Wichita Art Museum cranks up fun, funky quotient under new director


"Feisty" isn't the word most people associate with the Wichita Art Museum. But that's because they haven't been paying attention to one of the premier art museums in Kansas lately.

"We want to bring a lot more imagination and energy and very much an open-door policy," Patricia McDonnell, who took as WAM executive director in fall 2012, said. "It's not any one thing, it's a whole long list of things that add up to a place the community gets excited about."

To take one example: a recurring get-together called Art Chatter, in which local creative types use 20 slides, each projected for 20 seconds, to given presentations about everything from cake baking to Mexican guitars to rock album covers.

"We'll have six or seven presenters, they've each got seven minutes," McDonnell said. "People think we should do it every month." Then there was WAM's party on the terrace last summer. A collaboration with the Tallgrass Film Festival, it brought nearly 800 people out to listen to surf guitar music, nosh on fare from food trucks and soak up a beautiful night. Teens stealing kisses, young families and well-heeled patrons mixed. "Every different kind of person in Wichita came out," McDonnell said.

It's the same approach McDonnell used across town during her five years heading the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University. Music, dance, parties and events like the "yarn bombing" of the campus' outdoor art collection created a buzz there. The ultimate goal is to get people in the museum's doors and see art as an enrichment of of their lives, not just something to be studied about in school and then forgotten.

The WAM staff features several more new faces, including curator Lisa Volpe, who selects what art the museum shows and acquires; curator of education Courtney Spousta, who plans programs and events; Janet Studnicka, director of development; and Teresa Veazey, public relations manager.

Their tenure started with a little realistic self-evaluation about just what WAM is and is not. It's not, for instance, the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, funded with hundreds of million dollars by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

It is a medium-sized regional museum with its own outstanding permanent collection and the means to bring in great traveling exhibits.

"We can be a model of excellence on the national level of a regional museum devoted to American art," McDonnell said.

"George Catlin's American Buffalo" opens at the museum February 1. Organized by the Smithsonian and National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it includes 40 paintings that depict the central importance of the buffalo in the life of American Indian tribes, before cameras were around to capture that lost era. With Kansas being one of those places where the buffalo used to roam in endless herds, WAM officials think the exhibit will resonate with museum goers here.

Color Party

Party in an art museum? Don't scoff, the WAM Contemporaries Color Party is turning into one of the events of the year in Wichita.

This year's takes place february 1, with $140 tickets ($125 in advance) available at the door. The theme color is "midnight," a dark blue that will light up the whole museum.

Food, additional visual effects and dancing to music by DJ Sheppa, one of Kansas City's top entertainers, are part of the fun.

Proceeds benefit Destination WAM, which provides transportation for Wichita school students to visit the museum.

For reservations or more information call 316-268-4912.

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