes—actually, everything is changing constantly.
(Music picks up steam and power, it’s moving a little faster.)
Glenn North: I’ve been seeing that. Like right before COVID shut the whole world down, the Nelson put on this exhibition that had everybody in town excited. It was called 30 Americans. Thirty Black artists all making work about race and identity in America. It was one of those traveling exhibits, and when the Nelson-Atkins decided to bring it here, they reached out to people across Kansas City to be on an advisory board. Angel Tucker was on that board.
Angel Tucker: I am traditionally one of the one to two people of color in the room, oftentimes the only person. And so that in itself, as we, it gives me chills, as we continued to meet and come together and eat our bagels and share our stories and ask the questions of the museum and have museum staff coming to us like, we want to vet this through you. We want you to give us feedback, even if it’s challenging or hard feedback, we want to hear this.
Glenn North: From what I heard, there were a lot of frank conversations in that room. And the group had a hand in just about every aspect of the show, from how it was gonna be laid out to who was gonna write the labels on the wall. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person I interviewed for this podcast brought up 30 Americans. Ms. Wanda Battle was one of them. She used to be a docent giving tours at the Nelson and has seen a lot of exhibitions come and go.
Wanda Battle: The Nelson has changed, and it’s been an agent of change. When we went to see 30 Americans, we took cousins, my sister came from North Carolina, and so on. So it’s like, not each one, teach one, but each one, teach many.
Chiluba Musonda: During that 30 Americans exhibition, I was standing by myself and I felt somebody grab my hand and I looked to my left and it was a middle aged white lady.
Glenn North: This is Chiluba Musonda. You met him in episode two. He came here from Zambia as a college student and settled in Kansas City.
Chiluba Musonda: She grabbed my hand and said, “Do you mind walking into this certain space to look at a particular piece?” And I’m like, okay, this is weird. I don’t know you, you’re grabbing my hand. Uh, we don’t do that where I’m from, but whatever, I’ll be nice. (Music fades out.) It was a display of a noose and what looked like the hats worn by Ku Klux Klan members. And the noose was in the middle of the room. And this lady who was holding my hand, she was in tears. And when we looked at the piece in silence, she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry.” That was a powerful moment. I don’t know if that woman was from the deep South or from liberal New York. I don’t know. I didn’t know what her politics were. She didn’t know what mine were. As far as she was concerned, she was looking at a Black man and she felt the need to say sorry.
Angel Tucker: The 30 Americans shifted everything for me. I’m surely being honest when I say, when I walk into that museum, it feels like home to me. I promise you, I’ll, it’ll, I’ll carry it with me forever.
Glenn North: As profound as 30 Americans was, I still wonder why people like Justin and Muenfua don’t really feel connected to the museum.
Muenfua Lewis: It doesn’t feel like the unconventional creative can come here and feel inspired. It just, it just kind of feels like it’s for the suburban family coming through to just have a fun weekend. Like, that’s what it’s there for.
Glenn North: It’s curious. These guys are dope artists. It seems like the museum would be like home base. But somehow, it just doesn’t feel relevant to them. I wonder about that, and what that means for the next generation of Black artists like them.
Muenfua Lewis: I think what I’ve noticed over the years with a lot of long-standing art institutions is that there is a difficulty adjusting to the new realm of creativity and the new realm of art, where a lot of young Black kids are entering these artistic mediums in the most unconventional ways. Young people provide innovative, cool, and barrier-breaking ways of creating things. They also need more aspirational goals beyond just posting on social. Some, some creatives, that’s all they know. Instagram. But the moment that you show them, hey, we’ll invest in you we’ll help you curate a whole entire exhibit based around this art that we love that you’ve done, taking pictures from your phone. That is, I think, is what those people are still searching for overall.
Duaa Mohamed: I think big institutions, I know they have good intentions, but a lot of the time it tends to only focus on the bad and on the trauma.
Glenn North: That’s our junior producer Duaa Mohamed talking with Muenfua and Justin about how they would change things up.
Justin Ikerionwu: Those are conversations that we have a lot. I think the danger is that you continue to build generations of Black people who only see themselves as creatures of trauma. Like that’s the, that is the, the height of what we can be as people. Not really something that you can celebrate or be happy within, or just be. Like, sometimes as a Black person, you might just want to be. Like, maybe today, I don’t feel like acknowledging all of the painful things that I’m dealing with. It’s tiring. And sometimes you just want to be able to wake up in the morning and go get you some cereal, go get some coffee, and just start your day, like anybody else.
Muenfua Lewis: For me personally, as a creative, as an artist, I just love, like, the most boring aspects of Blackness and telling a story about that, because I think it’s so interesting to like, okay, why do you do what you do?
Glenn North: That reminded me of something Sonié said when we were talking about this.
Sonié Ruffin: All Black people are not the same. We are not monolithic. Stop that. So if this podcast does anything and if I leave any kind of message, stop that.
Justin Ikerionwu: There’s so much more to us as people. There’s more that we deserve to see. We deserve to see our stories told in a lot of different lights. We deserve all of those, just regular things. That’s where conversations should go.
Glenn North: I couldn’t agree more. There is so much more to Black people than pain. There’s joy, and beauty, and crunching on a bowl of Cheerios. Maybe it’s time for museums to take a deeper look at that. With the choices they make, the money they spend, and frankly, the people they pay attention to. Because a museum is a house of stories, and it’s under construction all the time.
(Joyful music comes in, soft and bright.)
Glenn North: Here’s another thing you’ll see all around Kansas City if you visit here. Pretty old stone walls. They’re everywhere. A lot of them date back to William Rockhill Nelson’s time. You might remember, he went on a crusade to give Kansas City a makeover in the early 1900s. He really liked stone walls, so he had our streets lined with them.
So a few years ago, around the same time as 30 Americans, this artist named Andy Goldsworthy came here from Scotland. He makes sculptures out of things he finds in nature, like twigs and leaves and snow. The art he makes is always inspired by the place where he makes it. And when he was here in Kansas City, he noticed all those old stone walls. It reminded him of a wild idea he’d been dreaming of for years. He wanted to build a wall that goes for a walk.
I know. It sounds kinda crazy. Walls are supposed to be permanent, unmovable things. But he did it. With a whole crew of laborers who built the wall by hand. They pulled the stones out of the ground and hauled them to a field next to the Nelson and began stacking them on top of each other. The crew didn’t use machines or mortar or cement, it was just a lot of hands packing all these irregular stones together to make a sturdy wall. When they finished, it was about one hundred yards long, and about four feet high, like up to my hip. And it snaked across that field, like a squiggly line breaking up the natural space for no apparent reason. It was beautiful and strange.
And then, as soon as they finished building it, they started tearing it down. One rock at a time. They’d take apart a chunk at the back of the wall and move those stones to the front and rebuild them there. So back to front, stone by stone, the wall started to inch forward. Here’s how Andy Goldsworthy described it.
Andy Goldsworthy: We’re taking the past and bringing it to the future in this continuous process of rebuilding and unbuilding.
Glenn North: I watched this whole process happen over about nine months. The crew tore that wall down and rebuilt it four different times. And something really magical started to happen. It became almost like a living thing.
Andy Goldsworthy: The wall is made of stone, but it’s made of people too. The energy of people are in the wall.
Glenn North: So in March, the wall started in that open field across the street from the museum. In May, the wall crossed a busy four-lane road and blocked off traffic for, like, two weeks, while people waited for it to cross. I went to a block party while the road was closed off, and I gotta tell you, I had so much fun. I did a spoken word performance with a group of poetry students that I work with. There were all kinds of food vendors and puppet shows, and lawn games, and circus acts—I mean you could even get a tattoo. Anyway, I digress. I just wanted to relive that moment for a second.
So later that summer, the wall moved again. It crept south alongside the museum. In the fall, it walked down the steps between the Nelson’s original building with the Greek columns and their super-modern contemporary wing next door called the Bloch Building. And finally, in November, it inched its way up to the walls of the Bloch Building, busted through a window, and ended its journey inside. And that’s where the wall sits today.
Julián Zugazagoitia: So what is the work? When people will ask us, what can we say?
Glenn North: The last night Andy Goldsworthy was in town, Julián sat down with him to talk about the project.
Andy Goldsworthy: Well I think there is the stone obviously in the wall that is remaining. But the work is also the story that is left behind, the journey that it made, the places it occupied. And that’s in you now. It’s left its memory in the people who were here.
Glenn North: My memory is that wall didn’t behave itself. It didn’t follow rules or boundaries, it crossed them. Yes, it made some folks mad as hell when they were inconvenienced by it blocking off the road. But watching that wall do all the things that walls don’t normally do, there was some deep poetry in that. Seeing it walk. Understanding that to get to a new place, you gotta tear some stuff down. Seeing that a wall can be a thing that brings people together instead of keeping them apart. That piece of art inspired strangers to shake hands over the top of it, and talk to the workers who were building it, and dance alongside it. It changed our understanding of what’s possible. That’s the biggest thing it left in me. Even when something feels permanent, indestructible, impossibly strong. Well, I saw it with my own eyes, people, and I’m here to tell you, walls can move.
(Theme music rolls up.)
Thanks for listening to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Our final episode is coming up next. We’re gonna take a look at a very special holiday and what happens when a museum’s well-intentioned gesture gets met with some serious side-eye.
This episode was co-written and produced by me and Christine Murray, with help from Duaa Mohamed. Editing and sound design by Brandi Howell. The voices you heard today were Tara Laver, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver II, Erik Stafford, Alvin Brooks, Angel Tucker, Muenfua Lewis, Justin Ikerionwu, Sonié Ruffin, Linda Battle, Wanda Battle, Duaa Mohamed, Julián Zugazagoitia, and Andy Goldsworthy. Interview recording by Tim Harte and studio engineering by Simpson Sound Lab. Our theme music is by The Black Creatures. Additional music by Eclipse. Our cover art is by Two Tone Press.
This podcast is produced with generous support from Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the John W. and Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust.
If you liked this episode, leave us a review. It’ll help other people find us.
See you next time.
(Theme music ends.)