Arts & Culture

75 years of art

It was almost a century ago that a Wichita businesswoman and wife of one of the city's most prominent leaders decided to build a distinguished collection of art for her community.

Twenty years after Louise Caldwell Murdock bequeathed money for that project, the Wichita Art Museum opened in 1935. Four years later, money from the trust fund she established was used to buy the museum's first piece — John Steuart Curry's "Kansas Cornfield" — and the Roland P. Murdock Collection was launched.

Today, after three major renovations and the growth of the museum's collection from one piece to 7,200, the city's premier cultural institution is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Events are planned throughout the year, says museum director Charles Steiner. This month, the museum unveiled the first of 12 works of art that will be showcased each month to represent a collection the museum owns or has been promised to it.

When the museum opened 75 years ago in an Art Deco-style building on the same spot it sits today, its first exhibition consisted of borrowed works of art.

The building along the Little Arkansas River was a fraction of the size of the existing structure, which underwent a $10.5 million renovation in 2003.

Through the years, the museum's mission has stayed constant — to collect fine works of American art.

"We are strongest in early 20th century American art, but there are some artists we would still love to have as part of our collections, such as Willem De Kooning," Steiner said.

"This is a very community-based museum," he said. "So much of the museum's collection came from the community, beginning with Mrs. Murdock."

In 1959, an organization called Friends of the Wichita Art Museum was founded to advance the museum's mission, and many members have contributed collections since then, Steiner said.

One of the most recent significant bequeathals came from F. Price Cossman for the acquisition of Steuben glass, he said. It's through such collections that the museum is building a reputation for excellence, he said.

"In 75 more years, I would like to see the museum recognized for the collection that it has," he said. "I think that it is internationally recognized in academic circles, but I don't think it is as recognized on a national or local level. We have such an incredible collection and we look forward to seeing what is going to take place in the next generation."

Among the events the museum is having this year to mark its anniversary is a major exhibition of Norman Rockwell art, starting March 7.

A week later, the museum will collaborate with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra on a performance of original music based on the Rockwell exhibition.

On Oct. 3, the museum will display designs by architectural students from four universities — the University of Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska and Oklahoma — that envision what the museum will look like in 75 years.

Looking ahead, museum officials also want to work more closely with art enthusiasts who have joined WAM Contemporaries, a group of people mostly 50 and under who support the museum. The group's kickoff party for 2010 is Feb. 6 at the museum.

"The Contemporaries are very important to us and to some degree will dictate the future of the museum," Steiner said.

Anniversary events for the Wichita Art Museum

Jan. 24 — Book-signing and reception for "The Wichita Art Museum: 75 Years of American Art," by former WAM curator Novelene Ross and current curator Stephen Gleissner.

Feb. 6 — WAM Contemporaries 2010 party, Wichita Art Museum

March 7 — Opening of "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell."

March 13-14 — Wichita Symphony Orchestra performs "Rockwell Reflections," original music by Stella Sung.

Oct. 3 — Opening of exhibition by architecture students envisioning the look of the museum in 75 years.

Oct. 17 — Opening of exhibition highlighting works in "The Wichita Art Museum: 75 Years of American Art."

Dec. 11 — Annual gala "Framing the Future" will close the 75th anniversary year.