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Wichita Art Museum to celebrate opening of $3.5 million Art Garden with a day of activities

Douglas Abdell’s “Kaephae-Aekyad #2” rises up out of the Tom and Myra Devlin Desert Garden in the Art Garden at the Wichita Art Museum.
Douglas Abdell’s “Kaephae-Aekyad #2” rises up out of the Tom and Myra Devlin Desert Garden in the Art Garden at the Wichita Art Museum. The Wichita Eagle

After spending all year under construction, and all its previous life as a flat expanse of lawn, the Wichita Art Museum’s eight-acre yard is about to open up to the public as a whole new world.

The Art Garden, as it is called, will open Sept. 26 with a free noon-to-night celebration to show off its features, including a field of 120 metal poles that will pulse with light, and an amphitheater that seats 800. There will be a concert, puppets, activities, food and strolling. Lots of strolling.

When all the fences are down and you can walk the periphery of the museum – and you will be able to on a new sidewalk that runs all the way around the outside – you will see glimpses of “Dreamers Awake,” limestone walls and Color Guard yucca, but complete scenes only unfold when you strike a path into the heart of the Art Garden beyond the berms and trees and waves of grasses.

Rather than a featureless lawn, the terrain now rises and falls – “that’s a hill from a Kansas perspective,” museum director Patricia McDonnell exclaims, pointing to one high point – and winds through different types and textures of plantings, walks, benches, walls, lights and artwork.

“It was just empty space, just nothing,” said Linda McCune, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, of the former landscape that she drives by every day. “It was not appealing at all, and, boy, it’s appealing now. It’s gorgeous.”

The $3.5 million re-imagining of the museum’s grounds takes into account the association’s desire for walking paths and seating. The Art Garden has new entry points that will make for easier and more pleasant access on foot and by car, including handicap-accessible crosswalks from surrounding streets and a fully landscaped entrance from the north into the parking lot that was just a service entry before.

“We really see the grounds and the Art Garden as our welcome mat to the community,” McDonnell said. “There are various, different kinds of landscape experiences you have as you circle the building, and any number of them are so unique, so special that they exude a poetry of place.”

The museum has placed its 11 outdoor sculptures — all but one the same as were displayed previously — in landscaped settings, and commissioned two new works: the Pulse Field of lights on the west side and three weathered-steel panels called “Wind Screens” to the north.

If the grounds were a popular place to walk the dog, play Frisbee and have a picnic before, it will be even better now, said Teresa Veazey, public relations manager for the museum. One water fountain has a ground-level basin for dogs. There are no gates, as before, and the public will have free access.

“It’s a gift to the city,” McDonnell said. “It’s all private donors,” who wanted the community to have such a place. Some of their names are attached to various areas of the Art Garden: the Jayne Milburn Sculpture Plaza, the Lattner and Walker Family Plaza, the Slawson Family North Garden, the Paula and Barry Downing Amphitheater, and the Tom and Myra Devlin Desert Garden.

Unique combinations

The Art Garden is like a new park, and its name reflects the movement of the Wichita Art Museum to embrace a new form of beauty.

“In many places you might call it a sculpture garden,” McDonnell said, “and many museums or independent reserves combine sculpture in nature so they call themselves a sculpture park or garden. But we wanted to make a point that landscape architecture rises to an art form, and we think our landscape architecture is very special.”

The confluence of elements has made it unusual for Confluence, the Kansas City landscape architecture firm that designed the Art Garden.

“One thing that’s unique is the integration of the active space — the amphitheater — into the garden space and the sculpture garden,” said Terry Berkbuegler, principal with Confluence. “That’s a more active use, the amphitheater, with a sculpture garden being a more quiet space.”

The Art Garden is not to be confused with Botanica down the street. There won’t, for example, be name tags on the plants. (You can pick up a plant list at the opening, but it won’t tell you where to find what.) There will be no annuals. Instead, the plants are all perennial, meaning they’ll come back from year to year, and, as they grow, the look of the garden will change. Many of them are natives to Kansas, and the first visitors to the garden, in fact, have been butterflies.

But there are still carpets of green fescue as well.

“What’s cool to me is we’ve got a lot of manicured up against the native,” said Mark Matney of Tree Top Nursery, which has done the planting of the Art Garden.

In the South Garden, for example, Shenandoah switchgrass, its green blades shot through with red, grows alongside the tight purple spikes of the perennial flower Veronica. The muted gray-pink succulence of Matrona sedum plays with airy nepeta, while Northern sea oats, Karley Rose fountain grass and little bluestem sway together.

You can walk an elevation alongside the South Garden on offset concrete slabs that cut through fescue. “We call that the zipper path,” Veazey says.

Sculpture settings

Matney similarly likes how the native and manicured areas interact with the sculpture.

For example, he points to three types of yucca set into a sea of pea gravel in the Tom and Myra Devlin Desert Garden. “Look how that looks with that jagged sculpture” — the welded-steel “Kaephae-Aekyad #2” rising up from the sword-like leaves of the yucca.

Indeed, the sculptures were like gemstones that had not yet been placed into jewelry settings when they lolled about the museum’s former lawn.

“This gave us the opportunity to newly think where we located sculptures, the berms and the plants around it, and how the work could be showcased in a spectacular way,” McDonnell said.

The existence of the sculptures made for another unique design situation for Confluence — “working with an existing collection, especially in and around the Tom Otterness piece, ‘Dreamers Awake,’ and taking that space and really transforming the setting around that sculpture,” Berkbuegler said.

The place will also look different at night, with light that itself is artistic, McDonnell said.

“This plaza at night is gorgeous. It just glows,” she said of the setting for “Dreamers Awake.” That sculpture was partially hidden before. “These little quirky people who are full of so much whimsy — there was a knee wall, and you couldn’t see them from the street.

“We’ve honored the sculpture in an all-new way. … It’s a whole new mood.”

On the rooftop Terrace overlooking “Dreamers Awake,” the vista extends to take in a bend in the Little Arkansas River. The indoor parts of the museum that have windows also have been transformed by the addition of all the leafy green outdoors.

“In our great hall, you just look out onto grandeur,” McDonnell said.

Leafy future

On Sept. 26, the museum will not only offer entertainment and activities and those views outside, but the galleries will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with free admission, and the museum’s gift shop, which has been undergoing remodeling, will reopen that day. A concert by the party band Lotus will cap the evening, running until 10 p.m. in the amphitheater.

From behind, the amphitheater looks simply like a slope leading to a stage. But stone-wall seating is cut into the slope. The limestone walls that mark the neighborhood’s Museums on the River are continued as a theme throughout the Art Garden, providing definition as well as places to sit. In one area, a wall starts to dissipate into benches, both rough-hewn and smooth-cut limestone. Some stones are child-height. Some benches have lighting underneath.

The three-year rule of a garden is “sleep, creep, leap,” but “stuff is already taking off” in the Art Garden, Matney of Tree Top said, having been planted in soil with good deep moisture from plentiful rain this year.

But McDonnell is looking forward to the transformation to come.

“In five years even,” she said, “this landscape will really mature and grow into its own, so in that North Garden area with that knee-wall limestone, and many of those are lower-canopy trees, they’re not large trees at the moment, when they spread their wings and grow some, that will become a very, very different kind of area and intimate as opposed to the area right by the river or even the amphitheater. So just the character of the natural environment you’re in is very different, and we don’t fully experience it yet. We need to give it five years.”

And the Art Garden will continue to grow in other ways. “We will continue to add sculpture,” McDonnell said. Donations will continue to be welcomed for the project.

Once the opening celebration is over, the public can truly make the Art Garden its own, Veazey said.

“Bring the dogs. Bring the Frisbees. Bring the picnic blankets.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

If you go

Art Garden grand opening

When: Noon to 10 p.m. Sept. 26

Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.

How much: Free

Schedule of events:

Noon: Food trucks, art-making and other activities

12:45 p.m.: Dedication by Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell

1 p.m.: Giant roaming puppets

2:30 p.m.: Performance by StoneLion Puppet Theatre

5 p.m.: Stroll the garden during activity intermission; the Muse Cafe will be open for tapas from 5 to 9 p.m.

6 p.m.: Food trucks return

7 p.m.: Music by DJ Carbon with a light show and models from Planet Hair

7:30 to 10 p.m.: Wichita party band Lotus

Information: wichitaartmuseum.org

Art Garden by the numbers

Acres: 8

New trees: 107, in 13 varieties

Deciduous shrubs: 296, in seven varieties

Evergreen shrubs: 253, in five varieties

Perennials: 7,277, in 37 varieties

Grasses: 12,863, in 14 varieties

Kansas limestone: 840 tons, from quarries in Cottonwood Falls and Dover

Pathways: 31,600 square feet

Sculptures: 11

New commissions: 2

Solar-light poles in Pulse Field: 120

Seating in the amphitheater: 800, with spillover room for 300 more

Audience capacity throughout the grounds: 2,500

Cost: $3.5 million, from private donors

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