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"Being in New York, I was meeting so many great artists and thinkers. Those neighborhoods are so dense and full of them," Kelley says. "Chuck Close, Roberta Smith — the mean-bitch art critic for The New York Times, who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. I'd go to Dean & DeLuca, one of whose founders came from Kansas City. A very 'tight world' type of thing."
The riff goes on: "And it was all about self-identity, and I just loved that. Nothing else in life but art allows that it's-all-about-me mentality — the idea that this object, this work, is about me but it's meant for you. It's like, 'I'm trying to get you to understand how fucked up my life is, how beautiful my life is — the successes, the failures, the loves, everything.' And that's what I learned in New York. That, and it exposed me to a really dark subterranean subculture for the first time — clubs like the Anvil and the Mine Shaft. You go in, and it's a legitimately scary abandoned warehouse, and there's people fucking right out in the open, people pulling chains out of each other's asses. I'm this Catholic boy from the Midwest standing there staring like, 'What the fuck is going on in here?' "
In mid-January, Kelley was circling a parking lot north of the Nelson. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon — weather that meant a crowd. There was nowhere to park. He pulled his Jetta into the driveway of a large stone house.
"This was my first apartment in Kansas City," he said. "I lived on the third floor." He put the car in park. "What the hell," he said. "Nobody's living here right now anyway."
He crossed 45th Street and looked back for a wider view of his old place. "That one right there," Kelley said, pointing at the house next door, "that's where Margaret Silva used to live. That's how I met Margaret."
In 1993, Kelley's boyfriend at the time, Greg Cabrera, died of AIDS. Kelley had grown less enamored of the gallery business — "You're often in the awkward position of whoring out artists you love to these johns who don't care about the work and are just trying to get the best deal they can squeeze out of you" — and decided it was the right time for a big change: a move to New York.
"At the time, Alice and Vito and Dennis and I would have conversations, and they'd ask me what I wanted to do," Kelley said. "And I would tell them about how I would drive around Kansas City and have daydreams about being in a position where I could do what I really loved, which was to support artists and help them show their work and give them curatorial and financial support and be a part of their evolutionary process and allow them to mature as artists."
He went on: "I specifically remember saying that I wished I could find a person, a woman who didn't want to have sex with me, that had more money than she knew what to do with, that would let me financially divert her money toward supporting artists through helping them with new bodies of work or one seminal work. And then, not long before I was set to move — I'd already sublet an apartment and everything — Margaret stopped by one day and said, 'I don't want you to go to New York.' And she handed over an envelope with a $50,000 check in it. Then she put $1.5 million into a gallery space downtown and said, basically, 'Do whatever you want.' I just couldn't believe it. My wish had come true! And that's what became Grand Arts."