Art is intersecting with health in a new collection that showcases a wide range of Kansas artists. When the Kansas Leadership Center and its primary funding provider, the Kansas Health Foundation, moved into their new downtown home last summer, they sought to create a collaborative space that invited conversation. Creative expression has emerged as a central force in their shared mission of promoting healthy communities. The works of art that fill the conference center are more than mere decorations.
They’re a collection purposely curated to facilitate dialogue and inspire emerging leaders. The center will host a Final Friday reception that invites the public to be part of that exchange.
“We set out to construct a space that would reflect Kansas, both in its design and in its furnishings,” said Steve Coen, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. “We wanted a space that would bring people together to tackle the difficult issues facing our state and our community. We know that art can open minds. Seeing imagery and experiencing new things through others’ eyes can make us more energetic, more creative and more open to new ways of thinking.”
The Kansas Health Foundation is a private philanthropy group that works to improve health in Kansas, focusing on disease prevention and promoting health. It has awarded more than $500 million in grants across the state since its inception in 1985. Closely aligned, though governed by a separate board of directors and operating with an independent strategic plan, the Kansas Leadership Center has a multiyear renewable grant from the Kansas Health Foundation started in 2007 that strives to cultivate civic leadership for stronger communities. The two outfits share adjacent office space in the complex, and the art collection will complement the work of both as they seek to train leaders throughout the state.
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The collection features 83 pieces from 27 different artists, all of whom either live in Kansas or have deep connections or ties to the state. It was curated by Stephen Gleissner, a native Kansan who is a former curator at the Wichita Art Museum.
Calling the center a space with purpose, Coen said the works reflect their commitment to supporting Kansas art and visually represent their mission to connect people and foster collaboration.
“The space has an open, campus feel,” he said. “It’s flexible enough to allow for small group interactions and also consists of a town hall-type meeting space for larger gatherings. … People can see each other, talk to each other and work together.”
The collection is diverse in styles and media, with photographs, paintings and abstracts represented.
Most works are two-dimensional, but there are also some glass and porcelain pieces. A large, shiny metal sculpture by Chris Gulick hangs above the stairwell, welcoming visitors as the focal point of the center’s entryway.
A series of 15 portraits of Kansans who demonstrated outstanding leadership perhaps best embodies the spirit of the collection’s intended purpose. The subjects profiled aren’t the most well-known heroes in the state, but Coen called them outstanding “influencers” of their time. Wichitan Lauren Fitzgerald fashioned their likenesses from cut paper, where she built up several layers, carving out their images with her knife. Each portrait has its own color, with corresponding meaning to the painting. Their different styles of commanding respect will be used during teachings at the center as examples of Kansas leadership.
Coen estimates that around 2,500 people have seen the works since their grand opening in July, having gone through the center for various meetings and training. He said visitors are consistently impressed by the scope of the talent.
“Through art, connections get stronger between people, organizations and communities. People start to question and inquire about the things around them. Those inspiring thoughts turn into conversations. Those are the types of conversations that can lead to solutions to make Kansas the healthiest, most productive, most livable state in the nation.”