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A $3 million gift to KU's Spencer Museum aims to help artists and researchers answer 'big questions'

Mike Gunnoe
Spencer Museum of Art
Kansas City philanthropist and arts advocate Margaret Silva visited the site of an ongoing ARI project focused on the prairie ecosystem, which kicked off in the spring with a prescribed field burning.

The endowment will support arts research integration at the University of Kansas. The interdisciplinary approach brings together artists, researchers, students and the public to tackle pressing issues.

The Spencer Museum of Art, on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, got a $3 million gift on Wednesday.

The funds, from Kansas City philanthropist and arts advocate Margaret Silva, will help sustain future and ongoing work in the museum's Arts Research Integration program.

“ARI brings artists together with researchers, scholars, professors and students to explore subjects deeply relevant to our lives,” said Joey Orr, the museum’s curator for research, in a release.

The University of Kansas program in particular helps brings artists' insights and innovation into high-level scientific and humanities research.

“It is very much about moving beyond conversations about the importance of art," Orr said, "to making art part of the study and exploration of our world and integral to tackling pressing issues.”

Margaret Silva previously founded and funded Grand Arts, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Kansas City, Missouri, which closed in 2015. Silva has supported the Spencer Museum’s Arts Research Integration efforts since 2018.

Ryan Waggoner
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
The Spencer Museum of Art is located on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

The ARI program got its start with a four-year grant from the Mellon Foundation in 2016.

“Art and artists have an incredible way of asking big questions, challenging current and outmoded thinking, motivating change, and creating solutions for seemingly intractable problems," said Silva in a news release.

“I have proudly supported daring, provocative, and forward-looking art projects over many years,” she said, “and am continuing that personal mission with my contributions to this initiative.”

Silva has also offered an additional challenge grant of up to $1 million in financial support.

A recent ARI project marked a collaboration between artist Janet Biggs, KU mathematician Agnieszka Międlar, and KU physicist Daniel Tapai Takaki, who leads a team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. They explored questions in high-energy physics and applied novel mathematical techniques to video production and performance.

Ryan Waggoner
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
The CERN Arts Research Integration project resulted in an exhibition, shown here, as well as public and academic projects in the United States and abroad.

“The Spencer Museum has been engaged in innovative interdisciplinary work from the 1970s, and we have been doing arts integrated work, but this initiative has put legs on it," said Spencer Museum Director Saralyn Reece Hardy.

"To have these sparks of innovation, the sparks of experimentation, is very different than having an ongoing initiative that is funded,” she said.

One project that's already underway pairs Bahamian contemporary artist Janine Antoni with researchers at the Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research. The team is working to make connections between the intricacies of prairie ecosystems and the human body.

Toward that end, Antoni is creating a labyrinth in the shape of the human ear, and will invite people to navigate the path while meditating on anatomy, ecological systems, wildlife and cultural histories.

Another current project has Brooklyn-based artist Stephanie Dinkins, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny, and KU electrical engineering and computer science professor Perry Alexander exploring and challenging blockchain technology.

Silva's financial support, Reece Hardy said, is a meaningful way to acknowledge the role artists play when working with scientists, humanists and social scientists "to build a better world."

"The initiative is structured for inquiry into the largest questions, and within that inquiry we need the voices of artists," she said.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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