Arts and Culture in Kansas
The land of open prairies and farmland does not immediately bring arts and culture to mind. In fact, Kansas has an interesting cultural heritage, with a few significant art museums, Carnegie libraries, and performing arts festivals, but with far more to offer in its community organizations, with art integrated into everyday life.
The Kansas Arts Commission keeps this spirit alive, promoting and funding Kansas artists and organizations to keep art accessible to the state’s population.
Kansas has a few classical music ensembles, some professional and others composed of community volunteers. Two Wichita ensembles present classical music: the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the professional artists at the Chamber Music at the Barn series, which features intimate concerts in a rural setting.
The Topeka Symphony Orchestra performs four classical and three discovery concerts during its season.
Since 1955, the Salina Symphony has performed classical masterworks as well as holiday concerts, youth concerts, and musical theater scores.
Professional, community, and student musicians comprise the Northland Symphony Orchestra, which presents classical and pop concerts in various community locations.
The state’s major opera company is the Wichita Grand Opera. The company presents six performances annually at the Century II Concert Hall, including concerts by visiting dance ensembles and operettas.
Few professional dance companies exist in Kansas, but Topeka has two. Ballet Midwest produces two concerts per year and Metropolitan Ballet of Topeka hosts international troupes and professional dancers working with local students.
Kansas has museums honoring its pioneer, immigrant, aviation, agricultural, and Native American legacies, but comparatively few collections of fine art. Wichita represents the state’s stronghold of major art and artifact collections, most notably at the Wichita Art Museum. A landmark collection of American art spans 300 years of painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, and decorative art. Highlights of the Roland P. Murdock Collection include work by Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Horace Pippin (1888–1946), Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), Winslow Homer (1836–1910), and Edward Hopper (1882–1967). A 600-square-foot (183-sq-m) hall showcases glass artwork by Dale Chihuly (b. 1941). The Kansas African-American Museum, situated in a historic 1917 building, exhibits African masks and sculptures, Caribbean painting, and a series of photographs by Gordon Parks (1912–2006).
Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University shows modern and contemporary art with provocative themes. The outdoor sculpture collection consists of 70 pieces dispersed across the campus. The Museum of World Treasures shows rare artifacts from around the world and through the eras, including exhibits of dinosaurs, Royal Egyptian mummies, relics from the early frontier, and crown jewels.
The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery is located in Lindsborg, an area known as Little Sweden because it was founded by Swedish immigrants. Works by painter Birger Sandzén (1871–1954), including landscapes of the American west and park lands, are on view throughout the year, and temporary shows by local artists complement the offerings.
At Washburn University, Topeka’s Mulvane Art Museum contains 3,000 prints, drawings, and sculptures from around the world. The ArtLab hosts temporary shows and hands-on workshops.
Overland Park’s Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, located at Johnson County Community College, has a 41,000-square-foot (12,500-sq-m) space exhibiting the Oppenheimer Collection and 16 annual touring shows of local, national, and international art.
The Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence is a key part of the University of Kansas campus. The collection of 36,000 works of art contains strong holdings of East Asian objects, medieval art, European painting, American painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography, Japanese Edo period works on paper, 20th-century Chinese painting, and ethnographic art representing Native American, African, Inuit, Australian, and Latin American cultures. The 20/21 gallery shows modern and contemporary art.
The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art in Manhattan houses the Kansas State University permanent art collection. It contains some 6,000 works emphasizing Kansas and Midwestern artists.
Eldorado’s Coutts Memorial Museum features paintings, prints, sculpture, and drawings purchased by founder Warren Hall Coutts, Jr. during his travels through Holland, Russia, France, China, England, and South America. The museum also holds antique furniture and Persian rugs.
Two offbeat venues round out Kansas’ museum attractions. In Norton, the Gallery of Also Ran showcases pictures of every person who has run for the office of President of the United States but lost. Kinsley’s Carnival Heritage Center and Museum exhibits carved carousel horses and other objects from family carnivals of the past.
One of the most famous bands associated with the state is the rock act Kansas, which reached its pinnacle of popularity in the late 1970s. The band recorded hits such as "Carry on Wayward Son" and "Dust in the Wind."
Another major moment in Kansas musical history happened a century earlier when Smith County native Dr. Brewster M. Higley (1823–1911) wrote "My Western Home," a poem that eventually became the song "Home on the Range," Kansas’ state song. The town of Athol honors Higley’s legacy and the song at the Home on the Range Cabin.
Major bands and musicians from Kansas include acoustic group The New Amsterdams, rock singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, emo pop artist Freedy Johnston, country singer Martina McBride, rock vocalist and guitarist Joe Walsh, and post-bop jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson.
Kansas hosts several annual music festivals, among them Manhattan’s Country Stampede, the Ottawa Suzuki Strings Music Festival, Topeka’s Sunflower Music Festival, Garden City’s Tumbleweed Festival, and Winfield’s Walnut Valley Festival and National Flatpicking Championships.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The bulk of Kansas’ professional theater consists of touring ensembles visiting concert halls or performing art centers such as Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center in Wichita, Dodge City’s Carnegie Center for the Arts, Kansas City’s Dove Art Center and Memorial Hall, Overland Park’s Carlsen Center and Johnson County Community College Performing Arts series, Topeka Performing Arts Center, Wichita’s Center for the Arts and Orpheum Performing Arts Center, Lawrence’s Lied Center of Kansas, and Ottawa Municipal Auditorium.
Live theater indigenous to Kansas tends toward melodramas, community theater, dinner theater, interactive mystery shows, historical reenactments, and chuck-wagon suppers with variety shows and musical entertainment.
Since 1982, the annual William Inge Theatre Festival and Conference has convened for three days in the spring at Independence Community College. Several performances, lectures, workshops, and events interpret the plays of playwrights including Kansas-born dramatist William Inge (1913–1973), known as the "Playwright of the Midwest."
Founded in 1995, Abilene’s Great Plains Theatre is the state’s premiere professional troupe, staging popular comedies and dramas.
Overland Park has two major theater companies. Local productions as well as touring shows and star solo acts comprise the season of New Theatre Restaurant. The Theatre in the Park series showcases community theater productions of musical spectaculars.
Topeka’s Helen Hocker Center for the Performing Arts produces family-oriented musicals as well as dramas and comedies.
High-energy productions of Broadway musicals make up the summer season of Music Theatre of Wichita. Also in Wichita, Kansas’ sole outlet for experimental and controversial theater is Theatre on Consignment. The company promises, "It’s the one theater in Wichita where you’re in no danger of having to sit through Oklahoma again."
At its founding in 1955, Shawnee’s The Barn Players used a barn as its theater, but times have changed. The company now performs at a traditional theater, staging comedies, dramas, and intriguing performance art. In addition, the company hosts Six by Ten, a festival of 10-minute plays by local writers.
Dodge City’s Depot Theater Company, once known as Boot Hill Repertory Company, showcases works of music, song, dance, and comedy.
Kansas’ film history stretches back to the silent era, to comic film actor Buster Keaton (1895–1966). The Piqua-born actor and director had a classic deadpan expression, earning him the nickname of The Great Stone Face. Iola honors him during the yearly Buster Keaton Festival.
Martin Johnson (1884–1937) and his wife Osa Johnson (1894–1953) pioneered filming on location in remote villages of Africa and the South Pacific. They also avidly collected artifacts while filming, and their accumulated finds and photographs comprise the collection of Chanute’s Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.
No other film captures Kansas more imaginatively than The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 movie, although not filmed in Kansas, has left its mark on the state. The town of Liberal has Dorothy’s House, a replica of the modest prairie house from the film that has its own yellow brick road and animated Oz attraction, while Wamego’s Oz Museum houses a significant collection of memorabilia related to the original movie, its sequels, and the books that inspired them. Wamego celebrates OZtoberfest every October with reenactments of popular scenes from the movie, autograph sessions, book signings, foods, crafts, and a play area.
Other Kansas appearances on screen include The Only Good Indian (2009), Ride with the Devil (1999),Sarah Plain and Tall (1991), and Paper Moon (1973).
The Dodge City Trail of Fame features brass medallions and sculptures honoring famous cowboys from the range and from the screen.
Gamblers, hustlers, and actors populate the short fiction by one of Kansas’ most famous writers, Damon Runyon (1880–1946), whose stories inspired the musical Guys and Dolls. Other Kansas authors include William Allen White (1868–1944), novelist Margaret Hill McCarter (1860–1938), playwright William Inge (1913–1973), and novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879–1958).
Kansas’ best-known artist is John Steuart Curry (1897–1946), whose epic work defined American Regionalist style. Kansas landscapes show up frequently in his paintings, as does the theme of man against nature.
Other Kansas artists of note include painter John Noble (1874–1934) and sculptors Robert M. Gage (1892–1981), Bruce Moore (1905–1980), and Bernard Frazier (1906–1976).
Linsborg’s Red Barn Studio was the studio of Lester Raymer (1907–1991), who worked in a variety of media such as painting, printmaking, pottery, metalwork, woodcarving, textile art, furniture making, and jewelry. His work references Spanish masters, Southwestern culture, and Mexican symbolism and folk art. The studio displays a collection of his work as well as toys he made for his wife.
In Belleville, the Paul Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings contains 65 works by self-taught artist Paul Boyer. He carves and assembles intricate sculptures that move, such as a cedar calliope, farm machinery, and a wire sculpture of ball bearings careening through a maze of tracks and then bouncing on drums.
Goodland, the heart of Kansas’ sunflower country, is the American location of the Van Gogh Project, which features a billboard-size painting based on Van Gogh’s series, Sunflowers.
From elegant mansions to homes made of regional stone and wood, Kansas has many examples of historic or significant architecture.
Ellinwood’s underground tunnels are a unique attraction. On Main Street, several businesses, including the barber shop, harness shop, and bath shop, are connected by underground tunnels.
The Lee Dam Center for Fine Art in Marysville once operated as a church. The 1903 brick and limestone gallery stands across the street from another historic structure, the 1903 Marysville Post Office, originally a Methodist church.
In Leavenworth, the Chapel of the Veterans earned a mention by Ripley’s Believe It or Not for being the only house of worship in which Catholic and Protestant services can be held simultaneously. The dual structure, built in 1893 in Gothic style, has gargoyles and elaborate stained glass.
Several historic limestone buildings remain standing in the town of Alma. In the 19th century, people quarried limestone out of nearby Flint Hills. A vagabond mason provided much of the buildings’ decorative stonework, which has survived over the century.
Valentin Gerth Cabin, located in Greeley, recalls the region’s ties with the Civil War. Local history has it that this cabin hid eleven slaves who had escaped from Missouri.
The 1857 Samuel Tipton Stagecoach House in Westphalia served as a stagecoach stop on the wagon trail between Leavenworth and Dodge City.
Built in 1893, the iron and wood Elk Falls Iron Truss Bridge crosses the Elk River downstream from the striking Elk River waterfalls.
Columbus’ Seth Thomas Clocktower, built in 1919, has three picture windows that allow visitors to peer through and watch the clock mechanisms at work.
Augusta Historic Theatre, or "the Augusta," dates from 1935. The art deco structure stands two stories high and features elaborate murals. Opulent architectural details and interiors give the registered National Historic Place an Egyptian aesthetic.
Finished in 1862, Wabaunsee’s limestone Beecher Bible and Rifle Church has a storied past. In 1854, the creation of the Nebraska and Kansas territories sparked strife on the eve of the Civil War. Known as the Bleeding Kansas era, this period saw statesmen debating over whether Kansas should identify itself as a free state or a slave state. Abolitionists moved to Kansas to sway the vote, and formed this church, which still holds Sunday services.
In Wichita, the Allen-Lambe House Museum had its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), declaring it was "among my best." The prairie home, now a museum, blends interior spaces with the surrounding landscape, a common element in Wright’s architecture.
Five floors and 23 rooms of exhibits fill the 1880 Lebold Mansion, an Italianate architectural gem in Abilene.
HANDICRAFTS AND FOLK ART
Much of Kansas’ folk culture and traditional crafts reference the state’s agrarian roots and the prairie life. Every year, Topeka hosts the Rock Bottom Farm Art Show, paying tribute to rustic Americana. In Hiawatha, the Brown County Historical Society Ag Museum and Windmill Lane highlights agricultural lore and displays 42 windmills. A 1900-style farmstead holds a farmhouse, blacksmith shop, washhouse, henhouse, milk barn, woodworking shop, and combination corncrib and grain bin. The Oltjen Memorial Building has a tractor barn exhibiting various examples of horse-drawn equipment, including a surrey with the fringe on top.
Kansas has its share of western background as well. In Dodge City, the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame inducts five people per year who contributed to Kansas’ cowboy heritage in the categories of rancher/cattleman, cowboy historian, cowboy entertainer, working cowboy, and rodeo cowboy. On the banks of the Arkansas River in Wichita, the Old Cowtown Museum celebrates the romance and lore of the Old West. Dozens of structures furnished with equipment and artifacts replicate a town on the American frontier, complete with living history reenactments and a working saloon.
Native American heritage is in the spotlight at several Kansas attractions. Scott City’s El Quartelejo Museum exhibits fossils, western art, and wildlife imagery, and features a replica of a Pueblo Indian structure. In Highland, the Native American Heritage Museum shares stories of contemporary Kansas Woodland Indian tribes, representing the Iowa, Fox, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and Sac people. At Republic’s Pawnee Indian Museum, an excavated 1820 Pawnee earth lodge is the focal point. The surrounding museum provides additional insight into the Pawnee Indian culture of the early 19th century.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
Land art, crop art, earth art, visionary art, and artist environments have their many practitioners in Kansas. At the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, 20 outsider artists’ environments demonstrate visionary creations with recycled materials ranging from computer motherboards to pull-tabs, limestone to chewing gum. Also in Lucas, the Garden of Eden showcases the lifelong project of Civil War Veteran Samuel Perry Dinsmoor (1843–1932). He crafted a series of concrete and post rock sculptures depicting biblical, political, and other figures. Another Lucas attraction, the Deeble House and Rock Garden, was the work of Florence Deeble (1900–1999), who recreated postcard images such as Mount Rushmore and Estes Park using colored cement and rock.
Stan Herd works in crop art and earthworks. His Amelia Earhart Earthwork, located in Atchison, stretches over an acre. Herd integrated plants, stone, and other natural items to create this perpetual portrait.
-World Trade Press