A new building is a statement – a statement both of an organization’s aspirations and of the way it sees itself at the present moment.
That’s perhaps what makes Mark Arts’ gleaming new $19 million building so special.
Mark Arts officially moves to its new campus at 1307 N. Rock this week, signaling a milestone for the arts organization, which has played an outsized role in the Wichita arts community for nearly a century.
It’s a move precipitated by multimillion-dollar donations from high-profile donors – most notably the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, which gave $6 million to the cause. Mark Arts is short for the Mary R. Koch Arts Center.
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The move, Mark Arts officials hope, will usher in a new era for the 98-year-old organization, which is one of the most important cultural institutions in Wichita and drew national attention for a time.
“We’re 98 years young,” said Katy Dorrah, Mark Arts’ executive director. “We’re not showing our age at all.”
Inside the new Mark Arts
The prairie-style building itself, though modern in design, evokes a mid-century aesthetic through cascading walls of glass. If one stands at the center of the building, it’s possible to have a clear diagonal line of sight to the intersection of 13th and Rock across to the Polo Club Apartments to the southwest.
“That was very important architecturally,” Dorrah said. “It’s bringing that landscaping into the building through the glass.”
As of now, that landscaping consists of mounds of brown dirt – though Dorrah said by summertime, there should be native grasses around the building (installed in three rounds of seeding: one in January, one in March and one in June).
The glass-and-metal building is a stark contrast from the Japanese-themed pavilions at 9112 E. Central, Mark Arts’ home since 1965.
The old building, though “beautiful,” was lagging behind the times, and the renovations it needed were more cost-prohibitive than building new, according to Liz Koch, the wife of Charles Koch and daughter-in-law of the center’s namesake.
“This new building never would have happened had it not been so expensive ... to try and modify (the old building) and bring it up to speed today,” Liz Koch said. “It was reluctantly that we decided that we had to build a new facility. We really did love the old one – it’s a beautiful neighborhood, it’s a beautiful building – but it was just too expensive.”
The new 40,000-square-foot building at 13th and Rock has:
▪ Nine art studios, most featuring windows that face directly north.
▪ A culinary arts studio, featuring an industrial-grade kitchen equipped to host cooking classes.
▪ A digital arts studio that includes new computers for graphic design, photography and web design classes.
▪ An education commons, featuring study areas and tables for students across disciplines to gather.
▪ A 5,000-square-foot gallery for national exhibitions (the Gladys & Karl T. Wiedemann Gallery), as well as a youth gallery to showcase young artists’ work.
▪ Event space that can be rented out. It features a “great hall” that hosts up to 350 people (and up to 600 when combined with other event space in the building).
▪ A glass wall peering into Mark Arts’ vault, the institution’s first foray into open storage, a concept that’s proven popular at museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York-Historical Society.
Perhaps the biggest change: Mark Arts has ditched its theater facilities in favor of the culinary arts studio.
In the past, Koch has said Mark Arts’ theater program was “the thing that has most buried us financially through the years.”
In the ‘90s, its theater program was known for producing new musicals, including “Jane Eyre” and Steven Schwartz’s “Children of Eden,” which has since become one of the most popular regionally produced musicals in the country.
But even as Mark Arts distances itself from performing arts, Wichita will not be short a theater venue.
Mike Garvey bought the old Mark Arts building at 9112 E. Central in August and plans to dedicate it entirely to the performing arts.
Mark Arts’ new culinary arts studio allows it to become a destination for foodies and for those who want to learn to cook.
The organization plans to hold regular cooking classes featuring local chefs, as well as occasional one-off seminars, in this state-of-the-art kitchen.
The kitchen even doubles as a studio set. Small cameras are mounted atop the kitchen cabinets, and when the center hosts large cooking classes, up to 100 people can watch the demonstration via a projector in the commons area.
Think of it as a real-life Food Network program.
“The culinary kitchen was something that I wanted to do for a long time, because it’s fun – it invites families to come in, husbands and wives,” Koch said. “We can do all kinds of fun things in here that you wouldn’t think of in an art center.”
Another program to be eliminated with the move to 13th and Rock was Mark Arts’ art-based preschool.
Since the ‘90s, Mark Arts has sponsored a Creative Child Center Preschool, which was billed as Wichita’s only arts-focused preschool.
Recently Dorrah said when Mark Arts was planning its future, it “had to close some really beloved programs that just weren’t sustainable.”
“Preschool was one (that was cut), and that was because the landscape of preschools has changed dramatically,” Dorrah said. “There are so many more that have opened, and many offer more than what we could do as an arts-based preschool.”
Though the center has cut its preschool, it appears to have doubled down on its educational programs.
“The new Mark Arts is unique in that it’s a school,” Koch said. “Sure, we’ll have (art) shows ... but there’s nothing quite like this facility, so I think that it’s going to be a great draw for the community.
“I’m counting on that.”
A venerable institution
Don’t let the shiny new building trick you into thinking Mark Arts is some upstart arts organization.
Despite name changes (from the Wichita Art Association to the Wichita Center for the Arts, then to Mark Arts in 2016 as a play on Mary R. Koch’s name), the organization is one of the oldest and most historic cultural institutions in Wichita.
The organization was founded in 1920 as the Wichita Art Association. It was an effort by a few prominent Wichitans to broaden the city’s interest in art – doing so by hosting art exhibitions, collecting works for the city’s yet-to-be-completed art museum, and art instruction for the general public.
In the association’s heyday in the mid-20th century, it commanded a national reputation that belied its geographic location in the mid-sized manufacturing town of Wichita.
“That’s what makes Wichita so amazing – here’s this teeny little town in the middle of America that people and artists across the country knew about because of these art exhibitions,” said Barbara Thompson, a Wichita-native art historian. “You can’t say that about Omaha, you can’t say that about Tulsa, you can’t say that about Oklahoma City, you can’t even say it about Denver – nothing in the Midwest.”
The 1928 National American Block Print exhibition first brought national attention to the Wichita Art Association, and the event continued to draw artists from around the country through the 1970s.
The association’s school first held its classes in the lower level of the Wichita Art Museum – in 1942 it moved to a permanent home at 401 N. Belmont in College Hill.
There, instructors Bill and Betty Dickerson cultivated a generation of culturally literate Wichitans.
The Wichita Art Association was located at 402 N. Belmont from 1942-1965. It moved to its current facility at 9112 E. Central in 1965.
Bill Dickerson, longtime director of the school, was quoted in the Feb. 16, 1941, Wichita Eagle saying its “training not only will develop civic appreciation of art and aestheticism but some day will prove its work ... in the production of first-rate artists in Wichita.”
The legacy the Dickersons left in Wichita was far reaching – training local artists such as James Yarnell, Patric Rowley and Oscar Larmer in addition to artists who went on to international careers, such as Tom Otterness and David Salle.
Salle, now an internationally acclaimed painter, recently wrote of the Dickersons’ influence on his career in the New York Times Style Magazine (in response to the news about Mark Arts’ impending move).
“The Dickersons and their teaching style flourished at a time, mostly before the triumph of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of the university art department, when a lot of major American art was regional,” Salle wrote. “Good art occurred wherever an artist happened to be, from Maine to Taos.
“Whatever its new incarnation, the school I had known, its distinctive personality and unlikely influence, could never be repeated.”
During the Dickersons’ tenure, the organization continued to receive national attention – both for hosting the National Decorative Arts-Ceramics Exhibition (which came to be known in the art world as “The Wichita”) and the annual exhibitions of the Prairie Print Makers.
Bill Dickerson retired from the school in 1971 (and died the following year), though Betty Dickerson continued to teach there into her 80s.
The Koch donation
Much has been made of the Koch influence on the new Mark Arts – it was built on land donated by the Charles Koch Foundation, and its formal name is the Mary R. Koch Arts Center.
But why did the Kochs take such an interest in the organization?
Look no further than the metals studio in the new building.
On a counter just below the north-facing windows is a dusty old magnifying glass with two words scrawled on its base: “Mary Koch.”
Mark Arts plans to surround it with some of her artwork as well.
“Mary’s love was making jewelry,” Liz Koch said. “She did goldsmithing, silversmithing, enameling, you name it, but she also was a really good artist. She could draw and paint very well.
“She just was one of those people that are just born talented.”
Mary Robinson Koch, Charles’ mother, was one of the early matrons of Wichita’s art scene – alongside Olive Ann Beech and Gladys Wiedemann, both of whose descendents also gave large donations to the Mark Arts project.
Mary Robinson Koch was a longtime student of the Wichita Art Association, and her financial support helped build the old center at 9112 E. Central.
Dorrah said Koch’s magnifying glass sat untouched in her old studio spot at that building for years.
“I think it’s a wonderful testament to how much the arts meant to her in her life,” Dorrah said. “Hundreds of students have come and gone and no one has disturbed it because they have so much respect for Mary R. Koch and what she did for the arts in the community.”
Mary Robinson Koch died in 1990.
“I’m so proud to be her daughter-in-law that I ... wish I could have done it in her lifetime,” Liz Koch said of the new building. “She’d be so very proud of this whole facility.”
Mark Arts Grand Opening
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6
Where: Mark Arts, 1307 N. Rock
What: Community open house to celebrate the opening of Mark Arts’ new $19 million building. Featuring the opening of Mark Arts’ inaugural Kansas Invitational, featuring more than 100 works by artists who have lived or worked in Kansas. The exhibition is curated by Sonia Greteman, Mike Michaelis and Chris Shank.