The Nelson Cows Start Mooing


Regional/ Kansas City:


© Jack Cashill

Courtesy of
February 2007

About ten years ago I produced a documentary on Kansas City for KCPT-TV called “Remember Me, KC.” It was the first project that I had done in-house, and so I was watched pretty closely.

Back then, we worked in a linear, non-digital editing suite. We would lay down the voice over, then lay down the images, then finally lay down the music and sound. I prided myself on moving quickly and getting things right the first time through. Going backwards was expensive and time-consuming.

Among the more intriguing film I found was an old silent clip of cowboys driving cattle through the Kansas City stockyards. I liked it so much that I laid down 25 seconds of it without voice over. I judged that once I added sound and music, it could hold the viewer’s attention for that long.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked the editor, a woman who apparently did not share my enthusiasm for cows.

“Yes,” I said more decisively than I felt. Without sound, I must admit, this procession of mute cows did seem a little tedious. In fact, after watching it 20 or so times and enduring 20 or so eye rolls from my nearly mutinous editor, it seemed, even to me, about as lively and entertaining as the Bataan Death March. Stubbornly, though, I persisted.

One day, before the music and sound were added to finish the project, the suits came down to take a look. “What do you think?” I asked when the lights came up.

“Not bad,” said the one guy, “But what’s with those cows?” My editor just smiled and did a wordless “I told you so” samba in her seat.

Ever since then, I have had a particular sympathy for anyone engaged in a work in progress, especially those whose work is publicly displayed. Architects come to mind here, and none more vividly than Stephen Holl, the man behind the expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

For the last several years now, Holl has had to oversee a veritable herd of massive, mute cows on the east side of the Nelson, and the self-appointed stockyard superintendents have been unforgiving.

“It suddenly dawned upon this critical cutlet,” wrote one typical reviewer, “that what it had taken for an ugly old shipping container was actually the building closest to completion!”

Speaking of cows, the “shipping container” dig was just a fresh variation on an already tired line of insults along an oddly agro-industrial theme. The folks at the Nelson had heard them all: “ Butler building,” “corn crib,” “agricultural storage building.”

True, the folks who were accusing the new Nelson of looking like an agricultural storage building had likely never seen an agricultural storage


At night, when lit, the buildings are gorgeous.


building, but that was the worst part. These were the cosmopolitans who were outraged, the smart people, the ones who could find their way to a protest meeting at the Community Christian Church on Main without resorting to Map Quest.

Bloch Building

To be sure, Holl and the Nelson had a lot more at stake than I ever did. If I were wrong about the cows, I would only lose a couple hours of time, a few hundred bucks of someone else’s money, and a fair share of face.

In Holl’s case, the fix would cost another $200 million or so, about five more years, and likely his career. I don’t know how Holl or Wilson or Henry Bloch, who put up enough jack to get the presumed corn palace named after him, got out of bed some mornings.

As it happens, I did get to lay sound and music over my misunderstood cows. I tracked down a CD of “cow sounds” and picked the most self-assured mooing I could find. Then I laid in some ersatz Marlboro music that was about two notes shy of copy infringement.

Voila! My cows suddenly came to life. Just as I had hoped, these boldly vocal bovines took a star turn in a brawny, big-shouldered epic of an heroic Kansas City. “You know,” said the editor sheepishly at the premiere, “we could have a gone a little longer with the cows.”

A certain sheepishness is settling in on the local art scene as well. I took an early tour of the Bloch Building, as the $196 million expansion is called, and it is the flat-out coolest, most fluid structure I have ever walked through. True, there was no art in place yet, but most people don’t go to art museums for the art. They go for the going. And here the going is decidedly good.

Admittedly, I am not your average critic. I lost my interest in venerable Kansas City buildings like the Nelson the year l spent in France. On my street that year, in the humble town of Malzeville where we lived, there stood a still functional pissoir twice as old. That takes you back a notch.

No, what Americans have always done well is make bright, shiny new things. The five luminous glass boxes at the Nelson uphold this noble tradition. They not only reflect well within, but they also project well without. The visitor continually encounters unexpected and sometimes stunning new images of the cityscape to the south and the Nelson to the west.

At night, when lit, the buildings are gorgeous. [return]

And in the daytime, they are at the very least interesting. Unlike, say, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the other Bilbao wannabes springing up hither and you, the Bloch Building does not have that narcissistic “look at me” air about itself. This is Kansas City after all.

True, the glass boxes still do look a little like Butler buildings, but then again the Eiffel Tower still does look like a construction crane. When built, the French hated it. Many of them still hate the glass pyramid at the Louvre, but for no particular good reason other than it wasn’t always there. The pyramid makes the Louvre work, unobtrusively and symmetrically at that.

The expansion opens in June. If I had my way, of course, I would like to see at least one of the new boxes dedicated to cowboy art. But since that ain’t going to happen, I would recommend one final marketing tweak to make the whole package work: change the name.

To honor the Bloch family’s largesse, the Nelson people should rename the old facility the “ Bloch Building.” It looks like a Bloch Building, solid and enduring.

The expansion, on the other hand, is something other than a “building,” and everything about it rebels against the word “Bloch.” To make lemonade out the critics’ lemons, I’d go with “The Butler Boxes.”

Butler’s local. If Sprint’s willing to pay to get its name on an arena, Butler should certainly be willing to pony up for a sleek new art museum. My guess is that it will be full of people a whole lot more often.



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