Artful Meetings: St. Joseph’s Albrecht-Kemper is A Meeting-Friendly Masterpiece

September 1, 2008



By Michael Humphrey

The visual arts in Kansas City have experienced a renaissance that could only be imagined 10 years ago. In 1998, the city leaned on the venerable Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the four-year-old Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and a scattering of galleries, many in their infancy.

Now, there is a vibrant art gallery scene in the Crossroads District in south downtown. The Nelson has built an expansion that gained international plaudits for its innovative architecture. Kemper Contemporary has expanded its gallery space by opening an annex in the Crossroads District. And the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art adds a world-class gallery space in Johnson County.

But ask the most renowned local artists what all of this means to them and there’s a good chance that they are going to mention yet another art museum. Not in Kansas City, but a one-hour drive north – in St. Joseph. The Albrecht-Kemper Museum has created a niche by treating some of Kansas City’s great artists with reverence.

“We are not an all-encompassing museum,” says Albrecht-Kemper director Terry Oldham. “Our mission is to give a deep understanding of American visual arts and that includes the support of regional artists. We have great artists in this region, who have made a broad impact on the arts in America, and they deserve to be recognized.”

This is not hyperbole. Two years ago the Albrecht-Kemper exhibited a retrospective on the work of painter Wilbur Niewald. That was just months before Niewald, whose paintings have been bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Nelson and the Nerman and the Kemper, was the oldest artist to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. Earlier this year the museum put on a show by Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak, who, as the St. Joseph News-Press put it: “… were co-founders of the Kansas City Artists Coalition in 1974. The organization started in their studio in what is now known as the River Market, with a handful of artists that has spawned Kansas City’s current arts scene, with nearly 100 galleries and a Coalition membership of more than 1,000 artists.”

But Oldham is quick to point out that the Albrecht-Kemper is more than a special exhibit space for regional greats. The museum is also touting up-and-coming artists such as Lisa Lala and has an impressive permanent collection that focuses heavily on great American art from many ages. It’s an impressive collection, but it’s not always easy to convince neighboring cities that there’s a gem in the northwest of Missouri.

“It’s easier to convince someone from Denmark or Germany to actively seek us out,” Oldham laughs. “There’s no preconceived notion there and they are simply trying to find great American collections. It can be much harder to convince someone an hour away that we have something special.”

Art of the Meeting

Fortunately for meeting planners, local artists are not the only people treated like VIPs at the Albrecht-Kemper. Groups aren’t just tolerated at the museum, not just added revenue to supplement the real mission – they are welcomed with open arms.

Here’s the proof:

* The 144-seat Mary Body Theater comes equipped with a cinema-size screen;

* Alison Wyeth Campbell Gallery, adjacent to the Body Theater, offers a more intimate setting, but also includes a fixed screen;

* Terrace Dining Room and adjacent galleries can accommodate groups of 20 to 250.

* Catering options, which can include in-house cooks or a preferred caterer list, cover the full variety of cuisine.

* Prices for events can range from $10 per person upwards, depending on the time of day, the size of the group and the menu selections.

* The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, with the AKMA Café serving lunch on Wednesday and Thursday. But the facilities can be available for groups during open hours or in the evening.

Christina Lund, director of marketing and special events, comes from the meeting planner industry herself and she says the staff at Albrecht-Kemper has a good idea of how to make everything work.

“We average about 20 to 30 special events per month,” Lund says. “We have a very good understanding of the needs that an event planner and caterer will have in planning an event. We have a professional staff that’s very approachable and knows what it takes for successful execution of events.”

Groups that have used the AKMA facilities tend to agree.

“The serene surroundings and superb service make the museum an enjoyable venue for any occasion,” says Jane Bram, of Bram Funeral Homes in a testimonial about the museum. “The possibilities are endless when working with the efficient staff.”

Tablets to Palettes

The possibilities include a real interaction with the historic building and the collection. Many museums get seriously uptight about mixing meetings and the actual artwork. AKMA is very protective of its treasures as well – but experience has taught that blending groups and the artwork leads to enrichment for the patrons and a unique meeting experience.

“We definitely want people to experience the collection and we know how to make that work,” Lund says. “We talk to the planners to see what level their participants want to enjoy the exhibits, from just a mixer before dinner where people can browse, all the way to having docents give tours. We know that when people come to the museum and see the collection, they go away and bring others back here.”

A museum of AKMA’s quality in a town St. Joseph’s size is a rarity, but it would not have happened without a handful of determined citizens who started nearly a century ago.

Twelve women who wanted the city residents to better understand and appreciate art founded the St. Joseph Art League in 1913. The founders had a discerning eye for art – their first purchase was William Merrit Chase’s painting “A Venetian Balcony.” Chase even discounted his work by $500, he was so impressed with the women’s tenacity in starting the league. The cost: $1,000.

But the Albrecht-Kemper’s permanent home was not opened until 1966, in the former home of William and Lena Albrecht, founder of the Western Tablet Company. Best known for the Big Chief tablet found in every school across America, success afforded the Albrecht’s the opportunity to build a mansion that now constitutes part of the museum’s facilities. An addition was built in 1991 and Kemper was added to the museum’s name, thanks to the generous support of banker Crosby Kemper.

The museum is hardly sprawling and its vision is not random. American artwork is the primary purpose. But there is no one time in American art history that overwhelms another. A portrait gallery of early colonial bigwigs starts the tour. It winds through impressionism, abstraction, pop, realism, Western and native art and contemporary art. Because of that, there’s opportunity to understand American art movements in a visual and fascinating way.

Mary Cassatt, Thomas Hart Benton, Fairfield Porter, John Steuart Curry, Andrew Wyeth and “Grandma” Layton are represented in the collection.

“When I first came to the gallery,” says Oldham, who grew up in the region, “I was impressed with the quality of the collection. There was a great opportunity here, I thought, to make this a must for art lovers.”

It’s also become a must for meeting planners who are bring their groups to St. Joseph.

“I think we’ve established ourselves as a very special venue, a very unique experience for groups of all kinds,” Lund says. MM&E

(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)

Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art

2818 Frederick Avenue

Saint Joseph, MO 64506

816-233-7003 • 888-254-2787

At a Glance

Type of Facility: Gallery/Museum

Group size this facility is able to accommodate: 10-250

Type of cuisine: The AKMA café serves contemporary American. A list of preferred caterers provides a wide range of cuisine options.

Number of private dining rooms available: 4

Number of guestrooms: 4

Special Features/Amenities: An impressive collection of permanent and special exhibition of art by the finest artists in America.

Are group rates/discounts available? Yes

Is the facility disabled-accessible? Yes

Price Range: $10 per person and up

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