He cultivated the image of an Ozark hillbilly, yet he was the first artist to have his self-portrait on the cover of Time magazine. He hated art museums, saying he'd rather have his work hanging in a brothel, but he became Missouri's most renowned 20th-century artist. So what would Thomas Hart Benton think of the arts scene in his hometown on this, the 125th anniversary of his birth?
With 4.4 million arts patrons a year and 65 performing arts organizations, Kansas City has blossomed from a rural cow town on the edge of the Great Plains to a cultivated cosmopolitan city. Would Benton be rolling in his grave or beaming down from above on the city's still vibrant jazz scene, its edgy arts district, a new performing arts center that is a work of art in itself and two free art museums where, yes, his work now hangs?
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Kansas CityGetting there: American, United, Spirit, US Airways and Southwest have nonstop flights from Chicago airports.
Where to stay: Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St., (800) 433-1426, hotelphillips.com, from $179. Opened in 1931 on the site of Harry Truman's haberdashery shop, the boutique hotel has an Art Deco lobby, an artist-in-residence program and sponsors Kansas City arts organizations. It was renovated in 2012.
Where to eat:
• Webster House: 1644 Wyandotte St., (816) 221-4713, websterhousekc.com. Built as a public school in 1885 in Romanesque Revival style, its restaurant serves Southern cuisine and shops sell antiques, gift items and collectibles. In the Crossroads Arts District.
• The American Restaurant: 200 E. 25th St., (816) 545-8001, theamericankc.com. Fine dining atop Hallmark Card's headquarters in Crown Center; serves new American cuisine.
• Blue Bird Bistro: 1700 Summit St., (816) 221-7559, bluebirdbistro.com. Specializes in natural, organic, sustainable, local ingredients in MidAmerican artisan cuisine. Communal Wednesday-night table, monthly farmers' table.
What to see:
• Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historic Site: 3616 Belleview, (816) 931-5722, mostateparks.com/Benton.htm; $4 adults, $2.50 children.
• Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: 1601 Broadway, (816) 994-7200, tickets (816) 994-7222, kauffmancenter.org.
• Crossroads Arts District: 19th and Main streets, (816) 994-7313, kccrossroads.org. Galleries stay open late on the first Friday of every month.
• American Jazz Museum and The Blue Room: 1616 E. 18th St., (816) 474-8463, americanjazzmuseum.org, general admission $10, The Blue Room tickets vary by performance.
• Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art: 4420 Warwick Blvd., (816) 753-5784, kemperart.org, free admission and parking.
• Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: 4525 Oak St., (816) 751-1278, nelson-atkins.org, free except for some special exhibitions, $8 parking in museum garage.
For more information: Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, (800) 767-7700, visitkc.com.
We'll never know. Benton died in 1975 working in his studio here, but fans of the arts can decide for themselves whether Lonely Planet got it right when it put Kansas City among its top 10 U.S. destinations for 2014.
The old curmudgeon
"He was a cantankerous old man," says Steve Sitton, site administrator at the Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historic Site. Benton "had a few close friends, lots of acquaintances and some enemies."
He hated critics, didn't get along with the New York art scene and wasn't tactful about it, Sitton says. But Benton had a genius for depicting the common man and his folkways in big, bold colors in his paintings and murals. "Tom wasn't the critic's darling, but people liked him."
Born in 1889, Benton studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris where he experimented with cubism and impressionism, earning the nickname "El Greco of the Ozarks." But it was World War I that changed him as an artist. As a draftsman in the Navy, he designed military camouflage and developed a knack for realism. At age 50, he was at the top of his career when he bought a house in Kansas City and converted part of the old stables into his studio, putting in a large window on the north side for light. He died there of a massive heart attack at age 85. His wife, Rita, died just 11 months later and the property was left untouched.
When opened to the public as a museum, the house and studio appeared as if Benton had just walked from the room. Nearly everything inside is original, says Sitton. "We have Tom's paintbrushes, his clothes, his toothbrush."
The studio has blank canvasses stacked along the walls, an easel set up in a corner and a beat-up table with paint jars and coffee cans full of brushes.
The home is quite modest and simply decorated with Benton's paintings providing most of the color. He and Rita loved to entertain, hosting spaghetti dinners on Saturday nights for writers, architects, poets, politicians and other artists. He was a friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, Diego Rivera and Harry Truman, who called Benton "the best damn painter in America," says Sitton.
The family loved music, as evidenced by the baby grand piano in the parlor. Two Benton paintings in the home depict his daughter playing a guitar and his son a flute. Benton was accomplished on the harmonica.
An architectural gem
The music might not be quite so folksy in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the $413 million home of the Kansas City Symphony, Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera of Kansas City as well as the setting for national and international productions.
Even those who don't snag a ticket for a performance stop by to admire the sheer beauty of the building. Completed in 2011 on an escarpment in the midst of the city, stainless steel curved walls fan out like two armadillo shells on one side while on the other a soaring glass wall and roof function like a sun porch overlooking the city. Inside, the center is separated into two main performance halls.
Helzberg Hall, where the symphony plays, has walls of acoustic-friendly Douglas fir that make audience members feel like they are inside a cello. A 5,548-pipe organ dominates at the back of the stage.
In the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, operagoers see the translation of lyrics on screens set in the backs of seats in front of them.
Blocks of galleries
As the headquarters of Hallmark Cards, Kansas City boasts a high number of visual artists and a flourishing arts community that's found a home in the bohemian Crossroads Arts District.
Just down the hill from the Kauffmann, the 20-block section of downtown is one of the country's most concentrated gallery districts. Architectural firms, design studios, ad agencies and other businesses that dip into the creative arts have set up shop here, many in repurposed warehouses.
This is the place to pop into a late-night diner, pick up a unique item from a boutique shop or book a table at a high-end restaurant.
Most important, though, are the galleries and studios, more than 70 of them.
And every month they throw a party. During First Friday, shops and studios stay open late and as many as 10,000 people spill out onto the sidewalks. Street performers entertain visitors strolling between galleries.
Jumping jazz district
Kansas City isn't the birthplace of jazz, but the city embraced it big time. Still does.
During the 1920s and '30s, Kansas City became known as the "Paris of the Plains" for its wide-open entertainment scene, including 50 jazz joints and 100 nightclubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses. Political boss Tom Pendergast thumbed his nose at Prohibition and gained control of the stream of illegal booze to these establishments and the brothels and gambling parlors that sprung up with them. The 1950s song "Kansas City" recalls the era in lyrics:
"I'm gonna be standing on the corner
12th Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby
And a bottle of Kansas City wine."
Though it's no longer such a wide-open town, Kansas City still has more than 40 nightclubs where jazz is often heard and its 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District boasts the first museum in the country solely dedicated to this musical style.
At the American Jazz Museum. visitors see the sax played by Kansas City native Charlie Parker, one of Louis Armstrong's trumpets and a sequined gown worn by Ella Fitzgerald. Rare film footage includes Billie Holliday singing "God Bless the Child." Along with listening stations and interactive exhibits, there are posters, sheet music and album covers on display.
Best of all, the museum has a working jazz club, The Blue Room, named after a famous 1930s club. Here visitors can see local, national and international jazz artists and sit in on -- or join in -- weekly jam sessions.
A pair of free museums
In many big cities, you'll pay a hefty price to visit a major art museum. Not so in Kansas City. It has two, and both are free.
Visitors to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art are greeted by a Louise Bourgeois sculpture of a spider, more than 11 feet tall, seemingly inching along the lawn near the entrance. Inside visitors find a collection that has tripled in size since the museum opened its doors 20 years ago. Included are works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol.
The Kemper has three locations: the main museum near the Country Club Plaza neighborhood, a second a short distance away in a century-old landmark building and a third in the Crossroads Arts District.
Kansas City's big, encyclopedic museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, came about through the trusts of a local newspaper publisher and a teacher. Opened in 1933, its original neoclassical building sits in contrast to a 2007 addition, the Block Building, a decidedly contemporary work that's as large as a 67-story building lying on its side. Most of the building is underground. The exposed section resembles a long, glass block that glows after dark like a Japanese lantern.
A 22-acre sculpture garden sprawls on the museum lawn with the nation's largest collection of Henry Moore bronzes and four of Claus Oldenburg's "Shuttlecocks" outsized badminton birdies.
Inside the museum, 34,500 pieces span 5,000 years of art. It's especially known for its Asian galleries and a rare work by Italian artist Caravaggio. More than one would-be groom has proposed alongside a knight in shining armor in the Renaissance Gallery.
It also has more than a hundred works by Thomas Hart Benton, including "Persephone," his take on the Greek myth of the goddess' abduction by Hades, god of the Underworld. In Benton's version, the goddess is depicted as a sunbathing farm girl and Hades as a lustful farmer with a face resembling the old curmudgeon himself.
• Information for this article was gathered during a writers' conference sponsored by the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association.