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Coordination and communication: preserving art at Wichita’s art museums

Behind the scenes at art museums in Wichita thousands of pieces are preserved, waiting to go on display.

Prints are stored in flat drawers, framed oil paintings on racks, and sculptures on shelves – or anywhere they can find space. Taking photos is not allowed in the storage rooms to best preserve the pieces.

At the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, Jo Reinert is the collections manager and oversees the approximately 7,000 pieces in the museum’s collection that are on display … and off.

 Ksenya Gurshtein Jo Reinert Ulrich Museum of Art

Ksenya Gurshtein (left) and Jo Reinert (right) discuss pieces displayed in the Dr. Sam and Jacque Kouri Collection Study Center — an area in the Ulrich Museum that allows visitors to study specific pieces of art.

“Every single object in our collection has a file with as much information as we can pack into it about the piece itself and how we acquired it,” she said.

Out of the thousands of pieces the Ulrich has in its collection, only a fraction of them are actually on display in the museum or on campus.

Before a piece of art is acquired, the museum’s curator, Ksenya Gurshtein, said a lot of thought and consideration go into figuring out what works the Ulrich wants to have in its collection.

“I think our goals now have to do with representing the present moment, that contemporary moment, although we still sort of strategically tried to fill in gaps and how we can tell the story of art since the 1900s,” she said.

Acquiring a piece of art or pulling one out of the collection for public view requires an incredible amount of coordination and communication.

The Wichita Art Museum has a team of staff members that help preserve and display it's 12,000 piece collection. The team stands in front of "Living History" a sculpture by Beth Lipman commissioned for the museum. From left to right: Chris Mackie, Kristi Reese, Tera Hedrick, Rebecca Williams, Mason Monigold

The Wichita Art Museum has a team of staff members that help preserve and display it’s 12,000 piece collection. The team stands in front of “Living History” a sculpture by Beth Lipman commissioned for the museum. From left to right: Chris Mackie, Kristi Reese, Tera Hedrick, Rebecca Williams, Mason Monigold

At the Wichita Art Museum, an entire team works together on the museum’s 12,000-piece collection and prepares items for exhibition.

Rebecca Williams is part of that team; she helps manage the art installation process.

“You don’t totally know until you see that object in person about how to handle it,” Williams said. “So, it’s a lot of problem solving on the spot. And it’s communication; it’s like it’s a dance.”

How to work with a particular art object is tailored to the piece itself. A framed oil painting isn’t handled the same way as clothing or textiles.

“You have to be very aware, you have to be very body conscious,” Williams said, “and you also have to just be very good at a lot of things. Because nothing is standard.”

Time is also another element the Wichita Art Museum’s team has to contend with, according to its curator, Tera Hedrick.

“Despite it being at the right temperature, the right humidity, in an archival box surrounded with archival tissue, no one is touching it, everything that you’re doing for it is perfect, but … it’s the way of all flesh, right? Like the banana, right?” she said.

“Eventually … time takes its toll on all things at different rates.”

While a piece of art won’t last forever as time takes its toll, both of the museums are digitizing their collections so the story of each piece will live on.

Museums digitizing their art is part of a recent movement to make art and history more accessible to the general public.

According to Gurshtein, that’s especially true for the Ulrich because it’s part of an educational institution.

“You have people with different sets of expertise that can see art very, very differently,” Gurshtein said. “We have the opportunity to really cultivate that and be a place where we’re showing people how many different angles and ways there are and how art can be this catalyst for conversations.”

At the end of the long process to get art on display, the museums hope to spark different conversations with how objects are displayed.

“So what we put that painting next to tells us what conversation she’s having,” Hedrick said. “Is it about … women’s identity at the end of the 19th century? Is it about women’s labor? Is it about families? Is it about mothers and children?”

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