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Nerman family chosen as honorary chairs for ArtsKC annual fundraiser

The Nerman Family — Sue (from left), Jerry, Margaret and Lewis, shown with ‘Shoppers,’ a 1976 life-sized sculpture by Duane Hanson — are honorary chairs for the ArtsKC annual fundraiser set for Thursday, Oct. 6.

Jerry Nerman knows he has a keen eye for beautiful objects ranging from contemporary art to fine watches. The Nerman Family are among the most prominent collectors of contemporary art in the United States, and have been chosen as honorary chairmen for the ArtsKC seventh annual Inspiration Breakfast Oct 6.

“Julie Nelson Meers and I are thrilled to recognize the countless gifts the Nermans have made to our community,” states Siobhan McLaughlin Lesley, ArtsKC board member and co-chair of the breakfast along with Meers. 

“The Nerman Family is dedicated to enhancing the arts in Kansas City,” said Lewis Nerman, who following in the footsteps of his parents Margaret and Jerry Nerman, also collects contemporary art.

“We believe in making the arts available, through the Nerman Museum, to people on both sides of the state line,” shares Jerry Nerman. The family has a long history of supporting all the arts organizations in Kansas City and is proud to be a part of the community.

“It is the visionary work of families like the Nermans, nonprofit organizations like ArtsKC, and incredibly talented and inventive artist-entrepreneurs like Brad Cox (featured speaker at the breakfast) that makes Kansas City a great place to live, work and play,” shares Nate Orr, partner at Spencer Fane, the presenting sponsor for the event.

The Nermans’ contributions to the Kansas City art scene are numerous. In 2003, Jerry and Margaret Nerman made a pledge to assist in funding the construction of an art museum on the campus of Johnson County Community College named in their honor, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The Nermans also funded the Nerman Gallery in the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They have loaned pieces from their personal collection to leading museums in America and abroad including the Chicago Art Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of Art as well as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Additionally, the family donated a room at the Truman Library called the Decision Center and the Siah Armajani-designed gazebo on the Village Shalom campus. They also built a café on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute for the benefit of its students. Members of Kehilath Israel Synagogue, they have also donated art to help beautify the congregation’s sanctuary.

A successful businessman, Jerry was chairman of the board at Central Bank for 43 years. Together, Margaret and Jerry have served on many cultural and business organizational boards in leadership positions and have been honored by many. Most recently they received the Humanitarian Award for Community Leadership in Philanthropy from the Medical Missions Foundation. 

How it all began

Why did art become important in their lives? Jerry explains it in three simple, words: “We like color.”

He goes on to explain that when he and Margaret got married, they didn’t have any money, but wanted to add some color to their little one-bedroom apartment.

“We would see calendars that were outdated and had color to them. So we would cut out all the advertising and thumbtack them to the walls.” 

That’s how they continued to decorate their home for several years. That was before he enlisted in the Army in 1942.

He was stationed in Paris and worked in the office of Maj. Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn, who was the quartermaster of the European Theater of Operations. The headquarters were located on the famous Avenue des Champs-Elysées.

One day he looked out the window and saw an art fair on the street below.

“I asked one of the commanding officers, ‘If I go down there and buy something, will you ship it home?’ That’s because they were very private and very secure and didn’t want anything to say anything about anything. In other words, they censored your letters home.”

Jerry got the approval he needed, went down to the street and purchased two paintings.

“One was an oil-on-paper painting of the Champs-Elysées boulevard. We can’t find either of them now.”

Hunting for the best

The first art objects the Nermans collected were French and Russian bronze, beginning in 1955.

“We had about 50 or 60 but we had to stop collecting them,” he said, explaining that he and Margaret would trip on them as they walked through their home.

When the Nermans decided they wanted to learn how to acquire art, they got their feet wet by subscribing to auction catalogs.

At first they bought prints. Then they decided to upgrade to originals. They discovered who they liked by thumbing through art books. Jerry said they made the decision to buy from artists who were already being featured in museums. 

Today Jerry often tells people his collecting philosophy is search, secure and share.

“It’s a challenge. If you make up your mind that you want to buy a painting by such-and-such painter because you like his type of work, you start searching the auctions, you start searching the dealers and try to buy the best you can for the money you want to spend.”

They own artwork by some of the best known artists in the world — Duane Hanson, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, George Segal, Richard Diebenkorn, Sol Lewitt, Roy Lichentenstein — and Jerry has dozens of stories to tell about how they acquired each piece in their vast collection. But one of his favorites is how he managed to get his hands on a Julian Schnabel painting, which was very hard to get.

He starts this story by explaining that since they were frequent buyers at auction houses, they had a regular person they worked with at each of these businesses. One night in the ‘70s they had to work with a substitute to bid on a Schnabel. But, as Jerry tells it, she goofed up and the Nermans weren’t the highest bidder.

Soon after, Jerry said his son Lewis started telling the story about the botched bid to a bunch of his tennis buddies. It turns out one of those men was Schnabel’s cousin, and the cousin said he would get the Nermans and Schnabel in touch with each other. He did that, having the artist’s brother called Jerry, who then explained Schnabel couldn’t actually sell him anything because of his agreements with galleries.

Jerry thought the process was done and thanked the man, saying, “It’s a pleasure just talking to you and telling you my story.”

But it turned out the Schnabels wanted to help the Nermans. After the initial phone conversation, Jerry was able to speak to the artist himself. First Julian thought his ex-girlfriend might sell a painting to the Nermans. It was a nude.

Jerry told Schnabel, “My wife would never let me have that.” Schnabel had a couple of other ideas, eventually connecting the Nermans with his mother, Esther Schnabel.

“We traveled to where she lived, liked the painting and bought it. We’ve made a lot of friends with artists including Jasper Johns, who I met accidently in Chicago when we had our Johns paintings on display in the Gray Show at the Art Institute of Chicago.”

Another of his favorite stories is about the George Segal sculpture that appeared on the cover of Time magazine on Jan. 3, 1983. The Nermans purchased it through Sotheby’s and even though they often lent their art to museums, they weren’t about to let this one out of their possession. 

“Time magazine tried to buy it back once and then tried to borrow it once, and I refused because the artist is deceased,” Jerry said. 

Sharing art with K.I.

The Nermans, who have been members of K.I. since 1961, have even shared their love of art with fellow congregants. Jerry was chairman of the museum committee when K.I. was building its current Overland Park home in 1986. The museum, consisting of eight permanent cases, is housed in the back of the building just behind the social hall and the sanctuary. 

Jerry and other members of the museum committee analyzed pieces that were on display in the old building on Rockhill Road to determine what would remain on display in the new museum.

These pieces, Jerry said at the time, represented a wide variety of ritual, holiday and lifecycle items of Jewish life. Included in the collection are, for example, a spice box, breast plates and tefillin cases. 

The museum only had 42 items originally. Nerman said, “We feel that the museum, even though small, will enlighten the community as to the beauty and meaningfulness of Judaic art.”

Soon after the move into the new building, the Nermans purchased and donated a silver crown and a 19th century silver breastplate specifically for the museum.

“The 20th century crown, by Ludwig Wolpert, was made by one of the best silversmiths in the country. It was first shown at the Jewish Museum in New York where he had his workshop.” 

The couple also donated the tapestries, representing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which hang in the sanctuary.

The Nerman are still collecting art.

“We always base our decision to buy a piece of art if the quality of the piece will enhance the collection,” Jerry said.

ArtsKC Inspiration Breakfast

ArtsKC — Regional Arts Council will hold its seventh annual Inspiration Breakfast from 7:30 to 9 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6, at the Overland Park Convention Center.

The breakfast is free to attend, but it is a fundraiser and guests will be encouraged to make a donation in support of the mission of ArtsKC. Brad Cox, composer, conductor, musician and co-founder of the Owen/Cox Dance Group, will be the featured speaker.

Contact Andrea Robinson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to RSVP or with questions.