Just the mention of JFK can still bring people to tears.
Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, was born after the Kennedy era, so she’s “really curious” to see the emotions evoked by three galleries full of photographs and memorabilia of the nation’s 35th president, from birth to death.
“American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” opens Feb. 2 and will be on view through May 19 in three of the museum’s first-floor galleries.
The landmark collection, featuring 77 photographs and magazine covers, debuted in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2017, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth on May 29, 1917.
The exhibit’s tour began at the New-York Historical Society, then traveled to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., and now to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
The local stop is part of the red-carpet rollout commemorating the Cedar Rapids Museum’s 125th anniversary in 2020. A companion exhibition, “Power and Protest: Political Photographs and Prints,” opened Jan. 12 and continues through April 28 on the museum’s second floor. These pieces were drawn mostly from the museum’s collection of photographs and artwork focusing on figures in the forefront and behind the scenes of politics, the civil rights movement and demonstrations.
“I was talking during a docents meeting (on Monday) in ‘Power and Protest,’ and was just explaining how I was laying out Kennedy and how that was going, and two of them started crying — two of them who were older and alive during JFK’s presidency,” Kunau said.
The Kennedy exhibit will take viewers through his life in chronological order, beginning with a baby photo. It then loops around all three back galleries, and returns to the starting point, so the photo hanging adjacent to the baby photo shows his widow, Jackie, going to his funeral.
Kunau expects the visual journey to evoke a variety of emotions, depending on each viewer’s life experience.
“I don’t have an emotional connection,” she said, “but I’ve spoken to people who were alive during that time, and they have a very emotional connection to it.
“One of our board members was saying there’s a photo in the exhibition of Kennedy on his Inauguration Day, and everyone’s wearing top hats and tails, and this fellow said he remembered that and how elegant everybody looked.
“I think a lot of these images, especially the iconic ones, are going to bring back a lot of memories,” she said.
Many are media photos from the beginning of Kennedy’s political career, from his first congressional bid in 1946 through campaign photos and photos in the White House, up to his assassination in Dallas in 1963. Others show his family life, including his engagement, followed by his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier on Sept. 12, 1953.
The exhibition was culled from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Getty Images, private collections and Kennedy family archives.
For viewers of all ages and life experiences, “American Visionary” and “Power and Protest” show the evolution of photojournalism in politics.
“It’s a really important time to talk about how important photojournalism is to the office of the president,” Kunau said. “Kennedy was still in that era of pre-Gary Hart ‘catch me if you can,’ where (Kennedy) was able to work with the photographers. That goes back forever. We never saw FDR in a wheelchair in the 1940s, because he had worked out a gentlemen’s agreement with the press (so) they wouldn’t depict him like that.
“Kennedy definitely worked with photojournalists on what sort of image he wanted to project,” she said. “Jackie also had some things she wanted to propagate. She wanted the U.S. to be a center of culture, and so there are all these pictures of cello concerts, and her refurbishing the (Smithsonian’s) Renwick Gallery. That’s what they both thought the U.S. should be: their beautiful young family and the U.S. being a young country that also had this cultural theme.
“There’s a lot there for people who remember that era, so I think it’s a really important time to have an exhibition that talks about the importance of journalism — and photojournalism specifically — to the office of the president. And how the president used to have more control over his image than he does now.”
Part of the reason it’s being displayed through the spring is so school groups can tour and learn from the exhibition, Kunau said. Free educational programs for all ages are planned, too, including a noon-hour “Art Bites” for adults on Feb. 6 to discuss the importance of the press in crafting a presidential image. Little ones can wear their pjs and bring a stuffed animal on Feb. 21 for a Pajama Storytime titled “Presidents in Pajamas,” featuring stories about past presidents, and a make-and-take craft.
Kunau calls the impact of companion events “fantastic” for children, even those who are too young to understand a gallery experience.
“Art and culture should be such an important part of people’s lives,” she said. “If you start them early and get them comfortable with talking about art and comfortable with coming to a museum and having that be a real easy and natural thing to do, it just gets easier as they grow up to consider images and think critically and analytically about them.”
She added that Education Director Erin Thomas “does a fantastic job of really meeting young people at their developmental level ...”
“Erin is fantastic at creating these events that are themed on the exhibitions and drawn from them that meet people where they are. She does that a lot with tour groups we get from the ARC and other people who have developmental disabilities, as well. They’re going to respond to the exhibition in a different way than other adult people, but they can still have a really unique and special reaction to it.”
Researching and preparing the exhibition has been educational for Kunau, too. It’s also been surprising for her aesthetically.
“It’s just a really beautiful exhibition,” she said. “I didn’t expect to find it as lovely as I do, but it’s a really stunning exhibition all together.”
If You Go
• What: Exhibition: “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times”
• Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: Feb. 2 to May 19
• Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
• Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over and college students; $3 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under
• Details: Crma.org
• Art Bites: 12:15 p.m. Feb. 6, at the museum, free; Associate Curator Kate Kunau will discuss how the landmark JFK exhibition emphasizes the importance of the press in crafting a presidential image
• Pajama Storytime: “Presidents in Pajamas,” 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21, at the museum, free for kids and their adult companions, no registration required; includes fun stories about past presidents and a patriotic make-and-take project; feel free to wear pajamas and bring a stuffed animal for cuddling
• Details: Crma.org/Events/Default.aspx
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