The Art Course at Nelson-Atkins is a miniature golf course that misses the mark – Kansas City Pitch | Candle Made Easy

Patrons play on a hole inspired by Wayne Thiebaud (American, born 1920), jawbreaker machine, 1963. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Glenn from the Friends of Art. // Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Art-inspired mini-golf sounds like such a lovely idea. Who wouldn’t want to combine the nostalgia and whimsy of a miniature golf course with the sophistication of fine art? Or impress your traveling family with how quirky and cool Kansas City is?

But the art class at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, now in its third summer, offers little more than gimmicks.

The course’s nine holes are laid out in front of the museum and meander between the terraced rows of hedges and trees. The hitherto quiet lawn and sculpture garden are now crowded with groups lining up to putt, dotted with the mechanics of the operation, staff handing out clubs, and signs pointing the way – and don’t get too close, because stray balls definitely fly over the bushes.

The blissful, contemplative atmosphere on the front yard has given way to a commercialization unjustified by exuberance or art affinity. It’s all just… good. It’s not worth the space it takes up. It’s all pretty much forgotten. Absolutely normal. No memories are made, no mind sharpened, no insights gained. Just a solid decent 45 minutes which probably would have been equally decent to do a number of other things.

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A less than thought provoking hole at Art Course. // Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins

Is it worth the $16 per person entrance fee? no But is it worth the $12 per person entrance fee if you’re a member? Not really either.

Maybe not everything has to be a summit experience. But when you book it weeks in advance and have to pay for more than one movie ticket, expectations are high.

You’d think there would be something unique about playing mini-golf in an art museum, like it was elevated or something. It might as well be windmills and dinosaurs.

Art Course is marketed as a way to have fun and interact with art in the museum. “What we were really looking for were ways to make more connections to our collection,” says Casey Claps, Nelson-Atkins manager of earned revenue.

Most other museums with miniature golf courses (it’s a thing) have had artists and designers submit proposals to create unique holes. However, The Nelson asked people to submit hole designs that replicate artworks in the museum’s collection. “When you play on the court, you actually experience a work of art,” says Claps.

Probably no. A deconstructed/reconstructed/replicated/reinvented version of a painting or sculpture is not the same as experiencing that work of art itself.

Instead of turning this into a thesis based on the question “What is art?”, let’s just acknowledge that we’re looking at the famous painting by the Impressionist Edouard Monet The Croquet Party to see in person and see the vivid colours, brushstrokes and details – well, it’s a different experience than seeing the painting’s figures standing at life-size cut-outs on a lawn.

There’s definitely something whimsical about standing next to these impressionist figures. I could be generous and say it was a bit like when Mary Poppins and her friends jumped into Bert’s drawing, but the immersion wasn’t full (and no dancing penguins, so…).

Nine artworks just don’t seem like enough to experience a sense of connection to or understanding of Nelson’s vast collection. The course design doesn’t even give you much insight into the works represented there – the inscriptions on each hole are simplistic and childish.

I didn’t learn anything about the artists or art history. At hole 3, which is based on it The Croquet PartyThe sign reads: ‘Looks like people in 19th century Paris liked to play games outside too. Join in and play nice with your new opponents.” What do people gain by reading this?

2005 18AC Bailey Moundmagician Front Small

Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1968), hill mage, 1997. Paint, canvas, paper, wood, cardboard, fabric, plexiglass, balls, feathers and other media on plywood. Gift of the Unus Foundation and Marc and Elizabeth Wilson in honor of John J. “Buck” O’Neil. // Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins

The aimlessness of the informational texts raises some questions: just who is this for? And why does it exist?

It’s here for the museum to benefit from the folks who can spend $16 per person for a 45 minute experience. It’s not really for someone like me who breaks a sweat being able to earn rent every month and would rather roam the museum for free for an hour.

At best, it’s a gimmick. At its worst, it is a commodification and distraction from the art it is meant to serve.

For a museum that locals appreciate in part for its accessibility to the public (i.e. free admission), it’s chafing when the new shiny stuff lies behind a velvet rope.

Maybe I’m just a hater—maybe Art Course is just that cute little fun thing for people to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.

People seem to like it. But Art Course is another thing that becomes a consumption experience that’s sold to you in a neat package, complete with a booklet that encourages you to take a selfie and post it with that particular hashtag so they can continue the experience can sell to others.

“We believe that art can be fun,” says Claps. For people who find art boring or pretentious, I understand that a gateway drug or the right kind of introduction can make all the difference when it comes to helping them see something they haven’t seen in a work before.

But I’m skeptical that the casual, fast-paced plywood replica lawn fun will inspire much curiosity for more.

Hey putter putter

Art course hole inspired by Mound Magician. // Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins

Perhaps I’d find it more respectable if the Nelson-Atkins just said, “Hey, we’re doing this because we need the revenue.” The pretense of associating visitors with the art inside feels weak.

There’s also a certain anti-intellectualism strength in the “Art can be fun too!” argument. Art can be fun, but it can also make you think, challenge you, make you uncomfortable, inspire you, make you sad. If art is nothing but light-hearted, then all it does is perpetuate our unequal status quo.

“Art can be fun!” has the same ring to it as library managers proclaiming, “Libraries are more than only Books!” As if books alone weren’t a good thing; as if serious art alone wasn’t enough.

There is a way to make knowledge, ideas and art accessible without making them stupid. Since Art Course misses the mark.

That’s not to say the Nelson isn’t a nice place to spend a Saturday.

“The art class is a 45 minute experience that you may have, give or take, but we also have a seasonal concession wagon and picnic tables out there, and the museum is here so you really can spend the whole day.” says Claps. “The sculpture park is one of the most beautiful places in town, so you can have a picnic, bring your own food and hang out. It’s not just miniature golf – come, hike, get lost, explore. No need to rush and go somewhere else. If you want ice cream, we’ve got it. If you want a beer, we’ve got it. If you want to get on the air conditioning and cool off and experience some of our amazing collections, do it.”

Go inside and look around the galleries. Spread a blanket out on the lawn with a few friends. And hey, if you’ve got $16 to spare and an hour to kill around with some people you like, play miniature golf. You won’t have a bad time. Just don’t expect it to change your life – like, say, a piece of art might.

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