Pat McCormick and Barry Eisenhart's Gatsby-like house towers over Interstate 35 near downtown. It's the crown jewel of the modern homes dotting the West Side, an ideal location for a ritzy afterparty on the opening night of the Lyric Opera's production of The Magic Flute.
Sean Kelley, standing outside the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with his boyfriend, Jim Hubbell, had been invited.
"It's just a few blocks," he said. "Let's walk and talk."
Kelley, always animated when discussing the arts, was especially buoyant on this November evening. The Lyric's presentation of Mozart's work featured set design by Jun Kaneko, an Omaha ceramic artist whom Kelley had known for decades. And the Lyric's new general director, Deborah Sandler, had met with Kelley ahead of the show, seeking his guidance on how to spread awareness in the local arts community about this and other Lyric productions. It amounted to a peripheral connection — good for free seats to the opera.
"Jun Kaneko is the real fucking deal," Kelley said on the walk to the West Side. "Not a lot of artists could have handled that. The way he was able to translate his pattering and use of color, the way he used the stage as a form for his sensibilities ..." He went on for another few minutes, peppering his critique with buzzy words: matrix, linear, geometric, angular, minimal, metamorphosis. "It made me think of Jun's work in a new way," he finally said.
Kelley is not an artist, not technically. He's an art appreciator, an art critic, an art dealer, an art facilitator. Most recently, he has become a civic arts booster, having served as co-chairman for the Mayor's Task Force for the Arts, which last year discussed ways to develop and market the city's arts footprint. (The city's 2014-15 budget proposal includes an extra $325,000 for arts programs as a result of the task force's recommendations.)
But if we are all artists in our own ways, as Kelley believes, then Kelley's true canvas might simply be the discussion of art: its potential, its meaning, its practitioners, its role in the culture. And he's a virtuoso conversationalist, a jazzman of talk. Critical monologues often pour out of him in fully formed paragraphs, one word flowing musically into the next. At other moments, he takes a different kind of solo, falling silent midway through a soliloquy and aiming his blue eyes into some middle distance. Whether he's pausing in deep contemplation or merely doing some mental scurrying to avoid a dead-end thought, though, he seems always to catch the beat when it comes back around.
The afterparty's guests were an older-skewing mix of Lyric friends, society types and art-world denizens done up in semiformal attire and occasionally eccentric eyewear. Kelley, who is 55, was in his element.
On the rooftop terrace, he chatted with Sherry Leedy, a prominent gallerist. In the kitchen, he patted Kaneko on the back and called him the "man of the hour." He walked through the house and gave its art collection — Kelley had advised McCormick and Eisenhart on some pieces — a verbal browsing. In front of a long, horizontal landscape painting by Keith Jacobshagen, Kelley said, "Pat had that one commissioned. Don't you just love the division between sky and land? It's this brilliant fusion of real and abstract."
He descended the stairs to the ground floor, where Eisenhart, an aspiring sculptor, keeps a small studio. Kelley has been mentoring Eisenhart for the past two years. "If somebody comes to me and says, 'I'm an artist and I want to learn,' I'll do anything for them," Kelley said. "I don't judge. I love seeing what a person is doing and talking to them about my perspective and what I see and understand about their work.