I wish I could hug my mom again
I wish I could stop drinking
God forgive me
All told, visitors to the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown Central Library left some 7,000 handwritten expressions at an altar that was part of Ryan Wilks’ immersive exhibit, Here Where You Wish, earlier this year. “More than I could have fathomed,” he says. “The sheer number of people who came – I would assume mostly because they just stumbled upon it – was incredible. I’ve never reached as many people with art as I have with this show.
“I have eyes on me that I haven’t had before,” he says. “People know what I’m doing.”
Nearly 103,000 people visited eight exhibits in the first-floor Genevieve Guldner and second-floor Rocky and Gabriella Polony Mountain galleries in 2017-18, an average of 302 each day the Library was open. Both numbers were Library records. The daily average spiked further, to 375, in the first few months of ’18-19.
Wilks’ Here Where You Wish, a collaboration with fellow visual artists Ari Fish and Sean Prudden and musician Tim J. Harte, pulled in more than 28,000 people over a 10-week run in April, May and June. That made it KCPL’s most popular exhibit outside a 23-day visit – the only one in Missouri – by one of Shakespeare’s rare, nearly 400-year-old First Folios in June 2016.
Musician and composer Tim J. Harte (center right) executes the musical component of Ryan Wilks’ multisensory Here Where You Wish during the exhibit’s closing event at the Central Library in May. (Photo by Luis Mortera)
Preceding the Wilks exhibit in the Mountain Gallery was Cattle, Cowboys and Culture: Kansas City and Amarillo, Building an Urban West, a sprawling collection of artifacts, photos and art illuminating the shared history of the two cities. It drew almost 33,000 people over an extended, 25-week stay.
A couple of traveling exhibit also have proven popular in the past year: Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration, 1917-2017, spotlighting the artwork of the comics and graphic novel icon; and the Smithsonian Institution’s inventive Things Come Apart, which exposed the inner workings of a watch, camera, iPod and other everyday possessions.
It further attests to today’s libraries as destinations for far more than books and other traditional library services.
“In the Crossroads, you’re preaching to the choir, right? Everybody knows about the galleries, and the people who love them go and do their thing. But art can happen in so many different places. You have people who don’t come the library for that particular reason. But while they’re there, they notice there are galleries and they wander in, and they’re exposed to something they hadn’t imagined. Maybe by doing that, they become more curious about going to other museums or finding out what other artists are doing in town.
“Think of kids coming in and seeing something that’s not usually part of their agenda for the day. It opens them to possibilities.”
Anne Ducey, the Library’s exhibit director, carefully selects the works that inhabit the spaces.
“I’ve seen a lot of work that’s really interesting, but I don’t think it would necessarily appeal to the cross section of people we get here,” she says. “There are things I try to be cognizant of. How is the work relevant in the Library environment? Is the artist local? Will the content appeal to a relatively large group of people? Is it somehow informed by the Kansas City area? Is there an educational component? All of that plays into it.”
Ducey has partnered with the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Kansas City Art Institute on separate yearlong series of exhibits. Meanwhile, she’s fielding an increasing number of inquiries from artists interested in displaying their work at the Library.
“I think it has become a place for up-and-coming artists to want to exhibit,” she says. “That’s very exciting, and to see the attendance numbers continue to increase means we’re on to something.”
The Library, Wilks says, “is like a soft-landing spot. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter what you wear. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You can go in and enjoy art regardless of your social status.
“There are no limitations.”
A longer version of this entry, written by the Library’s Steve Wieberg, appears in the January-February edition of KC Studio magazine.