KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Kaitlin O’Brien is 16, and she’s gonna turn 17 in August. Arguably her biggest accomplishment this year to date was curating Thanks for the Warning (ran through June 22), a 68-person show containing 86 artworks at the Dolphin Gallery, which her father John O’Brien has owned for 24 years. This was the gallery’s final exhibition, a culmination of nearly a quarter century of work. And it was planned, conceived, and executed for reasons not commercial but familial. The exhibition showcased a wide range of artists, including the luminescent paintings of community grandfather Jim Leedy, drawings by signage trickster Archie Scott Gobber, the gushy, sardonic drawings of his daughter Lucy Gobber, budding horn sculptures by artist/musician Mark Southerland, and the mystical architectural geometric drawings of the recently deceased Roger Kraft.
The Dolphin Gallery is older than Kaitlin, and in a sense she’s grown up there among the artists, the business of art, and the local art community. Creative communities challenge the idea of biological family; artists and writers make their own families, and the nuclear one isn’t necessarily a part of that new nucleus. Kaitlin curated the final exhibition of the family she acquired at the Dolphin Gallery.
“People who have shown at the Dolphin and worked at the Dolphin have become my family,” she says. “I’m an only child, so all the artists’ kids became my siblings, in a way.”
But as anyone in the art world knows or can imagine, the task of putting together a group show of more than six artists is a headache; multiply that by 11 or so, and that’s what young Kaitlin had to work with.
“I really wanted to do this show, not to make other people happy but because I wanted to do it so that I could have a chance to see people in the Dolphin one last time,” says Kaitlin. “I didn’t care if people liked the art that I put in — it was more about the art that I enjoyed.”
At the same time that she was organizing the show, Kaitlin was also studying for finals. She only had two weeks to pull it off, and in the process, she learned that some artists can be “real babies,” she says.
“I would get out of school and immediately come down to the Dolphin, so most of the time I was working in my school uniform and trying to put stuff together. I was working with 68 artists, and some of them were picky. I would pick a piece, and they would say, ‘no, I don’t want that piece in the show.’ I’m not good at saying no, so I ended up doing a lot of texts saying ‘no.’”
The exhibition title references the Dolphin’s history and Kaitlin’s own family roots, bringing the grand farewell full circle. Kaitlin says her father didn’t give anyone warning about the gallery’s closing, and the exhibition title joshes him in a playful, tongue-in-cheek way.
“Whenever we would say ‘see you later’ to my aunt who works at the Dolphin, she would whisper under her breath ‘ thanks for the warming.’ But it was also making fun of the fact that my dad didn’t give anyone notice that he was shutting down the Dolphin.”
John O’Brien opened the Dolphin nearly 25 years ago, and it became a Kansas City art world stronghold. Much of that success came from letting the community grow and prosper; O’Brien just held the gates open and welcomed artists and their kids alike. And that included his own daughter.
“It’s interesting how a lot of people who are artists don’t treat kids like kids — they to talk them in a good way,” says John. “Some people talk down to kids; others try to talk to them at their level, not talk small talk but rather have a real conversation.”
To which he added: “I was quite impressed by what Kaitlin put together.”
Thanks for the Warning ran through June 22 at the Dolphin Gallery (1600 Liberty Street, Kansas City, Missouri).
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