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Bethel College, Kauffman Museum to partner with Wichita’s Big Read

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College and its Kauffman Museum are two of four Harvey County participants in the Wichita Public Library’s “Big Read” initiative this fall.

Vicki Tiahrt, wife of Congressman Todd Tiahrt, and Kansas Director of Libraries Cynthia Berner Harris announced today that The Big Read is coming to Wichita and surrounding communities, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Mrs. Tiahrt will serve as honorary chair of the Oct. 1-Nov. 15 reading initiative, featuring Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia.

My Ántonia, first published in 1918, is considered Cather’s greatest book and is the final volume in her “prairie trilogy” that also includes O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. My Ántonia tells the stories of several European immigrant families who move to Nebraska to start new lives in America.

“Todd and I are thrilled to announce the NEA grant for The Big Read and to encourage everyone to participate in the reading of My Ántonia this fall,” said Tiahrt. “While reading is often an individual activity, The Big Read brings together a community of readers sharing a chosen classic. I am pleased to serve as honorary chair of The Big Read and look forward to the discussions, exhibits and field trips to enrich our reading experience.

“This will powerfully model to Kansas children the pleasure and importance of reading,” she continued. “It’s exciting and encouraging to realize that we are joining Americans in 45 states and on military bases all around the world, reading and sharing great American books.”

Rachel Pannabecker, director of Kauffman Museum, and Ami Regier, Bethel college professor of English, are developing a Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum program for Oct. 12, tentatively titled “A My Ántonia Prairie Walk and Talk.”

Plans call for “a stroll through a tallgrass prairie and a tour of an 1875 immigrant house at Kauffman Museum, on the Bethel College campus in North Newton, followed by a program of contemporary responses, possibly by Bethel students, to the themes of immigration and adaptation in Cather’s novel,” Pannabecker said. Like all Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum events, this one will be free and open to the public

The Big Read was begun in 2006 in response to the report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America as an NEA initiative designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. “Nearly a year ago, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia visited Wichita to participate in a grants workshop for arts agencies. [H]e encouraged those present to create a Big Read program in Wichita. Several of us took Chairman Gioia’s challenge to heart,” said Berner Harris.

“When we learned that the Kansas Book Festival would not return to Wichita in 2008, our decision was clear: Wichita readers – as well as our lapsed and reluctant readers – deserved an opportunity to continue to participate in a community literary event.”

“Through this program, public libraries continue to demonstrate their value in communities as centers of engagement, literacy and lifelong learning. I am particularly delighted by the innovative public programming born out of library and museum collaborations,” said Anne-Imelda M. Radice, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the NEA’s lead federal partner for The Big Read, in a prepared statement.

Wichita’s program will feature a wide range of partners, both in Wichita and the surrounding area. Harvey County partners at this time (others may be added later) include, in addition to Bethel College and Kauffman Museum, Hesston College and the Newton Public Library.

Through those partnerships, a number of events have already been announced, such as the Oct. 12 Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum. For example, N.C. Wyeth’s The Homesteader, an oil painting from 1930 that evokes Ántonia’s experience on the plains, is on The Big Read-Wichita marketing materials and will be among the works featured in the Wichita Art Museum exhibit “The Plains Landscape of My Ántonia.” Additional companion exhibits, gallery talks, museum tours, Senior Wednesday events, lectures, film programs and, of course, book discussions provide a multitude of ways to experience and celebrate Cather’s novel and themes.

These and other events will be listed starting Aug. 1 on the Big Read-Wichita Web site at www.bigreadwichita.org. The national Big Read program Web site is www.neabigread.org.

Created by the NEA in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest, The Big Read is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and transportation is provided by Ford. The latest Big Read grantees represent 46 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To date, the NEA has given more than 500 grants to support local Big Read projects.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts – both new and established – bringing the arts to all Americans and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the NEA is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities and military bases. For more information, please see www.arts.gov.

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