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.
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?
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?