Small Business

Courtney and Les Ruthven refocus on Mid-America Fine Arts

Courtney and Les Ruthven started Mid-America Fine Arts in 1971.
Courtney and Les Ruthven started Mid-America Fine Arts in 1971. The Wichita Eagle

Courtney Ruthven remembers how she and her husband got into the business of selling art.

“Our banker said you’ve got to quit buying or start selling,” she said.

Ruthven and her husband, Les, who started Mid-America Fine Arts in 1971, have recently refocused on the business after years when it wasn’t their top priority. Their son-in-law, Greg Moore, has gone to work with them after retiring from a job with Textron Aviation.

Walking through Mid-America’s 2,300-square-foot gallery on Central is to some extent like a trip down memory lane for the Ruthvens, who started collecting artwork — primarily paintings, but also some sculpture, pottery and drawings — after moving here in the 1960s. Les has a story about most if not all of the 700 works displayed there.

Here’s a plaster nude by Bruce Moore, who started studying art in Wichita and went on to create works for Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower. “The subject for this was Allie, who he married,” Ruthven said. “I always say it’s good she had a nice figure.”

There’s a colorful, quirky piece by Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton of Wellsville, Kan., who took up drawing while being treated for depression.

“She continued that and never went back to the hospital,” Ruthven said.

The gallery, located in a former office building, is split into numerous small rooms. Many of the best-known artists, such as Birger Sandzen, Henry Varnum Poor and John Costigan, have a wall or hallway devoted to their work. Prices range from the mid-five figures down to a drawing the Ruthvens sold for $10 recently.

The Ruthvens met while both were studying psychology at the University of Tennessee. Les grew up in New York and Fort Lauderdale, Courtney in Chattanooga. Les’ father was a “Sunday painter,” while one of Courtney’s earliest memories is dressing up in a pink pinafore for one of her mother’s art classes.

Les’ psychology practice in Wichita gave the couple income to start amassing art, which he said soon turned into “a hobby to get away from our business.”

“We at first bought what we thought was good,” Courtney said. “We didn’t care who the painter is.”That even included anonymous works, which tend not to be valued as highly. The Ruthvens eventually began focusing on better-known artists, especially those with Kansas connections.

“For a small state, we’ve had some excellent artists,” Les said, noting that five artists carried in their collection have been elected to the National Academy — “the highest honor an American artist can receive.”

The couple’s personal tastes have always played the biggest role in what they buy. For instance, neither much likes abstract art.

In the 1980s, after Courtney had received her own doctorate in psychology, the Ruthvens started a company called Preferred Mental Health Management, which managed outpatient psychological care for employees of Walmart and other companies, in the building that now houses their gallery. It eventually grew to 28 employees, so the Ruthvens bought the Commerce Plaza Building downtown and moved it there, along with their art collection.

That business kept the couple too busy to devote much time to their art business. However, over the past decade they sold that company to their daughters and also sold the Commerce building, which is now being converted into a hotel. Their artwork has been moved back to its original home on Central.

In recent months, Moore has launched a website for Mid-America and photographed every piece in the collection. “We’d like to thin it some,” Courtney Ruthven said.

Mid-America Fine Arts

Address: 2601 E. Central

Phone: 316-200-5210

Owners: Les and Courtney Ruthven