At the risk of incurring eye rolls among those who live elsewhere, indulge me in this praise of one institution, the joy and enlightenment that it spawns, the community that it elevates, the people it inspires.
The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery is entering the final weeks of its long-running Midwest Art Exhibition, a superb collection of print, paint and texture that appeals to those who know everything about art, and to those who know what they like. Everything for someone, and some- thing for everyone – a splendid medley.
The exhibit, on display through April 22, is composed of five segments:
– “Print Culture in Kansas City”, scores of works from the collection of James and Virginia Moffett; among them the prints of Sandzén, Thomas Hart Benton, John S. deMartelly and more;
– “Yarn and Wax”, large encaustic and fiber works that seem suspended and without gravity in a special room, by Ellie Murphy of New York;
– “The New Normal”, paintings by Barry Fitzgerald of Lawrence;
– “With the Wind”, the plein-air painting of Matthew Miller, Nicole Thibodeau and Shannon Trevethan;
– Painting, sketches, drawing and photography of stu- dents at Smoky Valley High School.
The show, in its 120th year, is the longest running annual art exhibition in Kansas, iconic among the commanding and vigorous circles of American, even international, art. This exhibition thrives because, each year, it invites the new and even risky while preserving and cultivating an abundant history.
The Midwest Art Exhibition was founded by immi- grants – Birger Sandzén and two other local artists, Carl Lotave and G. N. Malm, nationally recognized for their varied talent. In the beginning, the men thought that the Exhibition would complement the Messiah Festival, help it get footing in its early years at Bethany College. Both events have become “longest running” in their respective venues of visual and performing arts; they have brought indelible color to life in the Smoky Valley for well more than a century.
The Exhibition was moved from Bethany College to the Sandzén after the Gallery opened in 1957 and the Gallery celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.
Nearly ten years ago, on the heels of its 50th anniversary in October 2008, The Gallery was voted one of 8 Wonders of Kansas Art in the 8 Wonders series organized by the non-profit Kansas Sampler Foundation. This was the first of four such designations for Lindsborg, each of them reflecting the community’s Swedish history, each of them rooted in the heritage of immigrants who settled here.
In March, 2009, Hemslöjd, the Swedish crafts and gifts store, was voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Commerce. (Coincidentally that month, another “won- der” was announced when the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians selected Lindsborg physician Duane Fredrickson as the 2009 Kansas Family Physician of the Year.) In October, 2009, Lindsborg’s traditional and pop art Dala Horses were voted one of the state’s 8 Wonders of Kansas Customs. In March 2010, Coronado Heights was voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography.
Each has a bond, a coherence with art. The Heights as a stage, backdrop, and post to view the great sweep of the Valley; the Dala Horses as objects themselves, mirrors of the times, their sponsors and all appreciators; Hemslöjd the purveyor, creator and curator of sorts; and who among us would not see Dr. Fredrickson as father Folkdanslag, as patron and protector of creativity, its history and passion?
In June 2011 the Gallery was closed for a multi-phase renovation of the Sandzén’s interior ‒ construction and installation of geothermal heating and cooling system, and new lighting, audio-visual, and digital security and fire suppression systems, among other things, including a new roof. This project took about nine months, running nearly to the opening of the 2012 Midwest Art Exhibition.
It had to open in time. Over the years the Sandzén Gallery came to be an institution that was firm, immutable, a friend with always a place to sit, and something beautiful to share ‒ a story, a painting, some sculpture ‒ a place of stability, security. For a moment, then, the closed doors,
the renovations, left us with a slightly hollow feeling, the kind of concern when a friend is headed to the hospital for a lengthy procedure. In the end we were delighted at last to see it well, renovated and better than ever.
This Gallery, its exhibition, also reflect the larger course of the arts in this community. All the shows and occa- sions now part of life here sustain a certain charm, tides of pleasure and inventiveness as compelling as the pull of a moon: The Dala Horses all around, the stories behind them; the long-lived ceremony of art in public places; our many celebrated murals; the events hatched through Lindsborg Live, the exhibitions of Lindsborg Collects; La Strada dell’ Arte; the King Midas end-of-summer celebra- tions; Broadway RFD, artists-in-residence at the Red Barn, Christmas in Lindsborg, the concerts, recitals, and exhibi- tions in schools, at galleries, and more.
The Sandzén reminds us that art has been at the core of life here since immigrant pioneers settled the community nearly 150 years ago. In a moment in time, we see the com- mercial value of art, and the chimerical – fanciful, vision- ary, imaginary – value of beauty. What Plato said of music can be said of the arts:
“Music is moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
The arts help us to see and to remember, with the artist our companion guide. We return to the scenes of those experiences, knowing that here lies the difference between seeking color in our lives, and the suffocation that comes without it.