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On KC's gallery scene: "There are good galleries here, but I don't know of one that strives to help artists export work or ideas into the larger visual-art environment."
On local collectors: "We have only one great collector in town: Jerry Nerman."
On the Charlotte Street Foundation: "I think a lot of artists in town have a short-term goal of getting a grant from Charlotte Street. That's fine, but it won't get you anywhere outside of Kansas City — nobody over there is connected to the larger art world. It's a good part of the local ecosystem but it's totally isolated, and when artists are isolated, they don't grow."
On art publication Outpost Journal's KC issue: "Horrible."
"What Kansas City needs, to quote Jack Nicholson in Batman, is an enema," Kelley says. "The conversation about art here is generally one of naïve isolation and timid acceptance because people are afraid to criticize the big names in town. That's not how you become a major arts city. If you want to be considered a respectable destination by the larger art world, you have to have institutions in place that aren't just promoting artists but also challenging them, honestly critiquing them."
But is it realistic or useful to compare Kansas City with New York as a milieu for artists?
"I think that, in a lot of ways, Sean is more interested in the blue-chip art market — artists who went to the right schools, have the connections, showed at the right New York galleries, and whose work is sold as a portfolio item," says one local arts administrator. "Which is fine. And it's fine for him to want that for local artists. But there's a lot happening outside that rarefied air that he doesn't seem as interested in."
Still, because Kelley has access to artists who have that national reputation (Cave, Aycock, Paine), and because pretty much everybody agrees that his work at Grand Arts was significant, he remains a valuable ally for emerging artists. And because about 75 percent of his income comes from the buying and selling of roughly 600 pieces of art he owns, he has plenty of time to visit studios and talk shop.
"He's very available to young artists," says Calder Kamin, an artist and career adviser at KCAI. "I always stress the importance of networking to artists, and he's definitely offered that to both me and a lot of students here."
"He has a knack for bringing to the forefront ideas that make the piece more real, more about yourself," Eisenhart says. "He'll look at one of my objects and be like, 'eh.' Then he'll ask questions about why I did this or why I did that. And it makes you question why you make what you make and it makes you aware of how others interpret your work, and I think both of those things are important for artists to consider."
Kelley's cocktail of analytical knack and sheer force of personality is potent enough that, if he has made enemies, he seems unfazed by that thought. He's comfortable wherever he goes — and he goes everywhere.
At Haw Contemporary one recent Saturday afternoon to browse new works by Del Harrow and Corey Antis, Kelley chatted up every person in the building, including Bill Haw Jr., the owner, and Paul Smith, an up-and-coming local artist. Later, at the Bill Brady gallery, he raved about the space to the gallery manager and correctly guessed the price of a Steinman and Tear piece ($3,000). Kelley smiled wide. Everybody smiled back.
Driving out of the West Bottoms, he spoke of Brady's pedigree — "He has a certain mythology about him of showing a lot of Next Great Artists" — but questioned the price tag of the show's centerpiece, a 15-foot Douglas-fir lean-to sculpture by Virginia Overton.
"I mean, it's impressive, it's imposing, it casts those cool shadows on the wall, but $44,000?" he said. "Is that justified? I don't know about that. It's a conversation worth having."