When you think of a patron of the arts, what name comes to mind? Maybe it’s Medici or Guggenheim.
In Kansas City, it’s likely to be Bloch, Hall, Helzberg, Kauffman, Kemper...or Oppenheimer. A new exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art displays the ongoing relationship between Johnson County Community College and the Oppenheimers. It's one that’s literally filled the campus with more than 100 pieces of art.
The beginnings of "The Three Musketeers"
The year was 1992. Tony Oppenheimer and his wife, Marti, were newly married; they both grew up in the Kansas City area and wanted to "do something in the arts in a public fashion," as Tony puts it. A cousin introduced them to Bruce Hartman, then the energetic director of the Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art, known for a keen eye and a distinctive booming laugh.
"We went to visit Bruce at the library" at Johnson County Community College, says Tony, "And we broke into such hysterical laughter within a few minutes security threw us out. And I thought this was a perfect group for us to collect art."
Marti adds, "And it has been 'The Three Musketeers' ever since."
Bruce Hartman, now executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, remembers reaching out to the Oppenheimers with a funding request from the Jules and Doris Stein Foundation, which later became the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation. He was delighted when Marti and Tony Oppenheimer became patrons.
A shared vision for collecting
Over the years, says Hartman, they’ve built a collecting relationship based on trust and honesty.
"We’ve always felt that we always could say whatever we needed to say to each other," he says. "If one of us is particularly against acquiring a particular piece of art, we don’t acquire it."
The Oppenheimers starting buying outdoor sculptures for the college campus. One of the first was a bronze by Louise Bourgeois, Woman with Packages, 1996. They expanded purchases to include indoor sculpture and commissioned a work in 2002 from Do-Ho Suh; Some/One, 2004 is a robe crafted from thousands of steel dog tags.
But, from the very beginning, says Hartman, there was a commitment to include local and regional artists in the collection, at least 25 percent. This dates back to the founding of the Johnson County Community College art collection in 1980.
"We had an obligation essentially to look toward our own community, to the region, to acquire works," says Hartman. "One of the issues there is that you’ve got to make sure that the work you’re acquiring will hold up against all these national and international artists – and we’ve never found that to be a problem."
In 2003, when Jerry and Margaret Nerman pledged funding for a new contemporary art museum on campus (the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art opened in October 2007), the collecting focus for the trio changed. The college’s collection - of paintings, prints, photographs, ceramics, and sculpture – was installed across campus; some works were outside on the grassy lawns, and others inside the dining halls and along corridors. Hartman says the Oppenheimers brought up an important question.
"Marti and Toni and I were at dinner one evening," recalls Hartman. "And they suddenly looked at me and they said, 'Well, what are you going to put in the museum, in terms of the permanent collection galleries?'"
Hartman didn't want to remove the "best pieces" throughout campus to put in the museum since that would defeat the purpose of the collection focus areas.
The Oppenheimers suggested a change of direction in their collecting - from buying sculpture to building a collection for the new museum. This marked a shift to also purchasing paintings, photographs, ceramics, new media, and textiles. At a furious pace, they started to collect work, including snapping up work by artists early in their careers.
Making a difference on campus
Tony Oppenheimer says having their collection based at a community college provides a unique opportunity to become part of the students’ lives.
"Many times, I’ve heard a number of them say not, 'I’ll meet you in front of the library,' but 'I’ll meet you in front of the rabbit,'" says Oppenheimer. "The rabbit is Barry Flanagan’s Hare and Bell, a huge bronze sculpture.
"Many of the students see it as their art. This is their campus art. And that’s wonderful for us, to feel like we made a difference."
The Oppenheimer Collection now totals 153 works and counting, at an estimated value of more than $10 million dollars. It's also estimated about 1/3 of the works are from artists with ties to the Kansas City area.
Looking back and ahead to the next adventure
Marti Oppenheimer says there are no plans to stop adding to the collection. When they travel to art fairs, or artist studios - in Kansas City or other cities - she says it’s always a time of discovery.
"Whenever we’re with Bruce, we figure something might happen, because really, that’s what we do together and love, absolutely," says Marti.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Oppenheimer Collection, the Nerman Museum is opening its gallery space, putting as many works as possible on display. This includes about 25 works that have never been on view, like new acquisitions from Dana Schutz, Nick Cave, Lonnie Powell, and Kent Michael Smith.
According to Hartman, it's a time to take stock: "This will be a moment for all of us where we continue to assess the collection, where we started, where we've been, where we are currently and where we want to go. And when I mentioned that we'd just acquired another piece (note: the day before our interview, they'd added work number 153 to the collection from a Kansas City gallery), that's the future.
"When you talk to artists and you say,'What's your favorite piece?" and they always say the one they're working on right now. And I think if you say to Tony and Marti and me - we'd all say, 'It's what we're going to acquire next because that's the adventure."