The latest art installations at the Wichita Art Museum won’t be found in the galleries inside the building.
Instead, they’re outside, in the newly landscaped grounds that surround the 80-year-old museum downtown.
The two new sculptures and the artistic landscape design are the foundation for the museum’s new “Art Garden,” which opens Saturday.
Inside the Great Hall in the Wichita Art Museum on a recent Thursday, Hayley Holt leads a group of toddlers--and the parents or grandparents with them--to a large window. Holt is an assistant curator of education and is giving these visitors a sneak peek at the outdoor space that has been transformed into an art garden.
Holt tells the boys and girls all about that new artwork, and then describes the digging, dirt moving, and hard work it took to get the art garden ready for Saturday’s grand opening.
The young visitors, with adults in tow, leave the Great Hall to tour the galleries. Next time they visit, they’ll be able to walk in the Art Garden, and see its new sculpture up close. Museum director Patricia McDonnell says there’s a reason for the excitement about the garden project: It has been three years in the making.
“We really understand the Art Garden as our ‘welcome mat,’” she says. “It is our outside gesture of welcome to the community of Wichita. It’s so gorgeous, and there are any number of gathering places in the garden.
The museum’s Art Garden is the eight acres of land that surround the building. It took nine months to transform the existing lawn, shrubs and trees into what McDonnell calls an artistic landscape masterpiece.
There are now small hills, walking paths, gathering plazas and lots of plotted gardens with lush native plants. It’s a completely different experience than what you would find at Botanica down the road.
“We want our garden to reflect pride of place and the beauty of Kansas landscape,” McDonnell says. “So there are many natural prairie grasses, and this is an entirely garden of trees and grasses and perennials. There are not flowers in this garden. There are not annuals.”
With just days to go before the official opening, crews are finishing up the last details. One worker is smoothing the top of the limestone walls that surround an east side sculpture plaza.
There’s a lot of limestone throughout the garden--more than 800 tons from two quarries in Kansas. It’s used for walls, seating and walkways, and it’s even in the signage.
In another large unfinished area, crews are digging trenches for the irrigation system. They’ll need plenty of water for the 107 new trees and more than 20,000 new shrubs, grasses and perennials that are scattered throughout the Garden.
McDonnell is happy to show off a special place in the new Art Garden. She points to the river at the north end of the property, where there are give sculptures lined along the landscape.
One of those is the iconic sculpture of a fragmented male figure by Wichita native Tom Otterness. That masterwork is among the original 11 outdoor pieces that have graced the museum grounds for years. Now, their locations have been enhanced.
“We had these sculptures outside, but honestly they weren’t all wonderfully sited where they are placed in a real harmony with the landscaping around it,” she says. “In starting from scratch and really entirely remaking the landscape, we were able to site sculpture in a way that they just look gorgeous where they are.”
The Art Garden features two new sculptures. One is called “Pulse Field” by New York artist Derrick Porter, near the entrance to the museum. 120 aluminum poles cover the top of a small hill, each standing 16 feet high with solar lights on top that pulse on and off. It’s a different experience at night than what you see during the day.
“When darkness falls and the light fixtures are able to read that, they will come on and then they will pulse on a gradual four seconds on and off,” McDonnell says. “I think it’s going to be very poetic, very lyrical.
The other new artwork, a gate-like structure in the north garden, is “Wind Screens” by Vicki Scuri of Seattle. Three curved panels of weathering steel are perforated and look a little bit like mesh screens.
“They are perforated in this wonderful pattern with circles that, for (Scuri), evokes the Kansas wind. (It’s) this sort of ebb and flow and lyricism of the Kansas wind,” McDonnell says.
Melding nature with art to create this distinctive Art Garden cost $3.5 million. The project was entirely privately funded.
Longtime art patrons Martha Walker and Paula Downing came up with the idea for the garden in 2012 and offered $1 million to get it started. The City of Wichita owns the museum, and McDonnell says the city leadership is thrilled with the project.
“The current city council is quite enlightened and understands the importance of an art museum and the quality of life that we bring to the city,” Mcdonnell says. “Not only with art that we present in our galleries, but the very important and ample public programs that we organize.”
During its 80-year history, the museum has undergone several building renovations and expansions, but this is the first major project for the grounds.
The results: a transformation of ordinary land into an Art Garden that’ll greet visitors for years to come.
The Wichita Art Museum is planning a free outdoor extravaganza to celebrate the opening of the new Art Garden on Saturday, Sept. 26, from noon to 10 p.m.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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