The Nelson reaches out to the community

Museum membership recruiter turns on young crowd to KC fine arts scene

Sunday, June 8, 2003

A decade ago single people craving culture wrote a $30 check to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and became instant members of its young friends group.

But sending in money was about all these swinging singles did, until a perky, 22-year-old named Brenda Barton stood up at a meeting and asked, "Can we have wine at the museum on Friday nights?"


AP Photo

Brenda Barton, associate for membership services at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., helps young adults connect with the museum and Kansas City's art community. Barton has spent 10 years turning the Young Friends of Art into a group of 1,300 volunteers.

Since then, things haven't been the same around the Nelson. Barton, now 32, has spent the past 10 years turning the Young Friends of Art organization into a fun, dynamic group of about 1,300 volunteers. They do everything from staging galas that bring in $10,000 for the Nelson to taking tickets during exhibits.

She's turned on countless 20- and 30-somethings to the Kansas City arts scene with her programs, which take them on architectural tours of the city and to artists' studios and the homes of private collectors. Members are even taking part in Japanese tea ceremonies and studying "the art of the liquid martini."

"People sometimes, well, a lot of the time, are intimidated by art," Barton said. "I try to get them to enjoy art and to have an opinion. People know what they like and what they don't like."

She added: "We have these great docent tours after breakfast at the museum, and we highlight a few paintings from each area of the museum. People become engaged whether they want to or not."

Not only does she head up the Young Friends group, as the associate of membership services she also plans events for other groups at the museum.

"When you think about it, Brenda has to think up programs for people right out of college who'd be just as happy with a beer bash, to people who have retired from successful businesses and have collected art for years," said Aaron March, a member of the museum's Society of Fellows, or major donor group.

"The Nelson, this building, isn't anything unless it's exciting for people, and Brenda makes it exciting," said March, who is a former board chairman of Young Friends of Art.

Passion for art

For Barton, art always has been a passion she's wanted to share. She grew up in Chicago, and her mother took her to countless art galleries and museums when she was a child.

In college, Barton majored in art history, which she loved, and English, which she thought would land her a job some day. Her house in Kansas City is filled with art she buys from local artists, and she spends her free time visiting galleries in Kansas City, going to art movies, home tours and discovering the architecture of old buildings downtown.

"Art is a passion and an interest that seeps into all parts of her life in such a positive way," said Lisa Kiene, one of Barton's friends and a Young Friends board member. "She goes from this art event to that art event and connects so many people together in so many ways," she said.

"And it's her own personal warmth that draws people to her."

Tim McNeill, who works for Cerner, said when he first went to a Young Friends get-together a few years ago, Barton came right up to him. She found out that he was interested in business and hooked him up with some other people at the party. It was her openness and warmth that hooked him to the group.

"I kind of expected the group to maybe be elitist or exclusive, but Brenda makes it inclusive and fun," said McNeill, who now lives in Belgium. "I think that what makes her successful is that she's very good at making people feel comfortable."

Parties and outreach

Getting people like McNeill to feel comfortable at the museum was one of her first goals, Barton said. She wanted to shatter the myth that a museum is an intimidating, dark place people visit once a year, or maybe when their relatives visit.

Barton planned Friday night parties at the Nelson. She was host of new-member breakfasts, followed by a tour of the museum, and had members running around the museum looking for clues as part of a scavenger hunt party. Barton worked on getting other young professional groups to the museum, such as young lawyers, and partnered with other arts and cultural organizations on parties and events at the museum.

"We definitely have a lot of fun," she said. Barton's second task, she decided early on, was to "get the Nelson outside the Nelson."

In other words, she wanted to connect her groups with Kansas City's art scene. The result, former member Brian Masilionis said, has been exciting. He worked on the special events committee with Barton three years ago.

"She allows people to put their own mark on things, she fosters that," he said. "And if groups out in the community approach us, she's so open to us getting involved."

Most recently March approached Barton about getting Young Friends members involved with the Charlotte Street Fund, which awards grants to local artists.

"Brenda saw the natural connection and jumped on it," he said. "She arranged programming with her members who were interested and with the artists in their studios."

'A steppingstone'

Barton's work with the museum began when she joined the Young Friends group at the Nelson after graduating in 1992 from Kansas University. She worked for a publishing company, and her free time was devoted to the Nelson, working on various committees. Then she joined the Young Friends board of directors, focusing on developing programs and activities for members.

When her predecessor at the Nelson retired five years ago, Barton switched from volunteer to staff member. The museum told her the goal was for these young adults to donate and raise funds for the museum, and then to carry on that giving and involvement as the years went by. Although the museum doesn't keep track, many of its major donors today were once members of the Young Friends group.

"The group is a steppingstone (to long-term museum involvement)," March said. "Down the road, being a part of Young Friends has a big impact on the museum."

While Barton balances what the museum wants with what young people like to do, she says her third job goal is longer term and closest to her heart. She wants young adults to connect with the Nelson, to connect with art, and then she wants for that love of art to filter down to their children some day.

"The parties are great; the tours are great," she said, "But it's all about instilling a love of art in people."