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Spencer Museum of Art's new redesign brings a 'broader range of voices' to Lawrence

Empowerment Gallery_Installation View 2.jpg
Ryan Waggoner
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
The Spencer Museum of Art's new, airy fourth-floor space includes objects grouped in themes. The Empowerment Gallery, shown here, explores notions of how power is created and takes form, and what it means to be empowered in the creation and experience of art.

The reimagining of the Spencer's 48,000-object collection is designed to make the space more accessible, inclusive and welcoming.

The Spencer Museum of Art, on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, is set to unveil the airy, new redesign of its fourth floor.

The $4 million project includes a complete reimagining of the Spencer’s 48,000-object collection. The new, dynamic exhibits explore themes that address social and political experiences.

"We are eager to engage people with our vision for the museum and collection, which is grounded in weaving more nuanced and expansive narratives of art, cultures, and peoples, and in reflecting a much broader range of voices,” said Saralyn Reece Hardy, the Marilyn Stokstad Director at the Spencer Museum. "This work has led us to newly conceptualize how we interpret and share our collections, with considerations toward the changing interests and needs of our audiences and the ways in which the museum field is evolving."

Though the museum and new galleries are currently open to the public, a formal unveiling will take place in February.

“The Spencer is committed to providing a welcoming environment for students, faculty, scholars, and visitors of diverse backgrounds and experiences,” she said.

Zehra Çobanlı_Aylan and Others_2015A.jpg
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
Zehra Çobanlı’s earthenware, underglaze, slip casting. “Aylan and Others” references a 2-year-old Syrian boy who drowned that year in the Mediterranean Sea with his mother and brother. Museum purchase: R. Charles and Mary Margaret Clevenger Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.

The renovation completes the second phase of design work at the museum, led by New York architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. The new design expands gathering and study spaces, and increases the flow of light in the building.

The new galleries have an open feel and visitors will experience familiar pieces juxtaposed with art that hasn't been on view before.

"I think the beauty of it, and the really the magic of it, is walking in and finding oneself here," Reece Hardy said. "As you walk around, you see things even in the intro labels that say: 'Chart your own path. Make your own connections.'"

Objects from the museum's permanent gallery are now grouped thematically to inspire conversations across culture, space and time. Together they explore legacies of colonialism, enslavement, commodification and consumption — themes echoed in other museums today.

One wall presents portraits of women from different backgrounds, spanning hundreds of years.

There is Bernard Séjourné's "Asefi (enough daughters)" and Roger Shimomura's "Sansei Woman" — from 1975 and 1980, respectively — juxtaposed with "Maria Maddalena, Grand Duchess of Tuscany," from the early 1600s. The paintings represent the contrasts and similarities in the way women have been depicted throughout the centuries, Reece Hardy said.

Empowerment Gallery_Installation View 3.jpg
Ryan Waggoner
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
In the Empowerment Gallery, one wall explores the contrasts and similarities between representations of women through the centuries.

The reinstallation also includes recent acquisitions, including the 1959 painting "Arena," by Elaine de Kooning.

Integrated into the redesign is the multi-purpose Ingrid & J.K. Lee Study Center, a new education space that allows more intimate interactions with objects in the collection.

The renovation project is funded through government and private foundation grants, including two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, totaling $800,000, as well as individual private donations.

The Spencer Museum of Art will host "LEVEL UP! AN ART PARTY FOR ALL" at noon on Saturday, March 4 at 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence, Kansas 66045. The museum and new galleries are now open to the public.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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