It was only fitting that one of the pioneers of the Crossroads Arts District would announce on a First Friday, May 3, that after two decades, his gallery would close. John O’Brien moved the Dolphin from the Crossroads to the West Bottoms five years ago. But now he says it’s time for something new.
Inspirations from childhood placed on the wall
It's a recent afternoon in the white box gallery of the Dolphin, a renovated industrial building in the West Bottoms. 16-year-old Kaitlin O’Brien, wearing a plaid school uniform skirt and a long braid, stands near a blank white wall, stacking framed pictures. She holds a cell phone cupped in her hand, focusing on images and then looking up.
"And I have all the pictures on my phone, so that everything looks good and not like I just threw everything together," O'Brien says.
For the last two weeks, she's spent hours sifting through the Dolphin gallery’s deep inventory – or asking artists to submit work – for this final show. With some help from others, including her dad, owner John O’Brien, she’s selected more than 60 artists, and almost 90 works of art in painting, sculpture, photography.
There were certain artists she says she knew she would include, like artist Jim Leedy who, along with O'Brien, established the Crossroads Arts District. Kaitlin O'Brien says Leedy has "kind of been like my grandpa growing up around the Dolphin. He was the first one on the list."
Creating "one last memory"
The previous show was going to be the last show – but Kaitlin told her dad she wanted to have one last opening.
"I’ve grown up around the gallery and only missed like one opening and I didn’t want to end on an opening that not everybody knew would be like the last kind of celebration," she says. "So I thought it would not only be important for the people here, but for myself to have one last memory of a huge party here."
"You know, the business model of the Dolphin is not just me," says John O'Brien who first opened the Dolphin as a frame shop in Westport in the late 1980s. "It definitely is a community, we opened our doors up and let a lot of people participate in that model of what the Dolphin is about."
Asking tough questions, deciding to pursue other things
In the ‘90s, O'Brien expanded it to a gallery and frame shop in what became known as the Crossroads Arts District, before its current spot in the West Bottoms. He says, for years, he’s been running three businesses at once: the gallery and frame shop, as well as doing design work for restaurants and bars. He says he’s ready for a change.
"There’s a wonderful sign on the outside of the building now, by David Ford, that says, 'We all die,' says O'Brien. "And I’ve learned so much from friends and artists and I think it kind of sums up a lot of what all of us need do go through. We do all die."
When O’Brien announced the Dolphin would close – he also revealed he’d bought two industrial buildings in Independence; one to lease and one for his own projects. He says he's looking forward to bringing some focus to his work, likely design work, and getting back to working with his hands.
"The space that I’m going to is a space that I really feel the energy and I can kind of feel myself rev a little bit already in the space," he says. "I definitely need a space I can stand in, that I can feel it reflecting back on me."
But O'Brien says his decision to close the Dolphin has received mixed responses. And he says he knows some people are hurt, including some of the more than 50 artists the gallery represents.
"A lot of people are confused about what I’m doing," says O'Brien. "And I’m not sure what I’m doing either, other than I know that I have to do something different."
An "artistic home" closes
Artists, curators, and collectors are in and out of the frame shop on this day. Photographer Mike Sinclair chats with Kaitlin as she places artwork, commenting on drawings as if seeing old friends. Sinclair says the closing of the Dolphin is "bittersweet."
"I showed my work here first," Sinclair says. "I’ve done three solo shows here. And I’ve shown my work very few other places, so it really is my artistic home."
One of Sinclair’s photographs is included in the show. It was taken just after Kansas City Mayor Sly James' State of the City Address in March. There’s a row of empty red chairs; audience members are standing, talking, heading to the exit; some are smiling, some serious.
"When I was writing out the title, and I wrote down 'State of the City,' I thought, that’s appropriate, that seems kind of appropriate to this show," Sinclair says. "Because at least for the artistic community, it is kind of a reflection of the state of the city to have Dolphin closing."
Living in the moment, making "room for new voices"
Sinclair’s photograph captures a moment in between. And some say that the arts community is now in that moment, with the Dolphin closing, Grand Arts closing in 2015, and Charlotte Street Foundation founder and co-director David Hughes stepping down. O'Brien says, in some ways, it's a critical time to navigate the future of the city.
"I don't think it's been a tearing down, because there's a lot more here than when I started the Dolphin. And there's such a vibrant community," O'Brien says. "Everything kind of cycles around, not just the arts. I think it's a common 'cleaning of house' and being able to make room for new voices, which I think is so important."
Thanks For The Warning group exhibition, May 17 – June 22, 2013, Dolphin Gallery, 1600 Liberty St. Kansas City, Mo. Opening Reception: Friday, May 17, 5 - 10pm. Note: Liberty and Wyoming will be closed between 8 pm and 9:45 pm due to the Rave Run.