Beach Museum of Art exhibition “To the Stars Through Art” explores use of art in Kansas schools

Ethel Spears, WPA Cutting Down a Tree, ca. 1938, 2016.30

To the Stars Through Art: A History of Art Collecting in Kansas Public Schools, 1900-1950 

Open through May 11, 2024 | Free admission and parking 

A team of regional scholars led by Curator Elizabeth Seaton have spent the last five years researching the history of art collecting by Kansas K-12 schools. The topic has propelled them around the state in search of treasures in classrooms, district offices, and museums. Seaton and her collaborators present their discoveries in this exhibition of 65 works acquired by more than a dozen school districts. The exhibition is the first survey of art collecting by schools in Kansas and the first study of art acquired by the nation’s schools to give attention to boarding schools for Indigenous students. 

A prominent theme in the exhibition is the heavy community involvement in the campaign to bring original artwork into Kansas schools. In 1911 the school superintendent in McPherson organized an exhibition to acquire art for the high school. This became an annual event attracting more than half of McPherson’s residents. Ticket sales allowed the district to establish a rich collection of work by regionally and nationally recognized artists, among them Birger Sandzén, Fern Coppedge, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Before 1950, districts in dozens of Kansas towns and cities joined McPherson in acquiring original art through traveling exhibitions, bequests from the Carnegie Corporation, New Deal art programs, and other avenues. 

A goal of the To the Stars Through Art exhibition is to show the vital role American art played—and might play again—in Kansas schools and their communities. The exhibition’s title, inspired by the state motto, Ad astra per aspera, or “To the stars through difficulty,” alludes to the challenge of keeping the arts in the forefront of education. Another aim of the exhibition is to guide Kansas schools in caring for their collections and using them in teaching. 

KC Studio

KC Studio covers the performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture.

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