John O'Brien leaving - KC art gallery scene takes a hit with the departure of Dolphin

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John O'Brien leaving - KC art gallery scene takes a hit with the departure of Dolphin
KC art gallery scene takes a hit with the departure of Dolphin By ALICE THORSON John O’Brien, whose Dolphin gallery has been the linchpin of Kansas City’s contemporary art world for nearly two decades, is planning to close his West Bottoms exhibition space and framing business in order to pursue his own creative interests. O’Brien’s departure from the gallery scene will leave a gaping hole and is being viewed as a loss of vital energy in a city that prides itself on its vibrant art environment. “Dolphin served not only as an important gallery (and frame shop) for Kansas City, it was integral to the development of our artist community,” said Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. “As an epicenter of socialization, artist dialogue and visual culture — not to mention many memorable parties — Dolphin was a proverbial ‘town hall’ for artists, students, collectors and museum professionals.” As word started spreading, the Kansas City art world seemed stunned. “A total kick in the gut” is how art collector and private dealer Doug Drake described it. “Unbelievable. This is bad for the scene.” “It’s a body blow to the Kansas City art world,” said gallery regular David Cateforis, an art history professor at the University of Kansas who has written extensively on contemporary art. On Tuesday, O’Brien completed the purchase of two industrial buildings in Independence. He will renovate both of the 7,000-square-foot buildings and plans to lease one and use the other as a workspace for his own design projects. “I’m not an artist, but I do have similar passions,” O’Brien said this week at the gallery. “Being a visual person, I feel I have another gear. I’m ready to not do retail. I feel like I’ve done what I can do.” Photographer Mike Sinclair, a longtime gallery artist, is not surprised at his friend’s decision. “I’m so happy that now John is going to get to be making things,” he said. “It’s an itch he’s had for a long time. He’s an artist, he wouldn’t say that about himself, but he is.” In the late 1970s, O’Brien studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. In the 1980s he worked with restaurateur Paul Robinson building restaurants around the country. Through the years, he has continued to work on design projects, including the Amigoni Urban Winery in the West Bottoms and the interiors of several local restaurants, while running his framing business and gallery. With artist Jim Leedy, O Brien was a prime mover in establishing the Crossroads Art District. Three years after opening his first Dolphin frame shop on 39th Street in Westport in 1989, O’Brien relocated to the Crossroads and added a gallery space. In 1997, he expanded the Dolphin into a building at 19th and Baltimore streets (now occupied by Kemper at the Crossroads). Five years ago, O’Brien brought his brand of energy and innovation to the West Bottoms, where he renovated an industrial building into a top-of-the-line exhibition space and helped entice New York art dealer Bill Brady to open his own gallery nearby. O’Brien estimates that Dolphin has mounted 175 shows over its history. “It might be that there won’t be a center any more,” said Sinclair, who was recently named a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. “He’s going to be a tough act to follow. The (West Bottoms) gallery was such an amazing space — people from L.A. and New York would come in, and they couldn’t believe that in Kansas City there would be a space like that. If I think about it selfishly, it’s bittersweet. I feel lucky to have been a part of it.” With the 2012 passing of Jan Weiner and Byron C. Cohen’s decision in 2011 to take his gallery space online, Dolphin emerged as the premier venue for visually and intellectually challenging Kansas City art. The website lists more than 50 names. “Dolphin represents most of the best artists in Kansas City — people like Wilbur Niewald, James Brinsfield, Anne Lindberg, Mike Sinclair, Archie Scott Gobber, Peregrine Honig,” Cateforis said. “This is the elite of the Kansas City art world, all now without a gallery, and the audience loses out on a high-quality venue.” Dolphin will open its final show May 17. O’Brien’s 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, who grew up with the gallery, will work with Sinclair and artist Johnny Naugahyde to choose the artworks. O’Brien, who plans to lease the West Bottoms building after closing down Dolphin, said that finances were not a factor in his decision. And, in fact, most of Kansas City’s galleries, from the low-budget Late Show to the big enterprise Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, managed to weather the recession. But as the economy looks up, the art world departures will stretch into the future: Grand Arts Director Margaret Silva recently said that she will close the edgy project space in 2015. “My hope is that it opens up room for young people to start up and get going,” Silva said about the closing. “I feel like there’s lots of talent and people who would be able to step up. It may be the end of an era, but I don’t see it as the end of the arts in Kansas City.” But for the moment, the changes leave the field of cutting-edge and potentially controversial programming largely to the Nerman Museum, the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace. The gallery closings have been accompanied by some big changes at the institutional top. In 2010, Julián Zugazagoitia replaced Marc Wilson as head of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where he has emphasized shows and programs aimed to connect the museum with the community. In 2012, Barbara O’Brien was promoted to director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where she has largely steered away from art that could be challenging or controversial. And both institutions have just announced new chairwomen of their respective boards of trustees: Mary Kemper Wolf will lead the Kemper; Shirley Bush Helzberg will head the Nelson’s board. Last fall, Charlotte Street Foundation founder and co-director David Hughes announced that he was leaving his longtime post. But with his co-director Kate Hackman continuing, it is not expected that Hughes’ still-to-be-named successor will significantly change the foundation’s commitment to presenting lively, issue-oriented emerging art. O’Brien has been talking to his staff about closing for months. “I feel like the Dolphin’s really not me,” he said. “It was a collective fed by the energy of a collective group.” That group includes gallery associate Emily Eddins; O’Brien’s sister, Pat, who helped run the entire operation; frame shop manager Gobber; and framers Justin Gainen, Robin Beard and Mike Erickson. All of the men are artists. For reasons unrelated to the gallery’s closing, Beard recently moved to the West Coast. Gobber will take over the framing business, and Gainen and Erickson may join him. Gobber said he’s looking for a space, maybe in the Crossroads. Eddins, who has worked for Dolphin for 15 years, said she will work independently as an art consultant and adviser. Pat O’Brien will continue to assist her brother. “It will be interesting to see what unfolds,” John O’Brien said. And he believes that the seeds of a renaissance may lurk within what looks like a collapse to many. “This is a critical juncture now for the Kansas City art world,” Cateforis said. “We need institutions like Dolphin — and Grand Arts — to continue the tremendous progress Kansas City has enjoyed over the last two decades. ... These artists need to have exposure, and Kansas City needs to see their work. It’s an opportunity for an ambitious and savvy dealer to step in and continue the momentum.” Several Dolphin artists have already contacted Sherry Leedy. “Everybody wants a lot of quality galleries,” she said. “The more high level activity there is, the better it is for everybody and for our city. I’m sad about it, but I completely understand it.” As for O’Brien: “I’m not afraid of unknown things,” he said. “It’s time for me to change. I surprise myself. The beauty of dreaming doesn’t end.” © 2013 Kansas City Star
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