After a nine-month hiatus, the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University is throwing a party in its newly renovated climate-controlled galleries. Approximately half a million dollars has boosted the gallery into state-of-the-art status.
Most of the museum’s makeover brought a new air-handling system to create a near-perfect climate for permanent and visiting collections in the 38-year-old building.
While the museum was closed, some cosmetic work also was done. The cement floors were polished. New moveable wall partitions, constructed at WSU, were secured, and a fresh coat of paint was added. The museum — with just a little cosmetic work — has an exciting, polished look.
A reopening event Saturday evening at the museum will unveil the changes.
But what visitors can’t see perhaps has those invested most excited.
For a museum to display high-quality artwork from other museums and to keep the pieces in pristine condition, it must possess a stringent climate-controlled environment.
“(Before), if we were interested in a serious loan, they would not have accepted us,” said Ulrich Director Patricia McDonnell. “We can now imagine phoning the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York or the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and working on bringing an exchange, and that was not the case before.”
When McDonnell came to the museum in 2007, she realized the air system was not adequate. She explained her dilemma to the staff at physical plants and the board of directors. Eventually, an engineer was called in, a public bid was authorized, and the local firm of Hahner, Foreman and Harness installed new ductwork, added barrier walls and oversaw the installation of a new air-handling system.
A museum is expected to keep its interior temperature at 65 to 75 degrees and its humidity between 45 percent and 55 percent.
“You don’t want to have terrible spikes,” McDonnell said. “We went considerably beyond 75 degrees. We just didn’t have a system that could deal with the great temperature swings in Kansas.”
Woody DePontier, WSU’s physical plant director, said the money to update the air-handling unit and all the ductwork came from “money that was allocated for Regents colleges for rehabilitation and repair.”
A vestibule that leads to the sculpture gallery was built on the second floor so that outside air does not come directly into the main rooms. A glass wall also was constructed in front of the elevators to alleviate temperature swings from the opening of the elevator doors. A dropped ceiling was added in one gallery, and a new roof structure was built to accommodate the extra cooling mechanisms.
After the Saturday night party, the museum will open Sept. 16 with three exhibitions: One exhibit will feature a retrospective of WSU professor Ronald Christ, another will showcase some recent works from the museum’s permanent collection, and a final exhibit will celebrate Kansas-born Gordon Parks’ centennial birthday with a display of a dozen of his civil rights-era photographs.
To add to the powerful photographic display, the Ulrich secured a loan of almost three dozen civil rights photographs from the Menil Collection in Houston. These works by a variety of photographers will round out the museum’s Gordon Parks exhibit. The photographs in the exhibit exemplify an era of unrest and provide moving documentation that shows the strength of resiliency during oppression, as well as the brutality of force.
“It’s very doubtful that they (the Menil) would have leant this work without this new climate control,” McDonnell said.
She said she welcomes this new era of possibilities.
“The door is now open to do more ambitious exhibits,” McDonnell said. “I’m just so excited about seeing people coming through the door.”
The museum also is looking to expand in the next two to three years, McDonnell said. With the help of federal grants and donor money, the museum is hoping to increase collection storage space, create a larger loading dock and build better work space. More than $1.8 million of the $3 million needed has been raised.
Although she does not want the fanfare, the reopening of the Ulrich marks the end of McDonnell’s tenure as the museum’s director.
On Sept. 16, McDonnell begins working full time as the executive director of the Wichita Art Museum. The Ulrich is searching for a new director as well as a new curator, whom the new director will hire.