Readers first met Jason Kent-Hughes Dancing Priest as Jason Bannon. Then 16, he was one of the “warehouse children” living near St. Anselm’s Church in San Francisco. He’s drawn to Michael Kent’s outreach program, a coffeehouse with live music. In A Light Shining, Jason is taken in by Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes and eventually adopted. Almost accidentally, Michael and Sarah discover the boy has a gift for painting.
By the time of Dancing Prince, Jason is in his early 30s, married and with two sons of his own. He’s an assistant curator at the Tate Modern. As Sarah recognizes in the story, their San Francisco street child has become an artist with a gift for art administration. As part of a regular staff activity, he gives a talk on the two paintings by Sarah owned by the museum. The interest is so great that the museum has to move the venue from a lecture room to Power Hall, the large interior space that helps define the Tate Modern’s architecture (see the top photograph).
The interest is so intense, in fact, that the museum asks Jason to curate an exhibition of Sarah’s paintings for 18 months out. It’s an ambitious timetable; Jason not only has to find the paintings and their owners and negotiate contracts to borrow them, he also has to plan the exhibition itself, arrange for an exhibition catalog, and arrange for corporate sponsors. And then there the negotiations with three other museums which will host the exhibition after it closes at the Tate Modern. Eighteen months is an almost impossible timetable, but Jason somehow pulls it off.
I first visited the Tate Modern in 2012, during a vacation trip to England. Our hotel was on the South Bank, near Westminster Bridge, and I discovered I could walk to the museum by taking a more-or-less straight-line route through back streets. The alternative was to follow the south embankment along the Thames, past the London Eye, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, and eventually to the Tate, next door to the Globe Theatre. Because the of the curve of the river, the back-street route was much shorter, and took me through a neighborhood called The Cut, the Old Vic Theatre, the New Vic Theatre, various and sundry business areas, and then the rear of the museum property (you still have to enter from the front entrance on the river).
The museum is something of an architectural wonder. A one-time power generation station, the structure has an interesting history. Closed as a power station, it was renovated and reopened as the Tate Modern in 2000. It is the major repository for the modern and contemporary art works in the Tate’s collection.
In 2012, I visited three times; my wife likes to sleep in and I kept getting drawn back to the building and its collection. It also provided some great walking exercise. The exhibition that was on when I visited was “Edvard Munch and the Modern Eye,” and it was excellent. In 2015, I also viewed the Agnes Martin exhibition, which I liked, but it did inspire a comment about wallpaper by Jim Kent-Hughes in Dancing Prince. The museum expanded with a large, adjacent building, and I was able to see it in 2017.
In the novel, dissatisfied with the rather perfunctory articles written by the experts, Jason eventually writes the catalog himself, an almost first-person account of his own knowledge of and experience with his adopted mother’s artwork. The exhibition also leads to the discovery of two unknown paintings by Sarah, a critical development in the relationship between Michael Kent-Hughes and his youngest child Thomas, and a fleeting first meeting between Michael and Mary Penniman, who assumes a large role later in the book.