When Joyce Harlow envisioned the Lincoln Art Center in 1992, she was motivated by small-town pride and her belief that art was important for children. She recognized that a place for art would be a meaningful way to foster her farming community.
Thirty years on, the center has also become the hub of a supportive artist community stretching from Hays to Kansas City and beyond.
In 1986, Harlow, a painter and pastel artist who ran a professional photography studio in Lincoln, spoke up at a meeting of oil painters in Wichita. She offered a $500 purchase award from Lincoln County.
“I thought if nobody in Wichita can do this, I’m going to show them I can do this in Lincoln, a town of 1,500 people,” Harlow said.
She wrote letters to women’s groups, businesses and individuals, asking each for a $25 donation. That request that has continued every year since. The strategic first purchase for the public art collection was a painting by well-known Ellsworth artist Charles Rogers.
The center occupies a large storefront purchased with donations and renovated by volunteers. It has become a prime destination for artists across Kansas to exhibit sculpture, photography, textiles and painting. It has also hosted work by many college art faculties and student artists from the region and state.
Artist Linda Foster of Miltonvale praised the art center’s community feel.
“Two artists who exhibited recently said something I often hear: ‘You don’t know how fortunate you are to have a beautiful space like this.’ It is a beautiful space,” Foster said. “You’ve got this old building that’s been preserved and is being used, has a new life, brings people into the community.”
During an art show reception, it’s often a struggle to find a parking place on Lincoln Avenue, the town’s main street. While many small western Kansas towns look to attract tourists driving through I-70, Lincoln has worked on creating a livable and sustainable community.
Harlow credits board and community members for their care of the art center through website maintenance, hanging exhibitions, social media promotion, contributing food for receptions, supporting fundraisers, and spreading the word.
Each exhibition “is a jumping-off point to make connections in Lincoln,” Harlow said. “I like to find artists who are ready to try something new in a new space. It’s about our visitors to come and look, to appeal to a wide audience.”
A who’s who of creators
I’ve observed over the past 20 years that the art center operates with agility and resilience. It remains grounded while energizing the artists whose work is featured in six exhibitions each year.
The list of artists on Lincoln’s exhibition record is a who’s who of Kansas creators. More artists will enter Lincoln’s orbit with an exhibit from botanical ink maker Amanda Wagner of Bennington, jewelry maker Jennifer Weigel of McPherson and fabric artist Kris Luber of Topeka. It opens Jan. 13 and runs through Feb. 25.
“It’s a nonprofit, low budget organization that focuses on people and their networks,” said Kris Heinze, the marketing coordinator for the Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation and an art center board member since 2005. “The art center has an impact on youth – getting elementary students for summer art camp or the high school art show in the spring. That exposes more local people to culture and a place to find connections.”
Lawrence artist Barbara Solberg was an early collaborator with Harlow on the public art collection.
“Joyce is a true gift to that community for what she’s given to the art center and how kids are being brought up to look at art,” she said.
Last year, Solberg and husband Tom Schmiedeler presented an exhibition of assemblages and photographs that opened during a sudden sleet and wind storm in April. Though only a few people braved the weather, Solberg said she’ll never forget a gift that night from 8-year-old Kaitlyn Heinze.
Kaitlyn examined Solberg’s works and wrote down what she thought of each one: “SELF, love kindness, difference, self + your spirit = makes you YOU.”
Her mother, board member Kris Heinze, explains that “Kaitlyn has been coming here since she was born. I smile because she has never not known about the art center. She makes connections with artists and they have fantastic conversations and it extends beyond that one night.”
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Stpry and photos by Lori Brack via Kansas Reflector