Bringing the world of art to Wichita for 85 years

Wichita Art Museum

Written by Karen Long

The year was 1915 when Louise Caldwell Murdock of the “Wichita Eagle” Murdocks left in her will a challenge grant to the City of Wichita. The city was charged with “acquiring a distinguished collection of American art, building a museum for it and running a credible art museum for this community,” according to Wichita Art Museum director Patricia McDonnell.

In 1935, a building that resembled an “art deco temple” opened at Museum Boulevard and Stackman Drive on the Little Arkansas River. Over the next 25 years, a young associate of Louise’s was tasked with traveling to New York to build a distinguished collection of American art, which eventually became respected across the country: the Roland P. Murdock collection, named for Louise’s husband.

McDonnell, an American art historian and scholar says, “I was aware of the collection of this art museum long before I ever came to Wichita.”

Now, 85 years later the physical facilities of the Wichita Art Museum have evolved and expanded and even gained an Art Garden, but that art deco building still lies at the heart of the museum, making up the core galleries at the center of the building.

The human capital has also kept pace: McDonnell gives a shoutout to the 200 to 250 volunteers per year — including the Friends of the Wichita Art Museum, the Murdock Society, WAM Contemporaries and the docents — who help with fundraising and programming, bringing in unique shows, speakers and community events. In addition to the board and staff, “they are all an incredible group of people,” says McDonnell.

“We are kind of a laboratory for the community. We will try anything once…almost anything.” — Patricia McDonnell, director, WAM

After eight years as director, McDonnell continues to brainstorm more ways to “blow open the doors” of the museum to the community with unexpected events: “First you come for a film then, oh, here’s a party, next you come for Art Chatter. And maybe on our fifth time we actually get you in the gallery. We are kind of a laboratory for the community. We will try anything once…almost anything.”

And it’s working. Since McDonnell became director in 2012, museum attendance is up 63 percent, membership has increased by more than 150 percent and program attendance is up by over 165 percent.

In the second half of this year McDonnell, her staff and volunteers are planning three special events to raise the roof on the museum’s 85th birthday.

On July 11, the museum will throw its annual Birthday Bash, an ice cream social and a staple for the last 10 years, but “bumping it up” this year.

Oct. 10 will bring the Foot in the Door exhibition opening party. Wichita artists will submit 12-by-12 inch pieces of art (hence the word “foot”) which WAM will display in a “collective, massive group exhibition.” McDonnell wanted to say, “We love you Wichita artists. So we thought of this collaborative, incredible group show.”

On Nov. 14 the Red Carpet Experience, will be a blow-out event inspired by the famed Met Gala, complete with over-the-top attire.

At age 85, Wichita Art Museum is just hitting its stride.

“We want to be bigger and better and that much more impactful,” says McDonnell, “continuing to enrich Wichita and make it this wonderful place we all enjoy so much.”

Can’t wait until July to start celebrating? The Museum has two of its signature spirited events coming up in the next two months.

Iconic Photography

Feb. 27, 6 p.m.
Photography curator Elizabeth Siegel from the Art Institute of Chicago reveals what sets stunning photography apart, with plenty of distinctive examples — including some you’ll recognize.

Wichita Art Chatter

Friday, March 13
Cocktails at 6 p.m., presentation at 6:45This popular program always “bursts the seams” of the auditorium with a full and feisty crowd. Six local creatives from diverse backgrounds present 20 slides for 20 seconds each.

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