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Reflecting on the Impact of Artist Claes Oldenburg in My Home Town

Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen on south lawn of Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Photograph by N. Karon Tripp.

Sadly, the world lost a Pop Art legend when Swedish-born American artist, Claes Oldenburg passed away this Monday morning in Manhattan. Oldenburg, frequently collaborating with his wife Coosje van Bruggen, elevated ordinary objects to monumental scale.  In this post, I’ll share my experience with the Shuttlecocks installation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the impact they have had on the city I love.

Like Many I Have a Long and Personal History with the Nelson-Atkins Museum

The Nelson Atkins has a very special place in my heart. My father proposed to my mother there. One of my very first memories is of visiting the museum on an outing with my parents when I was around 3 years old. There were other trips with my parents and many school field trips there. I moved nearby as a young adult so I could continue to visit regularly. I became a member and eventually a volunteer committee chair. It has been a constant in my life more than any person or place. Like many, I take changes there rather personally.

The Shuttlecocks

In 1991 Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen were invited by the Nelson-Atkins to design a large scale project for the museum grounds. The main museum (the only building at the time) is a long Beaux Arts structure stretching across the property with a great lawn on either side. Arriving at their concept is described here by Oldenburg, including some of the concept drawings. Briefly, the museum was viewed as a badminton net and the 4 giant shuttlecocks were scattered on either side of the net as if at the end of a game.

We are talking massive shuttlecocks here.  Each one is 17 ft. 11 inches tall, 15 ft. 1 inch wide at the crown, with a 4-foot nose-cone diameter.

I took the photo above looking toward the museum from the foot of the south lawn.

A City-Wide Controversy

Many thought scattering 17-foot shuttlecocks on the manicured lawn of their beloved museum, reducing it to a badminton net, a disrespectful slap in the face. In the Kansas City Star newspaper there were hostile articles, letters to the editor, and editorial cartoons alleging that the project was “not art” and calling it a “giant waste.”

The city’s Parks & Recreation Department objected to the installation. Museum staff offered a course in art history to help people understand the longstanding use of everyday objects in art, to no avail.

I don’t remember talking to anyone who embraced the project. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t hate the idea but I also wasn’t enthusiastic. However, the donors and the museum stood firm and I trusted their vision.

Later sports fans insisted the Shuttlecocks were cursed because no local sports team had won a national championship since their installation. Of course, the 2015 World Series win by the Royals “broke the curse” of the Shuttlecocks.

From Controversy to Love Affair

I was apprehensive about my first visit to the museum after the installation. The Shuttlecocks are massive. There are 4 of them. They cannot be ignored. I had to come to terms with whatever I felt. I wasn’t going to stop going to the museum and I couldn’t avoid or ignore the sculptures.  

The occasion of my first post-installation visit was a day-long event at the museum. I took my box lunch out to the south lawn to enjoy my meal in the beautiful weather. Time to come to terms with the shuttlecocks one way or the other.

There was a large group of children playing on the lawn. They joined hands and began dancing around the shuttlecock closest to the building. (The one on the left in the above photo.) It was delightful. Then, everything hit me at once. The whimsy of the shuttlecocks coupled with the children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosey. The fabulous contrast of this to the imposing sandstone building – I was in love, and have been ever since. The rest of the city soon fell in love with them as well. They are now a treasured city landmark and symbol of the museum.

In fact, I won an Editor’s Choice Award in a Kansas City landmarks photo contest for this photo taken from under the Shuttlecock on the north lawn.

Photo taken from under one of the Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
on north lawn of Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Photograph by N. Karon Tripp.

Building on the Shuttlecock’s Influence

In 1999 the Nelson-Atkins Museum, needing to expand, held a design competition for a new building slated for the north lawn. I was conflicted. The museum was only able to display a fraction of its art. On the other hand a building on the north side would mean moving the 2 shuttlecocks that were there, destroying the concept of the piece. It would also block the view of the north façade of the beautiful Beaux Arts building. Fortunately, the winning design was by the brilliant architect Steven Holl who ignored that directive from the museum and placed his addition down the east side of the main building leaving the north shuttlecocks and the original concept for the piece intact.

Furthermore, the Shuttlecocks were a part of the original inspiration for the design. Something I found very engaging. Pages 19 and 21 of this very nice presentation of the project illustrate the central idea of a parallax view. I swear at least one of the original contest submission drawings had shuttlecocks loosely drawn over another depiction of this.

 I’ve not been able to find a reference to these initial drawings online (probably because of the evolution of the design and concept during construction.) The stone was the original building the feathers were shuttlecocks on their side – half buried.  The feather of “Feather and Stone” now refers to the light of the “lenses” being light as a feather.  If anyone can offer evidence backing up, or disproving, my memory please let me know.

Again, There is Widespread Controversy

This reference to a public appearance by Holl on March 17, 2005 is from an article in K.C. Studio magazine.

“Although many in that audience were more circumspect in their remarks, others did not hold back, likening the new building to a “Styrofoam cup” or a “metal box” akin to a Butler Building that belonged in an industrial park. The criticisms were reminiscent of the public response 10 years earlier to the “Shuttlecocks,” designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. And much as the “Shuttlecocks” came to be embraced by Kansas City, so too the Bloch Building, named for its major benefactor, Henry Bloch, founder of H & R Block, art collector, philanthropist and former chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, has become a point of civic pride.”

Both Masterworks Embody What Great Art Does

Both the Shuttlecocks and the museum expansion project were controversial at first but both have become beloved icons and points of pride for the city. Both masterworks did what great art does. It challenges us to test and question the boundaries of our perceptions, expand our horizons, and have conversations about the process.  It gives us the means to step up and grow. Great art moves us. It may not persuade us, we may not love it, but we grow and become richer for having experienced it.

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