Jim drove me to Wichita State University (WSU). "This is where I met Debbie," he said. The WSU mascot is the wheatshocker or just "shocker," and it was a shocker to see such a great art collection on campus. The Ulrich museum displayed over its doorway a huge original mosaic by Joan Miro: white with bug-eyed beings in bright red, orange, and blue. The collection inside was also somewhat a "shocker." It contained works by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, and Hopper's teacher Robert Henri. Another building on campus was an artwork: Frank Lloyd Wright's Education Building.
A long aqua pool divided the main patio, and a cactus-like spire rose through the roof of the building adorned with red brick and turquoise tiles. To top off the surfeit of art, strewn about on the lawns were works by renowned sculptors such as Auguste Rodin,
Claes Oldenburg, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and Aristide Maillol.
I really appreciated Jim's hospitality, but I told him that I had to get to the Hoppers in the Wichita Art Museum (WAM). "The guy I work for is on the board."
"Who do you work for?"
"I'll show you," he said and veered the swaying Bronco downtown. There's not much of a skyline to Wichita. The tallest buildings are 20-25 stories, and there are only three that tall. We drove to one of those. Jim parked in the parking lot of a modern steel-and-glass high-rise. It had concrete walls, tan carpeting, and a wide lobby with glass elevator doors out front that were done by "Hopper's Glass Company." We went upstairs to see the art collection of a bank.
"Those sculptures I showed you are an example of a single person with no encumbrance whatsoever. The bank collection is essentially controlled by me (as the curator) and the chairman. In terms of efficiency, in terms of dollar values spanned over a historical period of time, these are two examples of letting a professional do his job. Let him do it. And thank God."
Art is literally a good investment. The collection was limited to artists with a connection to Kansas, but this still let Jim include some better-known names and images, such as Kansas photographer W. Eugene Smith's much-reproduced and -imitated 1946 photograph, "A Walk To Paradise Garden," in which a boy and a girl hold hands as they emerge from a hedge.
When the head of the bank heard that Jim was showing me the art and that I was writing a book about Hopper, he generously offered for me to interview him.
Michael was lanky, with sun-reddened skin, big ears, and a receding chin. He wore an open-collared blue-and-white checked shirt and spoke with a good-natured drawl. He sat on the Wichita Art Museum's board and avowed that the museum views their Hopper paintings "as treasures."
"I don't feel isolated at all," he replied to my question. "We may be isolated from Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia, but in terms of a community, I think Wichita and Kansas is a very friendly and outgoing community.
"I was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Europe when I was in college. My first chance to go in some magnificent museums and see more art than you can possibly absorb. Then, when my wife and I were 22 years old, we went down to this art fair in Wichita and ended up buying two or three pieces of work. It's like collecting anything: once you buy a couple...
"At that time, the bank had one location in Wichita. Today, we have twelve locations. And part of moving into a new building is putting something on the walls. Luckily, I made the decision early on that, instead of just going out and buying posters and hanging 'em so the walls would be filled, we tried to be a little more diligent and buy better things.
"There's no Edward Hoppers or Rembrandts or Van Goghs hanging around here, but I think the art is pretty good and varied, a very good representation of the best artists that have come through Kansas one way or another.
"One of the things Jim's done is to take a group of ten pictures or paintings and put 'em in some kind of a context. Most of us tend to look at paintings or objects kind of one at a time. Four or five times a year, we'll have luncheons in the basement. He'll speak for an hour, and anybody can come to them who wants to, and half of our employees will show up, just volunteer. And they have good questions. The employees are now peers. Anytime we bring something new in, a lot of employees are interested in, you know, 'How does that fit in with everything else?' I think that people are beginning to think, 'Well, gee, maybe we ought to buy something for the house.' They've turned themselves into partners."
He leaned close to me and said thoughtfully, "I had an English teacher in eighth grade, who certainly influenced me and she influenced my parents because I'd come home and I'd say, 'that's not the right tense'. She's influenced our son and no doubt our grandkids by now. I like to think what we're doing here will also influence a lot of people and their children and their children's children."