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Turning Library Walls into Community Art Exhibits

March 4, 2016
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Turning Library Walls into Community Art Exhibits

A library partners with a local arts organization to transform a blank wall into a community art gallery.

This isn’t exactly a lemons-into-lemonade story. More specifically, it’s one of those "blank wall transforms into a community art gallery and arts-centered program series" kind of stories.

Katie Gregory, the Mid-Continent Public Library's (MCPL) Liberty Branch assistant manager, was faced with a problem. The wall in the Wi-Fi study space at the branch was uninspiring — some might venture so far as to call it stark and depressing. In short, it was blank.

The MCPL Liberty Branch's blank wall is now filled with artwork from local artists, due to a collaboration with the Liberty Arts Commission.

“I had a big white wall in the library, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” said Gregory.
One day, her answer walked through the library’s front door. Gregory was working the circulation desk when a customer came to return a stack of books on watercolor painting. The two started talking and soon Gregory was showing the customer the library’s blank wall.
It turns out the customer was a member of the Liberty Arts Commission (LAC), a city-sponsored organization dedicated to supporting, sustaining and strengthening the community by promoting local arts and cultural activities. As part of its mission, the commission seeks out public venues to display the works of local artists.
The result of that conversation and many follow-ups was a cooperative agreement between MCPL and the LAC that has transformed the bare wall in the corner of the library into the Liberty Art Gallery, a space featuring pieces from local artists.
The agreement between MCPL and LAC detailed each organizations’ roles and responsibilities, as well as those of the contributing artists. The commission is responsible for finding and vetting prospective artists and collections. The library provides the gallery space and the cable-mount hanger system, which turned out to be the library’s only significant capital outlay for the gallery. The artists are responsible for hanging their own works, as well as accepting the liability of displaying their work in a public venue. Both the library and the commission promote the exhibit through their marketing channels such as print media, social media, email blasts and the city’s public access cable channel.
Stephen Weis Art Gallery Grand OpeningEach new exhibit kicks off with an opening program that gives the community an opportunity to meet the artist. The gallery opened in December 2015 with an exhibit featuring the work of local artist Stephen Weis. At the opening program, Weis spoke about his art and his creative process. Influenced by sequential pulp and mid-century advertising art, Weis’ work seeks the same sense of wonder and whimsicalness of those optimistic styles.
“It was an intimate, very easy program to put on,” said Gregory, who has since joined the LAC. “[The audience] really wanted to know what he had to say. We started out our seating in rows but that didn’t work. People wanted to engage with the artist.”
Gregory described the event as a cross-pollination between library patrons and local art lovers. 
“We had new people in the library who hadn’t been there before,” she said. “That was very exciting.”
While public response to the opening program and the exhibit were encouraging, Gregory didn’t realize the full impact the gallery had on library patrons until Weis’ work was taken down to get ready for another show. 
“We build in some downtime for artists to hang up and take down their work,” Gregory said. “That downtime really raised awareness. People wanted to know, 'Where did the art go?'”
From now until March 30, the gallery will feature The Jazz Era: Kansas City Style, an exhibition of photographs of Kansas City jazz performers from the 1930s and 1940s. This unique collection was restored and researched by the LAC. The exhibit’s opening program featured a jazz piano concert by Bill Stilfield, LAC chairman and owner of Chase Music Group Records. LAC member Carol Kariotis also discussed the collection and its restoration at the opening.
In April and May, the gallery will feature Memories in the Making©, an exhibition featuring works created by artists living with Alzheimer’s disease residing in assisted living facilities, nursing facilities and in community settings. The exhibit, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, will offer an interactive component, giving viewers an opportunity to express their own thoughts and reactions to the art. The opening program will feature a book talk led by Deborah Shouse, the nationally recognized author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver's Journey.
To measure audience response to the gallery’s exhibitions, Gregory enlisted help from MCPL’s Community Programming and Information Technology departments to create an electronic guest book where visitors can record their reactions and comments about the exhibits. A webpage is being designed for an iPad that will be affixed to a stand in the gallery area.
In the end, Gregory said the answer to the white wall problem was easy.
“What would I do at home with a big white wall?” she asked. “I would fill it with art. So why not here?”
MCPL partnered with a local art organization to revamp its blank wall.
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