Here's What Happens When A Gallery Owner Lets Busloads Of Art Students Loose In Kansas City

Sep 23, 2016

When Paul Dorrell opened an art gallery 25 years ago, people told him he was crazy for representing only Missouri and Kansas artists.

"Everybody thought I was out of my mind," Dorrell says. "That it was a sure road to bankruptcy, that nobody would ever care about Kansas and Missouri artists, that Kansas City and the Midwest in general were a lost cause culturally, so why bother?"

Now his Leopold Gallery is filled with paintings and sculptures that sell for thousands of dollars, often ending up in the lobbies, waiting rooms and executive offices of Kansas City's biggest institutions and businesses: H&R Block, the Chiefs, the Royals, Saint Luke's and the University of Kansas hospitals, various law firms.

Paul Dorrell, president and art consultant at the Leopold Gallery, with his dog BeBe, a constant companion.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"The executives within these corporations began to buy from us individually, then their friends did, then their families did, and it snowballed," Dorrell says. "Now private collectors come into my gallery every day by the dozens."

A decade ago, Dorrell began to make a different kind of investment in local artists after paying a visit to the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts.

"Just to see how they were doing," he remembers. "I was curious about it. I always assumed they were well-funded and had everything they needed."

Teachers there told him that wasn't the case, that suburban schools had much bigger budgets for their arts programs.

"I found that disgraceful," Dorrell says.

He would eventually raise funds to support the programs — $10,000 a year now — at Paseo and at Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kansas. He also decided the kids needed to get outside of their classrooms and experience art in the real world. So he started taking them on field trips.

Mary Ann Sit, who teachers visual arts at Sumner, remembers when she first heard from Dorrell.

Painter and poet Jose Faus, at far right, explains his process to Paseo and Sumner students in his studio in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"I had no idea what we were getting into," Sit says. "It was kind of strange because I didn't know who he was, and the other teacher didn't know him either. We just kind of met down at the River Market and I thought, 'Let's give it a try.' That year we went to a glass shop in the Crossroads and it was fantastic. We were sold."

This year, nearly 70 kids — two bus loads — went on the trip. They started at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, crowding into a basement studio in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, where painter Jose Faus showed them around, explained how he finds materials and answered questions about his process.

Sumner kids return from their second stop at the Woodswether Bridge in Kansas City's West Bottoms.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

From there the buses drove to the West Bottoms, where they walked to the Woodswether Bridge, a bicycle and pedestrian path underneath the Lewis and Clark Viaduct.

"That bridge has got all kinds of sculptures on it," he told the students, "but it’s also cool because you get to walk across the river. Most people don’t even know it’s here."

Everyone took pictures — selfies, arty photos of the flowers growing out of the concrete and the geometric shapes above — some kids with cell phones, others with fancy digital cameras. And they took more pictures three blocks away at a Port of Kansas City lot along the Missouri River, where Dorrell wanted them to get a unique view of downtown Kansas City.

By late morning they were at the Leedy Voulkos Gallery, where they visited the studio of painter William Rose. Then it was on to Penn Valley Park, where Dorrell had box lunches waiting for them, and where, from the deck of the Liberty Memorial, they could get yet another perspective on the skyline that's inspired so many of his artists.

Sumner student Jocelyn Williams finds a view at the Port of Kansas City Woodswether Terminal lot.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Over the course of the day, Dorrell says, he hopes these mostly African-American and Latino kids will feel supported and recognize their own talents.

The studio visits reinforced at message. So did Rodolfo Marron, who was tagging along.

Marron graduated from Paseo in 2008 and has shown his work in galleries ever since. Now a professional artist, he's just won a Charlotte Street Award and his work’s currently in the Kemper at the Crossroads museum.

Charlotte Street Award winner, and Paseo alum, Rodolfo Marron went along on the field trip to serve as an example of someone who 'made it' as a professional artist.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"I’ve kind of been through it all," he said, "so I can just be a voice and let the kids know: I graduated from the same high school they did, (I'm) an artist who looks like them, someone who’s brown, someone who may have walked the same streets that they have. That you can make it."

Brianna Riley and Alicia Manning, two seniors in Sit's class at Sumner, said the day had been fun and inspiring.

"We really got to see a lot of things we normally don’t see, and we got to document it with pictures," Manning said.

Sumner students Brianna Riley and Alicia Manning both say the field trip inspired them to do 'big things.'
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"We learned a lot about how artists do what they do, and how they got out there, and I’ve seen a lot of exhibits and studios I never knew were in our city at all," Riley added. "So it opened our eyes to a lot." 

Jesse Rodriguez, a junior at Sumner, said he'd enjoyed taking pictures of the skyline.

"I loved visiting the galleries, I've never been to any of them. It made me feel like I’m part of something bigger," he said. "That I can do better and one day have my arts in those galleries, too."

After lunch there was one more stop, at the Kansas City Art Institute. Dorrell has helped some kids get into college, either with scholarships or help with their applications. Besides getting tours of the sculpture and painting departments, the kids got to meet another alum of Dorrell's field trips.

Felix Maull graduated from Paseo in 2015 and is now a sophomore at the Art Institute.

Julian Rowles, a junior at Paseo, documented the field trip's stop at the Kansas City Art Institute, with Jill Downen of the sculpture department; Dorrell; and KCAI sophomore and Paseo grad Felix Maull.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"Having Paul take us on these field trips and getting us to step out of our regular curriculum – it helped me see art as the bigger picture sooner. He was taking us and getting us to do actual things in the actual world," Maull said.

Going to school at the Art Institute "took some getting used to," Maull said. "It’s not high school."

Dorrell might want to stress the importance of work, but the main point of the field trips, he says, is for kids to have fun.

After this last one, he says he's taken nearly 1,100 kids. If Marron's example holds, at least a few of them will go on to be professional artists.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.