Small Talk / Exhibits

The Motor Car Man with a Big Heart

“If you want happiness, there is only one way in the world to get it. You’ve got to give it.” –Jerry Smith

T/m’s newest special exhibit, Going Places: The Toy Collection of Jerry Smith, features toys collected by Jerry Smith (1917-1984), a Kansas City automotive dealer and philanthropist whose generous heart and fabulous toy collection left a lasting impact on the community.

It was the Christmas of 1924 that would later inspire Smith to start collecting toys. The holiday was a big event for six-year-old Smith, who circled the toys he longed for in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As the youngest of six, the Kansas farm boy was depending on Santa to fulfill his dreams. However, there was only one present waiting for him under the tree: a cast iron Arcade Fordson toy tractor.

tractor

An Arcade Fordson tractor similar to the one Smith received

Disappointed, Smith called Santa a “tightwad” and said it was “the skinniest Christmas I’d ever had.” He would never forget those feelings of longing, frustration, and dashed hope, and that memory compelled him to help others in need. Smith grew up and moved to Kansas City, where he opened a Buick dealership at 5835 Troost in 1952. Smith ran his dealership with the philosophy, “You don’t get ahead, you give ahead.” He became a supporter of many local charities, especially those that served children. He also founded Operation Friendship, an initiative dedicated to providing for the community. In 1965, the Kansas City Times referred to Smith as “…a motor car man with a ready smile and . . . a heart that figuratively is as big as all outdoors. This particular man never seeks praise for his work. If you meet him on the street, he will just say . . . ‘We’ve taken care of that last case you referred to us…tell us about some more folks who need a lift.’”

One Christmas, Smith’s sister-in-law gifted him an identical version of his now long-lost Arcade Fordson tractor. He was overjoyed and realized there were more toys in the Arcade series. He set out to collect the entire set, and soon moved on to other toys that reminded him of his childhood: planes, trains, automobiles, farm toys, mechanical banks, fire engines, and transportation toys of all kinds. Eventually, Smith collected over 11,000 toys.

A selection of Smith’s toys from a 1968 Hallmark calendar

Following his philosophy of helping others, Smith used his collection to benefit the community. Whenever his collection was put on display, he would request that a fee be donated to a Kansas City charitable organization, usually Children’s Mercy Hospital. During the holiday season in 1965, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over 130,000 visitors attended, and all the proceeds went to a youth organization. Smith even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote the exhibit; the entire video is available to view in the exhibit.

Jerry Smith with a 1968 toy exhibit at the Hallmark Gallery. Image courtesy of the Hallmark Archives.

Back home in Kansas City, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Wornall-Majors House and the Kansas City Museum. Smith also created the Christmas Village, which featured festive holiday dioramas in the Long-Bell Lumberyard at Gregory and Wornall. Smith requested that admission proceeds go to Children’s Mercy Hospital. By 1967, Children’s Mercy had received over $25,000 from displays of Smith’s toys.

Jerry Smith in one room of his Christmas Village

Smith’s philanthropy continues to influence the Kansas City community. His charitable contributions reached organizations including the Kansas City Museum, the Boy Scouts Area Council, Avila College, the Rehabilitation Institute, Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and more. In 1976, Smith donated his 360-acre farm to the Kansas City parks system, which is still used as a park today. Last but certainly not least, Smith helped T/m founders Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Marshall assemble some of their earliest exhibits. Many of the cast iron and transportation toys T/m has on display in the permanent exhibits today came from Jerry Smith’s collection.

Mary Harris Francis, Barbara Marshall, and Jerry Smith celebrating Christmas at T/m in 1982

For Jerry Smith, a disappointing Christmas turned into a lifetime of giving. As the Kansas City Star remarked in 1966, “Perhaps none of this would have happened if Santa Claus had come through with the entire list submitted by Jerry back in 1924. Maybe Santa knew what he was doing after all.” During your next visit to T/m, be sure to stop by Going Places to learn more about the incredible toy collection and lasting impact of Jerry Smith.

— Written by Katherine Mercier

 

Stuffed with Fluff

Before he was the chubby, red-shirted, honey-loving yellow bear we all know and love today, Winnie the Pooh had his humble beginnings as a teddy bear. Author A. A. Milne purchased the stuffed bear at Harrods as a gift for his son, Christopher Robin, in 1921. Five years later, Pooh (who was named after a real bear at the zoo and a pet swan) and his friends Kanga, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet became characters and illustrations in Milne’s books.

The group of mohair, felt, and velveteen stuffed animals were sold by Milne’s publisher E. P. Dutton, and eventually donated to the New York Public Library. Earlier this year, in honor of Pooh’s 90th birthday, the library worked with a team of textile conservators to return the stuffed animals to how they looked when Christopher Robin played with them. As a result, Kanga’s neck was repaired, Piglet’s nose was reattached, Eeyore’s patches were replaced, and of course all of them were re-stuffed with fluff. All of the friends from the Hundred Acre Wood are now back on display at the NYPL Children’s Center for future generations to enjoy.

Barbie Goes to Paris

Barbie Exhibit

Who would have imagined a small town girl from Willows, Wisconsin would one day have her own feature exhibit in Paris? Ok, so maybe she’s not a real person (and her hometown doesn’t really exist), but the recent Barbie exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs was anything but fictional. Earlier this year, 700 versions of the iconic doll were featured along with contemporary artworks and other historical objects that tell Barbie’s multi-faceted story.

Why feature an American toy in a French museum? Like many other toys, Barbie mirrors the cultural climates of the last 57 years, not only in America but in much of the Western world. The exhibit also came during a banner year for Barbie and her maker, Mattel, who announced several new body types and skin tones in an effort to reflect a more diverse market. On top of that fact, Barbie was created as a “teenage fashion model doll,” and where better to feature her wide array of couture than in Paris? Whether she’s moonwalking in her pink astronaut suit or walking the runway in a Christian Louboutin catsuit, Barbie sparks the imaginations of children and adults—and looks great doing it!

Photo: Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Micro-miniature Marvels

Museum of Miniatures in Prague

There are miniatures, and then there are micro-miniatures. Yes indeed, the smallest of the small works of art are best viewed through a microscope or magnifying glass at the Museum of Miniatures in Prague. This mind-blowing museum features the works of professional microminiaturists Anatolij Konenko, Nikolai Aldunin, and Edward Ter Ghazarian.

Visitors to the museum can expect to see super-small works including a flea wearing horseshoes, a caravan of camels in the eye of a needle, and a grasshopper playing a violin. Like miniature artists working in a variety of scales, microminiaturists create many of the tools they use to get the precision necessary for these super-small works. Amazingly, Konenko creates his work between his heart beats in order to account for the small tremor that occurs with blood circulation in the fingers. Now that’s a finely tuned artistic process!
Photo: leiris202/Creative Commons.

LACMA’s Miniature Metropolis

Metropolis II

We’re obviously huge fans of kinetic sculptures that incorporate toys, hence T/m’s two-story Toytisserie. Although it’s not in a museum of toys or miniatures, artist Chris Burden’s large installation Metropolis II has been amazing visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 2011. Metropolis II is a fury of 1,100 matchbox cars whirring by at a scale speed of 230 miles per hour on a complex system of tracks around a futuristic miniature skyline.

Witnessing the sculpture in person in the LACMA galleries evokes feelings of wonder and awe, but with a tinge of anxiety, similar to driving on a real-life multi-lane freeway in heavy traffic (after all, toys are teaching tools for life, you know!). It took Burden and his studio team over four years of research and design to get all the components exactly right—even so, a team of attendants is on hand in case a car derails or jams up the track. The sculpture runs intermittently for four hours every day at LACMA.
Photo: Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, courtesy of the Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation, © Chris Burden Estate

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