Wichita is a long, pleasant drive from Norman across rolling, wheat-soaked hills. Small Kansan towns dot the otherwise agrarian landscape. Some, like Cottonwood Falls, are impeccably preserved and quiet.
The cobble-stoned main street in Cottonwood Falls, leads up to a 1920’s town hall. The hall lords over the small eponymous waterfall and Depression-era shops.
Other towns haven’t fared so well. These outposts off the minor two lane highways have lost their names to time. Rusted tractors lean into gutted old farm buildings. Dogs roam the overgrown sidewalks.
Wichita: A Water Hole of Art
The dusty, sprawling city of Wichita sits on the windy banks of the Little Arkansas River. This, naturally, feeds into the Big Arkansas River.
Recent renovations to the Wichita Art Museum have given the museum a glass-lined interior. It now looks and even smells like a modern museum. Coffee and lunch aromas drift across the foyer from the bustling café. The museum is home to seven thousand works of art, including four Hopper pictures. Its wealth is due to two women whose goal was to create ‘a water hole of art in the dry lands.’
An Unexpected Windfall
Roland Pierpont Murdock and his wife co-owned The Wichita Eagle newspaper with his brother at the turn of the twentieth century. Louise Caldwell Murdock was a supporter of the Progressive Movement, which championed democracy and civic improvement. Murdock had a long-standing interest in fine art, although she never developed a significant collection of her own.
After her husband’s death in 1906, Murdock studied interior decoration in New York. She returned to Wichita to set up a successful interior decorating business. She designed and built Wichita’s first large office building, the Caldwell-Murdock building. This building played a key role in the acquisition of the Wichita Art Museum’s Edward Hopper pictures fifty years later.
Following her death in 1915, the bulk of Mrs. Murdock’s wealth, including the rental income from the Caldwell-Murdock building, was set aside in a trust in her husband’s name to purchase art for the Wichita community by ‘American painters, potters, sculptors, and weavers.’ This surprised everyone, not least Elizabeth Stubblefield Navas, Mrs. Murdock’s assistant. Navas was entrusted by Murdock’s Will to run the collection.
The Roland P. Murdock Collection is conditional upon a space provided by Wichita to house it. This spawned the foundation of the Wichita Art Museum in 1935. The Collection started in earnest in 1937, after the death of Mrs. Murdock’s remaining relatives, who received life-long stipends before the collection’s inception.
Time for a New York Splurge
From 1939 to 1962, Navas purchased one hundred and sixty-seven works of art for the Wichita Art Museum using Murdock Collection funds. She was guided by several curators in New York, where she based herself, including Lloyd Goodrich (1897-1987).
Goodrich, then Curator and later Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was an eminent champion of Edward Hopper’s career and a close friend of his. Goodrich was also Hopper’s leading contemporary biographer, writing extensively and astutely about Hopper and his art.
‘If I send that back to Wichita, they will tear me limb from limb.’
– Elizabeth Navas
Stephen Gleissner, Chief Curator of the Wichita Art Museum, joins me for lunch in the museum café. He says that Navas purchased mainly representational art rather than abstraction. This was more due to the social circles she kept in New York, rather than any inherent conservatism.
Nevertheless, Wichita’s conservative nature played a role in her decisions. Even the realist paintings which were brought back to Wichita on an annual basis provoked regular uproar and colorful letters of complaint. Navas herself said, ‘I had a chance to buy one of those gross women De Kooning painted, but I thought, if I send that back to Wichita, they will tear me limb from limb.’
Stay tuned: we’ll hear all about the Murdock Collection’s remarkable Hoppers in the next post…