Building An Art Collection In Kansas City 'Piece By Piece'

Feb 20, 2015

Art collecting can be a hobby, a passion, or even an obsession. An exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Piece by Piece: Building a Collection, takes a look at the holdings of one Kansas City couple — and the connection between collector and artist.

A contemporary collection grows by a piece or two at a time

For the past two decades, Kansas City collectors Christy and Bill Gautreaux have acquired artwork. But, over the last five years – they’ve picked up the pace. They started meeting other collectors, and attending art fairs, like Art Basel in Miami Beach, Fla. 

In 2014, the Gautreauxes made ARTnews magazine’s list of top 200 collectors.

"They were on the cutting edge of collecting in the contemporary art world, but especially here in Kansas City," says Erin Dziedzic, curator and head of adult programs at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

An exhibition at the Kemper Museum curated by Dziedzic is called "Piece by Piece." The title is a nod to the collecting style of the Gautreauxes, often adding one or two pieces at a time. Dziedzic spent the last year or so sifting through objects in the collection to narrow it down to the nearly 30 artworks on display.

"I think what’s so interesting about collectors is how they live with their work," she says.

But some of the work hasn’t been lived with ... yet. There are multimedia pieces in the exhibition that are quite large – think 8 x 12 feet. And others, newly acquired, hadn’t even made it to Kansas City.

So, inside the Kemper Museum’s gallery, with its vaulted ceilings, it’s the first time many of these works have hung together.

A respect for ideas and the work

Houston-based artist Nathaniel Donnett stands next to How to Get Rich on a Shoestring Budgetone of his two pieces in the exhibition. The continents on a world map are linked by thick, red shoelaces, a reference to 1980s hiphop culture and breakdancing. 

"So it’s got some humor in it," he says. "But along with that humor is a very, very serious situation. It shows the mid-Atlantic slave trade."

Nathaniel Donnett has two works in the exhibition, including 'Sweeten the Deal' (2011). It depicts President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, with Martin Luther King, Jr. standing behind him.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

Donnett says his art practice combines imagination and experience from an African-American perspective. Several dozen paper bags, placed in a grid, create the canvas for the works. The bags have layers of meaning steeped in black history.

"If you were lighter than the paper bag, the color of the paper bag in terms of skin tone, you had access to a lot of stuff; if you were darker, you did not," Donnett says. "That caused this kind of division, this hierarchy within the group."

Donnett says he’s not really thinking about collectors when he’s creating his work, but he does consider accessibility. He says being part of a collection, like the Gautreauxes', is a form of validation – not only as an artist, but for the creative process.  

"They got to know me personally," he says. "They respect my ideas, because the ideas come from the work."

"I feel like they're interested in the range of work an artist makes. They're interested in the longevity of an artist's career that they believe in," says curator Erin Dziedzic.

Artists first 

In "Piece by Piece," there’s a mix of rising stars, in addition to well-known national and international artists. As Dziedzic got deeper into the collection, she says she noticed there were common threads to the work. Themes began to emerge, like a focus on material and process.

"Other themes started to appear," she says, "Such as race and landscape, geography and politics, pattern and identity, and then there was a really interesting gesture of the figure."

Nick Cave’s video work called Blot provides two views of a costumed dancer in motion. There’s a beaded punching bag by Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, and series of six etchings by Kara Walker called An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters –  also in the collection of MoMA.

Dziedzic says she learned a lot working with the Gautreauxes – and that she hopes they’ll also see new things in their own collection — while it’s on display, not in their home, or in an office, but at the Kemper Museum. 

'Piece by Piece: Building a Collection,' continues through April 26 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick, Kansas City, Mo. 816-753-5784.