‘She upped the game’: After leading two Wichita museums, Patricia McDonnell is retiring

·8 min read
Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle

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 directorship job for McDonnell and the first time the WSU museum would have a woman at the helm.

Another first would come later.

When McDonnell was courted and hired to lead the Wichita Art Museum in 2012, she became the first person to have led two of Wichita’s important art museums.

In June, McDonnell is retiring as the WAM director to focus on creating a national exhibition and catalogue on Marsden Hartley, an American modern painter whose work she specializes in, and her relatively new marriage to a fellow creative, Kansas photographer Larry Schwarm.

Her replacement — Anne Kraybill, the director and CEO of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania — was named on Tuesday. Kraybill’s first day on the job will be Aug. 15.

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

At the Ulrich, she helped save one of the museum’s major art holdings— the monumental “Personnages Oiseaux” mural by surrealist artist Joan Miro that was literally falling apart.

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

Behind the scenes, she ensured the museum’s collection would remain safe by overseeing the installation of a climate-controlled environment.

At WAM, McDonnell oversaw the installation of an eight-acre $3.3 million Art Garden that extended the museum outdoors, allowing visitors to see free art every day, and nearly $3 million in renovations of interior spaces and other infrastructure.

WAM’s collection also grew by one-third, and through McDonnell’s extensive connections, the museum has brought in significant exhibitions, including “Monet to Matisse” in 2018, “Georgia O’Keefe: Art, Image and Style” in 2019 and “American Art Deco,” which closes 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 calls the commission and installation of Beth Lipman’s Living History sculpture one of her lasting achievements at WAM.

Her supporters see it the same way.

It’s probably fitting then that the sculpture looms large and impressive — measuring 14 feet by 8 feet by 10 feet, even bigger than the second-floor Dale Chihuly brilliant glass sculpture — to greet visitors in the lobby. It is lit at night, attracting attention to the museum through the glass lobby walls, much like McDonnell has helped attract attention and awareness to WAM in her decade there and to the Ulrich five years before that.

Numbers recently released by WAM back up the impact McDonnell has had. During her 10-year tenure, attendance has increased by more than 60%, public programming has grown by 100%, membership rose by 140%, annual gift income doubled and long-term resources increased by $9 million.

Putting people first

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

Miller thinks that’s why she helped elevate both museums’ stature in the community, not just among artists and patrons, but everyday residents too.

“From the get-go, Patricia has been superb at networking with the Wichita community,” Miller said. At the Ulrich, she created its Salon Circle, a membership group that brings in what the Ulrich calls “art world insiders” from all over.

One of the first changes McDonnell made when becoming WAM’s director 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 the making of happy memories, she said.

“Think about this. You have a couple and their family making lifetime memories at the art museum. And you also have Uncle Fred, your neighbors down the street and a whole number of people who’ve never been to the museum — or they haven’t been to the art museum since their first-grade grade field trip and they now rediscover 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 draw more people and also support the local artist community.

For example, in late 2020 and to celebrate the museum’s 85th anniversary, WAM put together its “Foot in the Door” exhibition that invited anyone living in the Wichita area to submit a 12-by-12-inch canvas of artwork for display.

Other efforts led to the museum’s popular Art Chatter programs that highlight artists in various mediums and a partnership with the Tallgrass Film Festival to show a movie outdoors.

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

Word has spread about WAM being open to partnerships and now groups approach the museum.

As the museum was undertaking and putting into writing several practices addressing diversity and inclusion in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the Ponder This spoken-word collaborative in Wichita approached WAM about some programming partnerships. The spoken-word art form was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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

Part of McDonnell’s philosophy that creating memorable experiences at museums leads to increased awareness can be found in her own background.

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, that was museums.

She grew up in a family that moved and traveled often, in large part because of her father’s career as an English professor. They lived twice in Europe before she graduated from high school.

“My passion for art evolved naturally since very early in life I was exposed 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. 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 to a doctorate from Brown University in art and art history, after spending nine years in southern California developing a museum management executive training program she founded. The program is now funded by the Getty Foundation and housed with Claremont Graduate University.

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

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

Michaelis said he’d seen the magic McDonnell had worked at the Ulrich, where she “turned a nice, but quiet museum into a hip, hopping, moving museum with a lot of activity,” he said. Michaelis had been part of the Ulrich’s board when McDonnell became the director.

“She upped the game at the Ulrich and made it an exciting place. She developed a fine staff. It was an exciting place to be and quite different than when she arrived.”

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

When the WAM directorship opened up, several people in the art community felt like Michaelis.

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

As a parting gift, in May the WAM board of trustees voted to bestow McDonnell with the honorary title of emerita director when she retires, only the second time in WAM’s 87-year history the title has been awarded.

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