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At The University Of Kansas, The Spencer Museum Of Art Reopens To A Brighter Future

Courtesy the University of Kansas
Visitors to the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas will find the building dramatically different inside.

Visitors to the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence will soon see it in a new light – specifically, light pouring into a brand new, glass-encased entryway that is part of an $8 million renovation. 

After 18 months, the museum celebrates a grand re-opening on Saturday, but because they are the museum’s primary patrons, students at the University of Kansas got a special preview party on October 6. Even if they just came for the free food — always a draw for students — the museum’s transformation didn’t disappoint.

“I love just seeing people walk around with big smiles on their faces because everyone is so excited to be in this space," said Rose Wolf, who has worked at the Spencer for the last three years. "I just feel really lucky to have the Spencer on campus.”

Wolf's position at the museum as a student archives assistant has allowed her to see the museum's transformation from the dual perspectives of student and employee.

“There were no windows in this space before and now there are, so the light during the day is incredible,” she said.

Credit Ryan Waggoner / Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas
Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas
Students get a preview of the Spencer Museum of Art's renovations.

The Spencer Museum of Art opened in 1978, and this is its first large-scale renovation. KU alums may remember it as an isolated, outdated building, with most of its character coming only from the artwork it displayed. After being redesigned by New York's Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, working with Lawrence-based Sabatini Architects and Mar Lan Construction, it is now a spacious environment filled with organic light. It’s more open in the architectural sense – and it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities on the KU campus.

It’s a lot more than just an art museum now, said Celka Straughn, the museum’s director of academic programs. It’s designed to be a place where art makes people connect and feel welcome, Straughn said.

“We created a new kind of 'flux' space, a hanging-out space outside of the galleries," she said. "We hope people find different spaces within the galleries as well, and come up with programs and projects with us.”

Making the museum more accessible was also a priority. Before, the upstairs galleries were accessible only by an out-of-the-way elevator. That’s been replaced by a central staircase and elevator that connects all galleries. Before, curators only had enough room to display a tiny fraction of the museum’s collection – less than five percent. Now, they can bring out nearly all of the museum’s 40,000 pieces.

“We hope it will benefit students that they will come and get to know what’s happening here. Get to know the works of art,” Straughn said.

Credit Ryan Waggoner / Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas
Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas
Students get an up-close view of the art at the preview party.

At the preview party, students were enthusiastic. Museum leaders hope the museum will gain a new reputation — not just among art majors, but among students in other fields as well. The Spencer’s first major exhibition in the renovated space, Temporal Turn, opens in November, showcasing contemporary works by artists from across Asia who explore, among other things, technology and science fiction.

“I hope it’s a future that we will all envision together and work to build together," Straughn said. "We really want the Spencer to be a place for co-creation, creating artwork but also generating ideas, generating projects. People find new opportunities and new ways of thinking.”

The Spencer attracts 100,000 visitors every year, from all over the state of Kansas. That number is only expected to grow. After all, even Lawrence townies can bring their families for an enriching cultural experience.

Spencer Museum of Art Grand Reopening festivities begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 15 and continues through October 16 at 1301 Mississippi Street in Lawrence, Kansas, 66045. All activities are free and family-friendly. Free parking is available in Lot 91 behind the Spencer Museum and in other lots nearby.

Jordan Winter is an arts and culture reporter with KJHK 90.7 FM in Lawrence, Kansas. Contact her at jordanwinter@ku.edu.

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