Downtown Wichita art installation explores future of public library

The future of the public library is on display in downtown Wichita, or at least an artistic interpretation of its forthcoming advent is.

Local artist Randy Regier has constructed an installation at the northwest corner of William and Market that imagines the prospects for the changing institution. It’s a conversation started by Activate Wichita that aims to solicit community awareness through art by filling vacant storefront windows with thought-provoking displays. The group, which is managed in part by the Wichita Public Library and the Wichita Public Library Foundation, explores how art can be used to generate engagement as plans to revamp the city’s library system move forward.

“Whatever the future holds, its foundation will always be books,” Regier said about the library itself. “I made the foundation of the structure based on books. Gradually as it rises in the window space, it becomes more air space and, with that, more potential for growth and change. The future is more or less unknown to all of us, so high in the window it references space, future, potential and exploration. The library is like a lot of institutions, expanding upon what it can become.”

While plans for the new downtown public library remain fluid, the need to draw the public into the conversation about its future was seen as pivotal by library supporters. So, too, was the idea of revitalizing the downtown area. Earlier this year, a grant was awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that made it possible to call attention to both prospects by funding art installations in vacant storefronts. This is the second one to be constructed and funded from that grant, with the first unveiled in May at the Renfro building on East Douglas. That exhibit was a nod to the power of the public library, while this display looks to the library’s future.

“The art installations are a literal interpretation of the mission,” said Kristin Beal, grant facilitator for the group. “We call attention to these vacant spaces downtown, and we hope that they are later revitalized. The Renfro space rented right after we were in it, and we hope that trend continues. So many buildings around here sit vacant for so long that people just don’t see them anymore. These installations draw attention. There is possibility.”

Though he holds a lifelong affinity for the library, Regier said he was initially skeptical after being approached to do the installation, in part because he was struggling to see what the future might hold. But after a meeting with Cynthia Berner Harris, the director of libraries, he felt there was a clear vision for transforming the library into a 21st-century gathering place where information and technology could be accessible to the public.

“I came away from that meeting feeling that the library had a vision for the future that would involve some substantial change, certainly a redefinition of what my generation thinks that the library is, which is books,” he said. “The library has always been more than just books, but that has been its foundation.”

That foundation is the literal basis of the display, which from a distance appears to be a model city, complete with colorful buildings and an array of different people. It’s actually a setting made out of more than 750 books, most of which came from the Wichita Public Library. Between the buildings are figurines that Regier says reflect the diverse population that the library serves. The top part of the installation tips its hat to the future by showcasing books about space exploration and futuristic figurines.

“The work that I show references toys heavily,” he said. “In this installation, I used found toys and toy figures because they are part of all our cultural inheritance. By incorporating toys, the challenge was to incorporate diversity. That’s the library. … It’s all encompassing and available to all. Toys propose to be that, but they are not always representative of that. I always push toys to something they aren’t accustomed to being, which is diverse.”

Regier and his wife, Vicki, constructed and installed the exhibit last week. It was unveiled July 28 and will be on display throughout July. While it can be viewed any time, Regier said that dusk is an ideal time to take it in because of how the lighting outside mixes with the lights in the window.

“I believe in the future of the library because (of) its proven stewardship of our collective material and intellectual history, thus the library is still a bridge I trust to worlds yet unknown,” he said. “My window installation is composed of books and toys because of their conceptual and material symmetry. They serve to articulate, I hope, my gratitude for what the library has meant to me in my life but also how I know it must continue to evolve and to renew itself in such rapidly changing times.”

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