It’s become common in Hays, but rain, shine, sleet or snow, the Hays Arts Council’s seasonal art walks bring a sense of festivity to downtown.
Friday’s fall art walk gave more reason to celebrate, as it featured the opening of “50,” — 50 works by 50 artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the arts council.
The names are familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Hays and its art scene: Joel Moss, Dale Ficken, Kathleen Kuchar, Frank Nichols, John Cody, Joyce Jilg, Darrell McGinnis, Pete Felten, Kris Kuksi. And there are newer names such as Diana Unrein and Joel Dugan.
Choosing the works for the show was not an easy task, said HAC director Brenda Meder.
“There’s others in our community that we could have included. What it kind of was, it’s important to dance with the ones that brung ya,” Meder said.
The artists selected for “50” were or are active as members of the HAC or in providing service and education to the organization.
“Some of them were’t as actively involved in the arts council, but they were still that foundation because of who they were teaching. Maybe that set the course for some of these other, later ones, so that was important,” she said.
The show is representative of how a conversation over coffee more than 50 years ago brought the creative elements of Hays and then Fort Hays Kansas State College together.
In 1965, Hays music store owner Vivian Meckel and Al Palmer of the college’s art department, formed an idea for an organization to coordinate art events in the community during one of their regular morning coffee visits.
Meckel, a state representative, introduced legislation to establish the Kansas Cultural Commission, and the Hays Arts Council became the first of its kind in Kansas.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of arts organizations and entities in the city — the university, there’s some private galleries, the collection at Hays Medical Center,” to name only a few, said City Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV, a former president of the HAC board and former chair of the now defunct Kansas Arts Commission.
“It’s the arts council that brings all that together,” he said.
If the arts council had never come to be, there would still be art in Hays, but the landscape of the community would be different, Meder and Schwaller said.
“The university’s always been there, and it’s always been a strong, strong art community within the university,” Meder said. “It gets real easy for a university community to sort of maintain more of their own little microcosm of the community.”
“We would have survived, and the university would still play a lead role,” Schwaller said.
But he points out the arts have contributed to the development of downtown, education and life in general.
“We wouldn’t have the emphasis on summer programs. The gallery walks bring a lot of people downtown. We wouldn’t have those specific programs that make a contribution to the economy, make a contribution to education particularly in childhood development, and then make a commitment and contribution to our quality of life,” he said.
Mayor Shaun Musil, who recently purchased the Paisley Pear, 1100 Main, and will open a wine bar there next month, agreed. The work of his father-in-law, Clifton Porterfield, was displayed at Friday’s artwalk, along with music from employee Ashley Arthur.
As a parent of young children, Musil said he appreciated the work the HAC does with schools, but didn’t realize the full reach of the arts in the community.
“I did not realize how important arts was in this community until I got on the city commission,” he said.
“It brings the community together. If you haven’t enjoyed an artwalk in Hays, you haven’t enjoyed Hays, in my opinion,” he said.
That cultivation of the arts through the community and university gives Hays something few Kansas communities can say they have, Schwaller said.
“One of the challenges for any community in Kansas is attracting or keeping people. Kansas is a wonderful place, and I love living here and don’t want to live anywhere else,” he said.
“But it can be challenging because we don’t have some of the resources that larger communities have. What the arts bring is a quality of life that is quite rare in Kansas particularly,” he said.
It puts Hays on par with much larger areas such as Salina, Wichita, Lawrence, Topeka and Johnson County, Schwaller said.
In recent years, state and federal funding for arts programs has decreased, but — as a March article in the New York Times outlined — that community support has benefitted the HAC.
“It’s a complex picture,” Schwaller said of the future of taxpayer support for the arts, “and it has been for a number of years. But through private local donations, and the unique situation that we’re in both geographically and through local support, we’ve survived,” he said.
Meder expects that support will carry the arts council through at least the HAC’s 100th anniversary.
“The way it’s supported now. How could arts and culture in this community not have the vibrancy 50 years from now in the community at large?” she said.
Children in the arts council’s programs now will remember what that meant to them as they become adults, she said.
“Even if they never become artists in any shape or form, hopefully they will be in a position to recognize that those things made a difference in their life. If that’s the case, they will be the next foundation of support,” she said.