Keeper of the Plans

Wichita’s most generous man is at it again, donating more free admissions

Colby Sandlian of Sandlian Realty, photographed in 2010, is responsible for underwriting weekend admission costs to the Wichita Art Museum and Old Cowtown Museum.
Colby Sandlian of Sandlian Realty, photographed in 2010, is responsible for underwriting weekend admission costs to the Wichita Art Museum and Old Cowtown Museum. The Wichita Eagle

Few things can top free.

In Wichita, it’s fairly well-known that admission to the Wichita Art Museum is always free on Saturdays.

Now, Old Cowtown Museum is offering free admission on Sundays through October.

It’s all because of Colby Sandlian.

The 86-year-old real estate developer is responsible for underwriting free-admission-day costs at both museums.

Sandlian, owner of Sandlian Realty, is highly respected in the real estate business – he was known as the “Storage King” because of his vast holdings of self-storage facilities across the country. He’s been recognized with a host of prestigious real estate accolades over the years.

But he’s also got quite the philanthropic bug, though it takes a bit of pressing to get him to talk about it.

He’s a major contributor to a variety of organizations – Botanica, Music Theatre Wichita and others – but his donations to the Wichita Art Museum and now Cowtown are the most visible.

“When you put your money into a big organization, you never see where exactly it goes,” Sandlian said Thursday. “In this particular case, you can see very clearly what it’s going toward.”

Jacky Goerzen, Cowtown’s executive director, said Sandlian called her “out of the blue one day” about a month ago to offer the donation.

“He said, ‘I thought you’d be able to use this – I do it for the art museum,’ and that’s kind of how it happened,” she said. “It’s a pretty fantastic thing for us.”

Last Sunday was the first time Cowtown advertised its free admission day, and 1,800 people attended, “which, for us, was a phenomenally busy day,” Goerzen said.

“For us, it was fantastic to get that many people out,” Goerzen said. “It’s such a fantastic thing, not just for us but for the community in general, because it gives them an opportunity to go see these museums, even if they wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. … It’s a win-win all around. Good for Wichita, good for us.”

Sandlian said he considered underwriting free admission days to Exploration Place, but after talking with the museum, he found “they don’t have a problem getting people in the door on Saturdays and Sundays – in fact, they’re doing remarkably well.”

So a friend suggested he donate to Cowtown, he said.

These free-admission days are no small kick in the bucket, either. According to Patricia McDonnell, director of the Wichita Art Museum, free Saturday admissions account for half of the museum’s yearly attendance.

“It’s really big,” McDonnell said of Sandlian’s support. “He is one of our very important patrons – he regularly comes to the museum for openings and Murdock Society gatherings.”

Sandlian has underwritten Saturday admissions at the Wichita Art Museum since 2003, when the museum reopened after a building expansion.

Sandlian offers a yearly donation to the museums in exchange for the free admission days. While he wouldn’t say how much that costs, it’s fair to assume it’s sizable.

“Wichita, as a whole, we give back a lot of money,” Sandlian said. “There are a good bunch of folks here.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

Free admission days, as donated by Colby Sandlian

The Wichita Art Museum is free from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday.

Old Cowtown Museum is free from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays when the museum is open. Cowtown is open Sundays from April to October.