What starts well enough, with the occasional blast of scenic views and corresponding rows of billboards, builds into a duel between nature and man that reaches its explosive apex where the undeniable beauty of the Ozarks collides with Branson, the kitsch capital of the universe.
Even the relatively short hour-and-a-half drive from Kansas City to Sedalia provides a glimpse into this scientific certainty, with such man-made offerings as a porn superstore, a Confederate cemetery, an outlet mall and approximately 211 billboards advertising everything from God to porn superstores. For all the repetition in those signs, however, not so much as one reveals the best reason to make that drive.
Set back into the campus of Sedalia's State Fair Community College stands the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, a 16,000-square-foot building that's turned the small Missouri town into a destination for art lovers around the country. Named for its chief benefactor, retired radiologist Harold Daum, the museum opened just seventeen months ago but already lays claim to a New York Times profile. According to the museum's sign-in book, recent visitors have come from Nebraska, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Arizona, Georgia, California, Oklahoma and Minnesota. The patrons probably never imagined they'd visit Missouri's home to "rails, trails and ragtime."
At any one time, the museum displays just 10 percent of the impressive Daum collection, including works by such artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, David Salle, Peter Voulkos and Andy Warhol. Museum Director Douglass Freed also shows work by a rotating cast of regional artists, including Sedalia native and former Kansas City resident Sharon Patten.
The Daum presents four guest-artist shows a year, with photographer Michael Peven's exhibit Good Dog/Bon Chien running through September 13. The photographs, all of which include Peven's dog, have been produced on a massive scale to "bring certain culturally assumed preconceptions about photography to the forefront, asking us to rethink what we think we already know."
If you already know you're not interested in extreme close-ups of dogs, that's fine. The Daum's own photography collection includes works of smaller scale with considerably broader subject matter. From a distance, the images taken by Belgian photographer Gilbert Fastenaekens appear like nothing more than black boxes, but up close they reveal vivid nocturnal shots of ghostly trees and deserted European alleys. Other photographers on display include Robert Dawson, Mark Klett, Richard Loftis and Larry Fink, whose "Declaration of Independence, Martin Creek, Pennsylvania" captures the beautiful beginnings of a 1978 dirtball make-out session.
Which brings us back to Sedalia.