The Missouri River

Anne Ducey  |  Former Senior Graphic Designer & Exhibit Coordinator
Kansas City Public Library

Kimi Kitada  |  Jedel Family Foundation Curatorial Fellow
Charlotte Street Foundation

"There are rivers of all lengths and sizes and of all degrees of wetness. There are rivers with all sorts of peculiarities and with widely varying claims to fame. But there is only one river with a personality, habits, dissipations, a sense of humor […]; a river that goes traveling sidewise, that interferes in politics, rearranges geography and dabbles in real estate; a river that plays hide and seek with you today and tomorrow follows you around like a pet dog with a dynamite cracker tied to its tail. That river is the Missouri." – George Fitch, quotation from The American Magazine (63:6), April 1907

Advisory Partners Anne Ducey and Kimi Kitada explore the Missouri River and the human impact on this historic waterway as their theme for the Contemporary Art and the Missouri Bicentennial exhibition.

The “Big Muddy,” the longest river in North America, covers more than 2,300 miles and spans the entire state of Missouri. Even prior to the Missouri Territory becoming a state in 1821, the Missouri River served as a trade route for western expansion. The river was infamous for rapidly shifting course—dangerous, if not deadly, for settlements built along its banks and riverboats carrying goods and passengers.

From as early as 1819, the United States government initiated programs for managing and reshaping the river for flood control and safer navigation, but this intense manipulation of the once meandering river has, over the years, exacerbated flood damage and destroyed the natural habitat of fish and wildlife. In 2020 and 2021, the American Rivers conservation organization named the Lower Missouri River the second most endangered river in the United States due to climate change and poor flood management.

Despite the trauma it has endured, the river still provides drinking water to over half of Missouri’s population, still carries barges loaded with goods to ports along its banks, provides ecosystems for the remaining flora and fauna in the state, and is a place for recreational enjoyment. Works in the Kemper Museum Permanent Collection that align with this theme includeand Squiggles (2018) by Polly Apfelbaum (American, born 1955), a vividly colored rug sculpture with lines that undulate and snake like the ebb and flow of the river current. These and other works describe different aspects of the history, ecology, and visual manifestations of the river.

Anne Ducey on the work of Arthur Tress

"The compelling visual narrative of Arthur Tress’s cibachrome print, as well as its title, encapsulates much of the history of the Missouri River. From as early as 1885, the U.S. government tried to tame the river for the dual purpose of flood control and navigation, both aimed at economic growth. What resulted was unsustainable damming and channeling that in essence does neither, and the numerous government programs never laid the promised “golden egg.” There is still flooding which negatively impacts farmers and the resultant “river-like entity” continues to be too shallow for profitable barge traffic. Additionally, the original, thriving ecosystem has been largely replaced by crops and invasive fish and wildlife.

Tress’s fish tank sits on a sandy shore in front of a desolate shack. The detritus of lives, both human and non-human, float in murky water while a yellow-hatted bureaucrat grins, as if happy to have forgotten the promises made to improve lives along the river. 

Fish Tank Sonata (1988) is the second of a three-part series of what Tress describes as his “Disney period” of easily understood narratives aimed at a broad audience. In the Fish Tank Sonata, a fisherman learns about life and environmental responsibility from a snapper who joins him in his small boat. Tress meticulously created the 69 fish tank environments in this series with an assortment of vintage and thrift store toys and objects and photographed them in a wide variety of natural settings he found while traveling the country, fish tank in tow."

– Anne Ducey, Former Senior Graphic Designer & Exhibit Coordinator, Kansas City Public Library


Arthur Tress, (American, born 1940), Then governments said, You'll no longer beg; Our beneficent programs Will lay golden eggs, 1988, from the series Fish Tank Sonata, cibachrome print on paper, Edition 5 of 50, 15½ x 15½ inches. Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Drs. Antonio and Luz Racela, 1997.25.15.



Kimi Kitada on the work of Barbara Grad

“Soft washes of paint flow across the canvas, emulating the movement and currents of water. Barbara Grad (American, born 1950)’s masterful use of line, rhythm, and repetition harmonize in this two-canvas composition. Reflecting on the two-panel structure, the paint moves beyond the canvas onto its adjoining panel, which accentuates the dynamism of the painterly gesture, and the constantly shifting landscape and ecosystem.” 
– Kimi Kitada, Jedel Family Foundation Curatorial Fellow, Charlotte Street Foundation


Barbara Grad, (American), Circumstantial Evidence, 2010, oil on canvas, diptych, 24 x 34 inches. Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the artist in honor of Barbara O'Brien, 2012.05.01. © Barbara Grad. Photo: E. G. Schempf, 2020.


Siah Armajani, (American, born Iran, 1939–2020), Kansas City No. 1, 2000

The representational image "Kansas City No. 1" (2000) by Siah Armajani (Iranian American, 1939–2020) is a composite of the buildings lining the Missouri River and the series of bridges spanning across it.


Siah Armajani, (American, born Iran, 1939–2020), Kansas City No. 1, 2000, watercolor, gouache, graphite on board, 59 x 147¾ inches. Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Sosland Foundation in Honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014.19.01. © Siah Armajani. Photo: E. G. Schempf, 2016.