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Kauffman Museum exhibit illustrates how art can work

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by Marike Stucky

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The new special exhibit at Kauffman Museum on the Bethel College campus puts a spotlight on the role of art during the Great Depression in the 1930s and ’40s.

It was also an exercise in community-wide cooperation.

“Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943” had its grand opening at Kauffman Museum Sept. 8. It remains on display through Jan. 5, 2014.

The exhibit celebrates Newton’s artists and their participation in the Kansas Museum Project, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, and includes art from the collections of USD 373 Newton, the Newton Public Library, the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College and the Bethel art department, as well as Kauffman Museum.

“The Kansas Museum Project was a state-wide initiative to provide educational materials for schools, libraries and museums,” said Rachel Pannabecker, director of Kauffman Museum. “In Newton, materials were distributed among Bethel College, Newton Public Library, the public school system and Kauffman Museum.”

The program – one of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives – employed artists as part of the national recovery effort.

“This exhibition shows that art can work both in terms of being an avenue for creative expression as well as serving as an economic engine,” Pannabecker said.

“Art that Worked” includes prints, watercolor paintings, wood carvings, dioramas depicting historical scenes, historical costumed figurines and models of pioneer industry.      

John Thiesen, co-director of libraries at Bethel College, began the process of hunting down this artwork in Newton.

Thiesen was paging through the papers of Abraham Warkentin, a former Bethel professor, when he came across a WPA acquisition form.

“The WPA was giving the college a whole list of these educational items including … paintings, …prints, …models like the covered wagon,” Thiesen said.

Thiesen said he was inspired by Phil Epp, a local artist who taught at Santa Fe Middle School. Epp helped the school district recognize the value of  its WPA art.

Thiesen’s search brought him unexpected results. “Gradually I realized how much of this stuff was around here,” he said.

He brought the idea of displaying the art to Pannabecker, and it grew into a concept for a special exhibit.

Collaboration among the various local holders of WPA art made Thiesen’s idea into a reality.

USD 373 was especially generous in helping Thiesen and Kauffman Museum’s summer art intern, Laurel Woodward, track down WPA art, Pannabecker said.

“The school district gave us everything we asked for, which was amazing because the art was taken from walls of their offices and lent to us,” she said.  “So that was a really big, really important step.”

David Kreider, museum technician, added, “I think it’s also cool that we’re collaborating here in town. A lot of this art has been hidden away in conference rooms [and] offices. It hasn’t really been seen by the public in a big way. It hasn’t really been featured in quite a while.”

Bethel student admission to the museum is always free. In addition, there will be three special programs based on “Art that Worked” on Sunday afternoons over the next several months that are free and open to everyone.

Art historian Reinhild K. Janzen, Lawrence/Whitewater, will speak on “Art Born of the Great Depression: Newton’s ‘Mennonite Settler’ and Roosevelt’s New Deal,” Oct. 13; Berneil Rupp Mueller, North Newton, will coordinate a readers’ theater titled “Federal Theatre Project: A Grand Experiment,” Nov. 17; and Thiesen and Bethel Assistant Professor of Art Rachel Epp Buller will lead a gallery walk on the closing day of the exhibit, Jan. 5, 2014. All events begin at 3:30 p.m. in the museum.

Regular Kauffman Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to “Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943” as well as the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website, www.bethelks.edu/kauffman/, or Facebook page .

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