Two-Ton Birdies Have Landed

Giant, birdlike sculptures take up residence in Kansas metropolis, and local feathers fly

GIANT badminton birdies land in Kansas City!''

This is the story the grocery store tabloids missed, preoccupied as they are with a celebrity murder, miracle cures, and the usual round of Elvis sightings.

Four huge shuttlecocks, created by pop art provocateur Claes Oldenburg and his wife and collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen, were recently installed on the spacious lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this city's premier institution of high culture.

In general, people in Kansas City are polite, easy-going, not overly opinionated. There aren't many local issues that raise the temperature and quicken the pulse.

Riverboat gambling was hot for a while. The alleged take-over of the Republican Party in a suburban Kansas county by religious conservatives produced some weeping and gnashing of teeth. But nothing in the four years I have lived here has produced as intense or as prolonged a debate as the pending arrival of the ``Shuttlecocks.''

Commissioning of the giant sculptures, each nearly 18 feet high and 16 feet in diameter, was announced in early 1992. Suddenly, everyone became an art critic. So preoccupied was the public over questions of art and aesthetics, Kansas City resembled turn-of-the-century Paris. Calls poured into the museum at a rate unprecedented for an art acquisition. It seemed as though everyone had an opinion - a strong one. A survey conducted by a local newspaper columnist found all respondents to be passionate partisans, about evenly divided between ``yea'' and ``nay.'' Supporters praised the sense of fun the huge birdies would lend to a museum whose grand, formal edifice, set atop a hill, gives the institution an austere image.

``Art is fun,'' the birdies will proclaim to passersby. ``It is not just for elitists anymore.'' The installation, the work of a world-renowned artist who created a giant baseball bat in Chicago and a huge spoon and cherry in Minneapolis, will fit in well with the Nelson-Atkin's new emphasis on contemporary sculpture. But two-and-a-half-ton birdies are not everyone's idea of fun. ``It would be like putting a Ferris wheel in front of Versailles,'' one detractor said.

Although the entire cost of the installation was to be paid for by a then-anonymous donor, the land upon which the museum is situated is public, controlled by the city parks department. Probably the major concern was that the pieces would clutter the large, open expanse south of the museum. ``The Nelson Gallery's front lawn does not need to be cluttered with silly pop-art,'' sniffed a newspaper editorial entitled ``Shuttlecock Kitsch.''

Many agreed, including the chairman of the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners. But the proposal was heartily endorsed by the museum, a local arts commission, leaders of the surrounding residential neighborhoods, and citizens from all across the metropolitan area.

Debate raged. Sparks flew. The donor, revealed to be a local businessman who is a longtime patron of the arts, became concerned about bad publicity. He announced that he was rethinking his offer. Compromises were made on the placement of the pieces so as to leave open a wider area than was originally planned. Letters were written, calls made, spleens vented. In the end, the birdies won out.

The ``Shuttlecocks'' are here now, one nose down, one pointing straight up, the others resting at angles and looking remarkably lightweight on their two-ton ``feathers.'' Scattered over 17 acres, with the classical edifice of the museum serving as a ``net,'' they look like the detritus of a huge afternoon picnic. And after four weeks with no sign of the leviathans disappearing, it appears they are here to stay.

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