After leading 2 Wichita museums, Patricia McDonnell is retiring

When Patricia McDonnell was hired to lead the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in 2007, it marked two firsts: the first museum executive position for McDonnell and the first time the WSU museum had a woman at the helm. .

Another first would come later.

When McDonnell was wooed and hired to run the Wichita Art Museum in 2012, she became the first person to have run two of Wichita’s major art museums.

In June, McDonnell retires as director of WAM to focus on creating a national exhibition and catalog on Marsden Hartley, a modern American painter on whom she specializes, and her relatively new marriage to a colleague. creative, Kansas photographer Larry Schwarm.

His replacement – Anne Kraybill, director and CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania – was named on Tuesday. Kraybill’s first day of work will be August 15.

At both museums, McDonnell had a significant impact on museum fundraising, attendance and programming, and left them better than when he arrived – both behind the scenes and in visible ways – supporters say and museum officials.

At the Ulrich, she helped save one of the museum’s main art holdings: surrealist artist Joan Miro’s monumental “Bird Characters” fresco that was literally falling apart.

“It was in a sorry state and she led the charge of organizing the fundraising and doing the majority and maybe all of the fundraising. It was a $3.5 million project. , so it’s no small feat,” said Rodney Miller, dean of the WSU College of Fine Arts, who made the final decision to hire McDonnell and bring him to Wichita.

Behind the scenes, she ensured that the museum’s collection would remain safe by overseeing the installation of an air-conditioned environment.

At WAM, McDonnell oversaw the installation of a $3.3 million, eight-acre art garden that extended the museum outdoors, allowing visitors to view free art daily, and nearly $3 million in renovations to interior spaces and other infrastructure.

WAM’s collection has also grown by a third, and thanks to McDonnell’s many connections, the museum has featured major exhibitions, including “Monet to Matisse” in 2018, “Georgia O’Keefe: Art, Image and Style” in 2019 and “American Art Deco,” which ends May 29.

McDonnell’s retirement date from WAM is June 10, two weeks before the museum celebrates a commissioned sculpture that was recently installed in the lobby. McDonnell considers the commissioning and installation of Beth Lipman’s Living History sculpture one of her lasting accomplishments at WAM.

His supporters see it the same way.

So it’s probably fitting that the sculpture is large and impressive – measuring 14 feet by 8 feet by 10 feet, even larger than Dale Chihuly’s gleaming glass sculpture on the second floor – to welcome visitors to the lobby. It is lit up at night, drawing attention to the museum through the glass walls of the lobby, just as McDonnell helped bring attention and awareness to WAM during his decade there and to Ulrich five years before. .

Figures recently released by WAM confirm the impact McDonnell has had. During his 10-year tenure, attendance grew by more than 60%, public programming increased by 100%, membership grew by 140%, annual donation income doubled, and long-term resources term increased by $9 million.

people first

It was a simple statement that came at the end of a nearly hour-long interview, but it helped sum up how McDonnell managed to create such an impact at both museums. “As a director, you might think I put the art first, but I put the people first,” McDonnell said.

Miller believes this is why she helped raise the stature of both museums in the community, not only among artists and patrons, but also among ordinary residents.

“From the start, Patricia has been superb networking with the Wichita community,” Miller said. At the Ulrich, she created her Salon Circle, a membership group that brings together what the Ulrich calls “art world insiders” from all over.

One of the first changes McDonnell made upon becoming director of WAM in 2012 was to allow the museum to become a rental venue for weddings. It wasn’t about the money WAM could make, but rather about creating happy memories, she said.

“Think about it. You have a couple and their family who create lasting memories at the art museum. And you also have Uncle Fred, your neighbors around the corner and a lot of people who have never been at the museum – or who haven’t been to the art museum since their first grade outing and are now rediscovering the art museum because they came to this wedding,” she said.

She encouraged her staff to think of ways to partner with other community groups to help attract more people and support the local artist community.

For example, in late 2020 and to celebrate the museum’s 85th anniversary, WAM held its “Foot in the Door” exhibit which invited anyone living in the Wichita area to submit a 12 x 12 inch canvas of artwork. to exhibit.

Other efforts have led to the museum’s popular Art Chatter programs that showcase artists in various mediums and a partnership with the Tallgrass Film Festival to show an outdoor film.

Martha Linsner, president of The Trust Company of Kansas and chair of the board of directors of WAM, and Mike Michaelis, chairman of the board of directors of Emprise Bank and co-owner of Rueben Sanders Gallery, both praised McDonnell’s efforts. to support local artists and find ways to engage them.

Word spread that WAM was open to partnerships and now groups are approaching the museum.

As the museum undertook and documented several practices dealing with diversity and inclusion in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the Ponder This Spoken Word collaboration in Wichita approached WAM about some programming partnerships. The spoken art form was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance.

For McDonnell, this request was particularly significant. She and Linsner, the chairman of WAM’s board, cite the policy of diversion and inclusion as another of McDonnell’s lasting legacies.

Part of McDonnell’s philosophy that creating memorable museum experiences leads to increased awareness is reflected in his own journey.

A natural passion

In the recent Eagle interview, McDonnell talked about studies that show people tend to do things in their lives that they’re familiar with.

For her, it was museums.

She grew up in a family that moved and traveled often, largely due to her father’s career as an English teacher. They lived twice in Europe before she finished high school.

“My passion for art evolved naturally from my early exposure to art,” McDonnell, 66, said.

She described a visit to the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich, Germany, as her “strongest out-of-body experience” with art. As a teenager at the time, she found the museum’s famous collection of a group of expressionist painters called The Blue Rider, popular around 1911, to be “moving, radical and cool”.

Her passion for art led her to earn a doctorate in art and art history from Brown University, after spending nine years in Southern California developing an executive education program in management. museum she founded. The program is now funded by the Getty Foundation and hosted by Claremont Graduate University.

After Brown University, McDonnell was a member of the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum for three years, spent 11 years as curator at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, then a four-year stint as chief curator of Tacoma Art Museum. in Washington. Over the past two, McDonnell has gained experience developing and growing public programs, writing grants, and increasing fundraising.

After getting a taste of running a small museum at the Ulrich, McDonnell was preparing to move on.

Michaelis said he saw the magic McDonnell had worked at the Ulrich, where she “turned a nice but quiet museum into a hip, bouncy, moving museum with lots of activity,” he said. . Michaelis was on Ulrich’s board of directors when McDonnell became its director.

“She improved the game at the Ulrich and made it an exciting place. She has developed a great staff. It was an exciting place and quite different from what it was when he arrived.

Michaelis suspected McDonnell was ready to move on and he was right, McDonnell confirmed.

When the management of WAM opened up, several people in the artistic community felt like Michaelis.

“We desperately wanted to keep her. And, she did the same at the Wichita Art Museum. WAM needed a spark, and it delivered.

As a parting gift, in May WAM’s Board of Directors voted to bestow McDonnell with the honorary title of Director Emeritus upon her retirement, only the second time in WAM’s 87-year history. the title was awarded.