Art in Search of a Home – “Man in Despair”: Part 1

(originally published 3/28/19)

In Kansas City, it’s hard to tell what will spark a controversy, particularly around a subject like art with its landmines at the crossroads of individual tastes, cultural message, and societal norms. We loved it in 1979 when Cristo wrapped the Loose Park sidewalks in golden lengths of nylon, but when the Nelson unveiled its now-signature shuttlecocks in 1994, the general reaction was befuddled amusement. “That’s art? Really? Okay, if you say so.” While many love the sculptures and fountains brought to Kansas City by the late J.C. Nichols, others mock them as manufactured (which indeed most are), nothing more than glorified lawn ornaments. But, as it turns out, our community is not always comfortable with more modern abstract works – depending, of course, on where they are installed.

Consider the case of the outcast “Man in Despair.” That phrase might seem redundant – an outcast is almost always one in despair. But “Man in Despair” was the name that former Kansas City Art Institute student and sculptor Jose Vasquez gave to the limestone sculpture he created in the mid 1980s. The 7 foot long and 4 foot high piece depicts, as described in the Kansas City Star, “a man on his knees, leaning forward and covering his face with his oversized right hand.” The very embodiment of despair. The artist had generously loaned it indefinitely to the Parks Department, who believed they had the perfect spot – Ward Parkway. That idea was smacked down by the Municipal Arts Commission, the city’s overseers of all public art installations. The reasons were not given, but can be easily imagined. Undeterred, the Parks Department came up with another perfect spot.

Today, just north of the UMKC campus, in the area bounded by Volker Boulevard on the north, 50th Street on the south, Troost on the east and Rockhill Road on the west sits the Stowers Institute for Cancer Research. The Stowers Institute campus features a beautiful water-themed garden that occupies the western tip of the property’s triangle, a place where art is perfectly integrated into the setting. But in 1986, the property was the site of Menorah Hospital, one of the city’s most respected and frequented hospitals. At that time, the western tip of the property was under the direction of the Parks Department, and this was the site they chose for “Man in Despair.” They would certainly get Menorah’s input, but after all, their property, their sculpture, right?

Wrong. As it turned out, Menorah had strong objections. The hospital wanted to erect a large sign (on city property?) directing patients to their emergency room entrance on the Volker side of the hospital. And in case they didn’t get traction with their sign argument, the chairman of their board of directors added another objection, saying bluntly, “I think it is in extremely poor taste and that it borders on being obscene.” There is some unintended irony that a hospital – a place of caring and healing – would see a figure in despair and think of “poor taste” and “obscene,” but not compassion. Add to that the fact that the artist, surprised to learn of the controversy, had told Star reporter James C. Fitzpatrick that the Hemingway-inspired sculpture was intended as something “people would look at and think ‘Hey, my day wasn’t that bad.’”

The Parks Board, which at the time included Anita Gorman, Carl DiCapo and Ollie Gates, was not all that keen on the piece. Gates said it looked like “a man bent over sick.” (Again, what was he expecting? It is “despair” after all.) The board would have backed the staff recommendation, however, but they wanted Menorah’s agreement, and without that, the “Man in Despair” continued to wander.

Over in Brookside, the merchants association’s director, Virginia Kellogg took notice of the homeless statue. Kellogg had just initiated the first Brookside Art Fair that year, and saw the sculpture as a good fit for the new image of Brookside as a place for art. The merchants she spoke with had no objections, and so she offered Brookside Court Park as a location.

Brookside Court Park is the type of park that you probably don’t even realize is a park, despite the fact that you might drive by it every day. It sits at 63rd Street and Brookside Boulevard, on the small patch of grass just north of the tennis courts. The most use it gets is during the Art Annual, when it is usually covered by sponsor tents and food vendors. The rest of the year, its most distinctive features are a park bench, two covered bus stops, and a wood-planked section of the sidewalk, honoring Bob Arfsten of the Dime Store (famed for its original hardwood floors). But in 1986, the only other feature was a flagpole. So it seemed agreed upon that “Man in Despair” would find a home in Brookside Court Park in the fall of 1986. Everyone was pleased.

Except, of course, they weren’t. And by “they” I mean the J.C. Nichols Company. According to Fitzpatrick’s reporting, the company “discouraged the association from putting the sculpture in the park, but it is unclear why.” It isn’t hard to imagine that such a piece would be a drastic stylist departure from the J.C. Nichols tradition in public art. But having had a long association with Brookside, I have heard other reasons over the years. Privately, some of the merchants admitted to finding the piece less than appealing. Practical considerations have also been mentioned. Because of its low profile, the statue would be almost unnoticeable and unrecognizable as a piece of art. Indeed, many thought people would just use the piece as a bench. Whatever the combination of reasons, “Man in Despair,” remained in desperate need of a home.

The last of the Fitzpatrick pieces written for the Star ends on a somewhat happy note. “Man in Despair” was eventually installed in Gilham Park in 1989, without any ceremony, and without anything more than a flat piece of ground upon which it could rest. Given the several false leads for a permanent location, one might take some comfort in knowing at least that the statue had found a home, even if it was unheralded and overlooked. But apparently, there’s not even that much satisfaction.

Today, as I was writing this piece, I drove by Gilham Park to get an up-close look at the statue, the one in front of the building at 39th & Gilham. There’s a statue there, alright. It just isn’t “Man in Despair.” Oh, sure, it kinda sorta resembles “Despair,” but just kinda. So, the saga continues. Maybe someone who reads this will know the location of Vasquez’s piece. If not, I’ve sent a request to the Parks Department to find out what gives with these two statues. Is “Man in Despair” somewhere else in Gilham Park? Has it been moved to another park? What was its fate? And what the hell is that statue at 39th & Gilham? I mean, I guess you could call it art. But it’s no Rodin’s “Thinker.” And it certainly is no Vasquez’s “Man in Despair.”

A special thanks to the work of James C. Fitzpatrick, whose original KC Star stories on the sculpture provided almost all of the material for this piece. Sadly, gone are the days where a staff reporter for a local paper is given the opportunity and tenure to follow such “small” stories over a course of years, and provide the rich insights that such perspective offers. Thankfully, Mr. Fitzpatrick is still sharing those kind of insights at his blog,.

JimmyC Says

(Photo: NOT “Man in Despair” by Jose Vasquez, but labeled as such on the KCMO Parks Department website as being in Gilham Park. )

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