Kansas scene

Wichita Public Schools Collection

The road from Wichita to Kansas City stretches out like a snake across the vast, undulating farmland. On it, I think about how democratic art can be. The Murdock Collection aimed to enrich the common man’s life in Wichita. The Wichita Art Museum also holds on long-term loan the art collection of the Wichita Public Schools.

The thought of one of these pictures hanging in a social studies class on a hot spring morning is poignant and romantic.

Wichita Public Schools Collection

The Wichita Public Schools collection represents one-fifth of the pictures hung in the permanent collection gallery. It consists mostly of Kansan artists, many of whom became famous nationally. One local painter who made it big was John Steuart Curry. Curry portrayed rural American life and was therefore categorized as a Regionalist, a group which Edward Hopper took great pains to distance himself from. Curry’s painting, ‘Father and Mother’ (1933), is part of the Wichita Public Schools collection.

Father and Mother (1933) John Steuart Curry Wichita Public Schools CollectionFather and Mother (1933) John Steuart Curry Wichita Public Schools Collection
‘Father and Mother’ (1933) John Steuart Curry

The Wichita Public Schools collection was originally housed in the schools themselves. In recent memory, however, the pictures have been kept at the Wichita Art Museum. They are a welcome addition to the Kansan-themed permanent collection. They offer vivid depictions of everyday life on the Great Plains during the early twentieth century.

The thought of one of these pictures hanging in a social studies class on a hot spring morning is poignant and romantic. The trust given to school-aged children as the caretakers of such art would have been amazingly affirming. Much of a child’s time is spent staring at school walls. What better way to spend it than to look at fine art?

'Two Girls' (1928) Walter Ufer Wichita Public Schools collection
‘Two Girls’ (1928) Walter Ufer

A Lost Philanthropy

It is difficult to imagine such a scene in today’s world. There are a host of logistical explanations for this, including security and insurance premiums. I think that the main reason, though, is a sea change in the way society regards fine art.

Individuals like Virginia Steele Scott in California, C. Leonard Pfeiffer in Arizona and Louise Murdock in Kansas bought art for the express purpose of giving it to the public. Art philanthropy is now stronger than ever. The key difference is that gifts today almost always involve the en bloc donation of a personal collection which has been put together by an individual or a family over many years. Ninety percent of these collections have been assembled according to personal taste and whim. They have not had a museum’s needs or interests in mind.

Most museums can simply no longer afford the prices which great artworks fetch.

Today’s gifts to museums have astronomical values. These gifts represent an indispensable part of museums’ acquisitions.  Most museums can simply no longer afford the prices which great artworks fetch.

One of the casualties of seeing art as a commodity is a brand of philanthropy which embodied populist democracy. The ethos of this philanthropy was that a country’s art never really belongs to an individual. The ownership remains with the society which fostered that art in the first place.

It was this world view which had children surrounded by works of fine art in their classrooms. Today, children are lucky to have the occasional field trip to a museum.

The relics of this philanthropy remain ensconced in repositories of art across America. They remind us that putting a dollar value on art, no matter how large, underestimates the true value to those who are touched by it.

How do you feel about art philanthropy today? Are we missing something?

4 thoughts on “Wichita Public Schools Collection

  1. Original art in public schools- what a wonderful thought! Lookking back on my own public school experience there was nearly zero of this. In the primary grades at least the teacher would hang up the students’ paintings, but by middle school even that had stopped. I remember the deafening contrast of our bare walls with the children going to a school with it’s own world class art museum- Phillips Academy in Andover, MA (which has some world class Hopper art). We could do so much better!

    Thanks for this post on the Murdock history.

    • Thanks Philip, I couldn’t agree more. I will visit the Phillips Academy on the second leg of this journey. They are truly blessed with some great art, which came from great connections to the New York art world, via Yale. The rich get richer…

  2. Your account of the Wichita Public School Collection reminds me of the art programs of the New Deal, when artists were subsidized by the federal government to produce artwork for public enlightenment and enjoyment (e.g., the murals in post offices and other public buildings throughout the United States). This was recognition on the federal level of the importance of art in our society and the obligation of government to support art as a “public good”–“good” in both senses, as commodity and benefit. It seems that the Wichita school program must have been developed with this same philosophy. What a shame that the artwork has been removed from the schools! I’m sure that the museum is providing much more appropriate conservation and stewardship…but still…couldn’t they provide high-quality reproductions to hang in the schools?

    • Thanks Bonnie. It’s a good point about the high quality reproductions. The school students obviously come to the Wichita Art Museum to see their pictures, but I’m not sure if they know that they own them! Or if the school administrators consider the students as their owners (although I do).

      Your point about the New Deal is apt. We’ve gone so far the other way now, with the broader increase in societal inequality. It’s time for a swing back towards that ‘public good’. Hopefully it doesn’t take another Depression to get there.

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