One of the Kansas City art world's most legendary characters — and most fearsome promoters of area artists — has died at age 74.
Tom Deatherage, who lived in an art-filled apartment above his gallery The Late Show, died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones after a long illness on Tuesday morning, according to friends who were present. He had been an art dealer in Kansas City for more than 25 years.
“It’s a real beauty to see an artist grow because I can’t draw or do anything,” Deatherage told KCUR's Julie Denesha last September. “But it sure makes me feel good. It makes me feel a part of the process if I see an artist that I kind of first discovered. It’s really a joy.”
Deatherage told Denesha he was "not knowledgeable," but "somehow I got a good eye."
Those who knew Deatherage understood, however, where his good eye came from — and Deatherage did too: “I just happen to love what I’m looking at and it really talks to me,” he said.
By promoting the work he loved, Deatherage jump-started the careers of dozens of Kansas City artists, many of whom are quoted, in their more youthful days, in a lengthy profile of Deatherage published in The Pitch in 2005.
"Though national art magazines have recently noted Kansas City's growing art scene, Deatherage is never mentioned as one of the leaders who helped to shape it," wrote Pitch reporter Bryan Noonan. But Sylvie Fortin, then editor in chief of the Atlanta-based Art Papers, told Noonan that dealers such as Deatherage keep a city's art scene vital.
"I think it's important that you retain some artists locally, otherwise they are all going to go to New York or Los Angeles," Fortin said. "I don't want to imagine a world where artists are only in New York and L.A."
To spend time at The Late Show was to soak in not only Deatherage's personality but the essential nature of Kansas City's art scene: scrappy, sweaty, gritty, irreverent, simultaneously self-deprecating while certain of its own significance.
Deatherage was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 29, 1942, and was raised by his grandmother in St. Joseph. Deatherage told the Pitch's Noonan he was 8 years old when he realized he was attracted to boys. He went on to serve in the United States Navy, earning an honorable discharge in 1967 and moving to San Francisco where, he said, "My life began. It was like being reborn."
Deatherage marched against the Vietnam War and for gay liberation — and partied — before finally moving back to St. Joseph and then to Kansas City in the mid-70s. He ultimately got a job as a custom framer for the art dealer Martha McDermott at Union Hill Arts, where he began to form opinions.
Deatherage liked what he saw at Kansas City's alternative galleries like Random Ranch, the Left Bank and Gallery V. He wanted Union Hill Arts to take on some edgier work, and told McDermott that he had noticed some good work at the Kansas City Art Institute. She said, 'You bring them in, and I'll let you show them,'" according to Noonan.
"I was tired of selling bullshit," Deatherage told Noonan. "I was tired of having designers come in and say, 'I love this piece, but do they do it in mauve?' I'd say, 'Fuck, no. It's black, and they do it in black.' I used to get so pissed."
Such free expression was another way in which Deatherage reflected the DIY spirit of the art that spoke to him.
“I am very loose,” he told KCUR's Denesha. “I cuss like a sailor. I usually got a drink in my hand. And always a cigarette but never in the gallery anymore. So I have to operate it my way. The way I live my life. So that’s what you get when you get here. I don’t have an elegant white box. I’ve never liked that at all. But it’s my style. I can only operate my way.”
Because of Deatherage, generations of Kansas City artists can now operate their way.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Deatherage grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, rather than St. Louis.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.