Ulrich Museum at Wichita State kicks off 50th anniversary with three exhibitions

Ulrich Museum at Wichita State kicks off 50th anniversary with three exhibitions

By Amy Geiszler-Jones


With wind chills below zero earlier this month, even Millie the Millipede who resides outdoors on the Wichita State campus was brought inside. Well, sort of. To preview a new exhibition at WSU’s Ulrich Museum that includes augmented reality technology, museum staff posted a photo on the museum’s Facebook page in mid-January showing Millie hanging out in the museum’s lobby. The Tom Otterness sculpture physically sits in a median south of the museum, near the 17th and Hillside entrance to the WSU campus. The exhibition, “Fully Dimensional: Artists of the Outdoor Sculpture Collection,” is one of three new spring exhibitions now open that kick off the museum’s 50th anniversary events. The other exhibitions are “Urban Canvas | Exploring Muralism in Wichita” and “The Ulrich Co-Lab.”

A common thread among the exhibitions is to engage visitors with art at the Ulrich and in the community in different ways, say museum staff. For the “Fully Dimensional” exhibition, curator Jo Reinert is introducing visitors to other works of art created by 35 artists whose sculptures are part of WSU’s Martin H. Bush Outdoor Sculpture Collection. By using the same augmented reality, or AR, technology that allowed Millie to come indoors for her photo shoot, visitors can also place the sculptures of those artists into the museum’s Polk/Wilson and Amsden galleries while they look at the artists’ other works.

Gabriel Wilson, an assistant teaching professor of collaborative design at WSU, and students from WSU’s Shocker Studios, created the AR components that allow visitors to transport the images by using one of six museum-provided tablets or downloading the free Adobe Aero app to their smartphones. “You just scan the QR code and it will prompt you to open up the app and engage,” Reinert explained. “It takes just two taps” for the sculpture image to become part of the visitor’s environment and experience. The exhibition has a historical tie-in to the museum’s founding, so it’s an appropriate way to kick off the museum’s 50th anniversary.

Bush, the collection’s namesake, established the Ulrich Museum in 1974, as part of then-WSU president Clark Ahlberg’s mission to make art an important part of the university and community life, according to published reports of the Ulrich’s history. The outdoor sculpture collection was part of that mission from the beginning. It now comprises 86 sculptures that can be found throughout the WSU campus. And the collection keeps growing: A sculpture by Doug Coffin will be installed this spring and a sculpture by Bianca Beck will be added in 2025, Reinert said. The outdoor collection features world-renowned artists such as Alice Aycock, Fernando Botero, Andy Goldsworthy, Barbara Hepworth, Luis Alfonso Jimenez, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg and Auguste Rodin.

“I was blown away by the artists represented in the outdoor sculpture collection when I started here” in 2020, Reinert said. As the then-registrar and collections manager, Reinert became familiar with the Ulrich permanent collection, noting that it included works in other mediums by the sculpture collection’s artists. Reinart was recently promoted to the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art position. “Fully Dimensional” incorporates more than 100 pieces culled from the Ulrich collection and on loan from other museums, such as the Spencer Museum in Lawrence and the Whitney in New York City, and private collectors. The pieces include process sketches, prints, paintings, drawings, collages and other sculptures.

Artists represented include some who created what have become fan favorites among the outdoor sculptures: like Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture; Aycock’s Twister Grande (tall) sculpture; Sophia Vari’s Danseuse Espagnole, or Spanish Dancer; and Franciso Zúñiga’s Tres Mujeres Caminando, or Three Women Walking. Visitors can even bring back one sculpture that is currently at a conservation lab getting work done: Barbara Hepworth’s Figure (Archaean). Reinert struck out in trying to get loans of works by sculptor Botero, who was married to Vari. Botero’s works have become more in demand since the Colombian sculptor’s death in September 2023.

While “Fully Dimensional” focuses on the outdoor sculptures on the WSU campus, the smaller “Urban Canvas” exhibition, displayed in the Beren Gallery, features outdoor public art throughout Wichita. Vivian Zavataro, the Ulrich’s executive and creative director, and Piper Prolago, a graduate student, co-curated the “Urban Canvas | Exploring Muralism in Wichita” exhibition, which features 18 of the 130-plus murals in Wichita. “We wanted to highlight the murals and how they create a sense of belonging,” Zavataro said. The exhibition includes ephemera such as artists’ clothing, paint brushes and buckets and other items used while making the featured murals. Photographs of 12 of the murals, taken by local photographer Fernando Salazar, are also displayed.

The remaining six murals can be “seen” through virtual reality headsets. Shocker Studios worked with museum staff to create the interactive components for this exhibition as well. One of the murals included in the exhibition is physically found at Cleveland and Douglas. It was part of the first Avenue Art Days public mural initiative in 2015 that sort of kickstarted Wichita’s mural-mania. Found at 119 N. Cleveland, the mural has become a community favorite because it depicts J.R. Mead, one of Wichita’s founders, crossing the Arkansas River in a local take of the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware River” painting. It was the first mural created by Brickmob, a local artists collective, which has since gone on to paint murals in other cities.

Another featured mural helped put Wichita on the world’s mural map and in the record books. The Beachner Grain Elevator mural at 519 E. 20th St., near 21st and Broadway, earned a spot in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s largest mural created by a single artist. Created by Colombian artist Nathalia Gallego aka GLeo, the mural has a hyper-local focus, featuring images of the underrepresented communities of Wichita’s predominantly Latino North End and the historically Black Northeast areas. GLeo is returning to Wichita this spring to participate in an April 11 gallery talk as part of the “Urban Murals” exhibition. While here, she’ll also create a mural at WSU’s Duerksen Amphitheater, Zavataro said. The mural is scheduled to be unveiled during a Cinco de Mayo celebration on Friday, May 3.

Zavataro is also the curator of “The Ulrich Co-Lab,” which is being called a “visitor-centered curatorial experience.” It is displayed in the Grafly Gallery, which occupies the museum entrance atrium and a nearby hallway. While the exhibition is part of Zavataro’s dissertation research on how museums can stay relevant with visitors, it also will provide feedback on the perceptions and thoughts that Wichitans and other visitors to the Ulrich have about the WSU museum and Wichita. If museums don’t collect this kind of information, “no one will come and they’ll become obsolete,” said Zavataro.

Getting feedback on what resonates between visitors and the collection will help the Ulrich with future development of its collection, Zavataro said. As part of “The Ulrich Co-Lab,” Zavataro selected 10 pieces from the Ulrich collection and assigned them descriptors like athletic, chill, creative, playful, delicious and romantic. Visitors will be asked to place stickers with the same descriptors on a map of Wichita. For example, if someone equates delicious with restaurants in Delano, they can put a sticker with that word on the map.

The Ulrich generally features three exhibition cycles annually but because this is an anniversary milestone year, it will only do two cycles this year. That means these three exhibitions will remain on view longer than past exhibitions.