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Koch family donations facilitate Center for the Arts’ move to new building (+video)

Before artist and philanthropist Mary Koch died in 1990, she asked her daughter-in-law, Liz, to watch after some things that were dear to her once she was gone.

One of them was the Wichita Center for the Arts.

“She was so passionate about it,” said Liz Koch, an honorary trustee for the Center.

She and her husband, Charles, and their family’s foundations are now fulfilling Mary Koch’s wish in a significant way: They’re giving $10.5 million in land and money for a new home for the Center, which started in 1920 as the Wichita Art Association.

“We’re looking … down the barrel of old age ourselves, and I would still like to thank her for all the things she contributed to the city,” Liz Koch said. “We’re going to do something that’s really great to honor his mother, and we both feel really good about that.”

The new 38,000-square-foot center will be built on 17 acres at the southwest corner of 13th and Rock Road – prime real estate that has sat vacant for years as the Kochs have turned away offers for it.

The project, including the land, is valued at $18.5 million.

The Charles Koch Foundation is donating the land, which is valued at about $4.5 million. The Fred and Mary Koch Foundation is giving $2 million and will have another $4 million challenge grant.

There will be a capital campaign to raise an additional $8 million.

Liz Koch said a foundation employee suggested using the land for a new Center.

“It was about a 30-second decision,” she said. “This should really help the whole arts community.”

Koch said the current 45,000-square-foot Center’s home of 50 years at 9112 E. Central has suffered from deferred maintenance. For instance, upgrading the building’s air conditioning would cost more than $1 million, which Koch calls “just a ridiculous amount of money.”

“There were so many things like that,” she said. “It was nearly the same to have something that was brand new as opposed to retrofitting.”

The new Center will be on one level and divided into three main spaces. There will be an art education area with clerestories to allow natural light from the north.

“When you do art, north light is really important and good,” said David Riffel, a partner at Howard & Helmer Architecture, the architect for the project.

There will be a gallery area in the center for teaching exhibits and national exhibits.

“That’s kind of the focus,” Riffel said.

There also will be an event center, “which is really kind of a new thing for the center,” he said.

It will have a catering kitchen and be available for weddings and corporate conferences.

“We’re trying to integrate that space with the gallery,” Riffel said.

The idea is events could flow into the gallery and into an outdoor plaza as well, which Riffel said will feature a sculpture garden and can be used for teaching. He said the vision for the new building is that it will be “like a park with a school in it.”

Riffel said construction should begin in late 2016 and be finished by late 2017 or early 2018.

There will be other changes with the new Center as well.

“It’ll be an arts school,” Koch said. “That’s really what we want this center to be is living art.”

There will still be juried art shows, but Koch said, “We know we’re not going to be buying art and collecting art like the (Wichita Art) Museum or the Ulrich does.”

She said the new Center will abandon the “money pit” that is its current theater.

“We will probably give up on theater since it has been the thing that has most buried us financially through the years,” Koch said.

“We’re looking at teaching and creating art,” she said. “It will be more modern and younger.”

A young Liz Koch was pregnant with her daughter, Elizabeth, when her mother-in-law first introduced her to the Center for the Arts.

“She tried to teach me basic silversmithing and enameling,” Koch said.

Mary Koch created various forms of art, such as drawings and jewelry, but Liz Koch said her real artistic love was silversmithing, goldsmithing and enameling.

“The only problem is she’s an artist, and I’m not,” Koch said. “I really didn’t have the skills.”

Koch said it worked better when she gave her designs to her mother-in-law for her to execute.

The new Center’s name likely will honor Mary Koch, though that’s still in discussion. The Center’s board has plans to eventually sell the existing building and use the proceeds toward the new building.

Koch said she and her husband have long rejected offers for development at 13th and Rock Road – and not because their home is catty-corner to it.

“It’s just that there were never any attractive proposals,” she said.

“Do we need more offices? Do we need more storage? I don’t think so. I get sick of looking at that stuff.”

Koch said why not do something spectacular?

“And in my mind, this is spectacular.”

Koch understands that there may be people who don’t appreciate some of the changes with the new Center. She said she feels sorry for anyone who sees this move as anything less than a fabulous one, but beyond that, Koch said she won’t let any criticism bother her.

“If I worried about what everybody thought, I’d be dead by now,” she said. “There’s always naysayers, but absolutely no one’s going to burst my bubble on this one.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRengers.