Collector’s Corner: Jack and Georgia Olsen

KC’s go-to couple for blue-chip regional art have assembled a prime collection.

In late spring, Jack and Georgia Olsen invited members of the Print Society of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to view the extensive art collection displayed in their Briarcliff home. The Olsens, longtime owners of the American Legacy Gallery in Brookside, are well-known for their expertise in Midwest and regional art, and their collection, amassed over more than 35 years, is a treasury of works by regionalist masters, including Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Sudlow, Birger Sandzen, the Prairie Printmakers and others.

So how did you two get started collecting?

Jack: Georgia was a lettering designer at Hallmark when we got married. We would go to local art fairs and exhibits, and we had a rule: if it was under $500 and Georgia liked it, I’d buy it.

Georgia:  The first really expensive painting we bought was a piece by Kansas City photorealist Bob Byerley.  It was called Three Weeks Allowance Saturday Morning, and was a picture of a chair covered with candy and a window with a view of the candy store across the street. It cost $1,400 and Byerley let us make payments.

Why did you decide to open a gallery?

Jack: I was in the insurance business and I went to lunch with the guy who owned the company. He said, “You’re an art-aholic.”  Georgia quit her job at Hallmark and went freelance. We started the gallery in our house, and in 1979 we moved the business to Brookside. Georgia still does our invitations and all of our advertising.

What was the attraction of regionalism?

Jack: We bought the Johnson-Welsh Gallery and their inventory included a couple of Thomas Hart Benton lithographs and several pieces by Charles Banks Wilson, an Oklahoma artist that Benton had recommended. There were also two oil paintings by Birger Sandzen consigned by his daughter, Margaret Greenough, and a flat file of prints. The gallery also represented Robert Sudlow, and he stayed on with us. Those two artists, Sandzen and Sudlow, were really important to us.

What are some of the key pieces in your collection?

Jack: We have the first print Birger Sandzen did —Colorado Pine— and two of his biggest early nailhead prints. He was the only artist who took a board and hit a nail to make prints, and they are his most collectible graphic works. Sandzen did more than 300 print editions, working in lithography, woodcuts, linoleum cuts and dry points. He did 3,000 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings.

The Sudlow prints are beautiful.

Jack: Mike Sims of Lawrence Lithography Workshop printed them when he was based in Lawrence, and I paid to have them published. Sudlow was a plein air painter, and he would take the stone on site when he did lithos. It drove Mike Sims nuts.

I am fascinated by your collection of works by Gene Kloss (1903-1996). I understand that Gene was short for Geneva.

Jack: In the early 1980s, Taos, New Mexico was a real art place, and we would drive out there and look for things. We found Gene Kloss at a place called Gallery A. Kloss and her husband,  a prolific poet who wrote about Indians, moved to Taos in 1937 and would go to the ceremonies. Cameras weren’t allowed, but Kloss did drawings. They lived in a place with no electricity. She used a hand-cranked etching press to make her prints. Gene believed in keeping her prices low and was charging from $75 to $250 for etchings and aquatints. I would buy two or three every time we went to Taos. After she died her prices kept going up. I’ve seen her prints priced as high as $18,000. She was a master.

Thomas Hart Benton is another staple of your collection.

Jack: We’ve been involved in selling Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood for a long time, and also the Prairie Printmakers. A lot of people around here collect them. Six of the founding members of the printmakers were from Wichita. As we got into the business, we represented several artists who lived in New Mexico, including Robert Daughters, who was an illustrator for Valentine- Radford in Kansas City before he moved to Taos.

Tramp art is one of your specialties. Can you talk about that a little?

Jack: The reason we have tramp art is because of a customer. He was a print collector, and when he found that framing a print often cost more than the print, he started collecting these tramp art frames. They were made by hobos in the 1920s and ‘30s out of old wood cigar boxes. Our collector friend would switch some of his frames out and sell them to us. They seem to fit the Southwest images.

You also have some contemporary pieces, and a beautiful garden. There seems to be a relationship there.

Georgia: We have a number of Susan Tinker paintings, including a large canvas of hostas, and several ceramic works by Linda Lighton. Her magnolia piece is one of the first things you see when you come in the door.  I’m charmed by red flowers.  Margaret Greenough did the painting of Red Tulips. The Red Peonies piece is by Clayton Staples, who taught at Wichita State University for 20 years. Our newest acquisition is the still life of zinnias by Daniel MacMorris.  It’s a symbolic piece because it was our 41st wedding anniversary gift to each other.

So you’re still adding.  

Georgia:  Now we have more than 200 works in the house, not just prints and paintings, but sculptures and Indian pottery. Gene Kloss’ prints got us interested in American Indian pottery and sculpture and moccasins.

Jack: The thing about collecting is the story behind the artworks. Each one also becomes a memento of an experience.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

Leave a Reply