Fantastic Fifties – Part 2
The Art Scene Comes Alive by James Johnson
The decade of the 1950s was a time of growth and maturity for the city of Wichita. Driven by the commerce of the Cold War, the city grew in population, developing tastes similar to larger American metropolitan areas. It was during this time period that the Wichita arts scene exploded, producing some of its most noted artists and creating for the first time dedicated art galleries and artists’ cooperatives. Two galleries led the way — the indeX Gallery, formed by Wichita University faculty members, and somewhat later, the Bottega Gallery formed by WU students.
The first exhibition of the members of the indeX Group was on October 12, 1958, at the fine arts building at Wichita University. Seven artists participated, all associated with the university. In December, five of the original group opened an art gallery at 116 1/2 South Broadway — above the infamous Fairland Cafe — to exhibit their works as well as others. This was Wichita’s first dedicated art gallery.
The idea for the gallery came from Enrique Riveron, who had access to the location. Born and educated in Cuba, Riveron studied painting in Paris (where he was friends with many artists and writers) and worked for several years in New York before moving to Wichita in 1934.
He was joined by WU professors David Bernard and Bob Kiskadden, Southeast High School art instructor Rex Hall, and WU teaching assistant Paul “Pablo” Edwards. All of these artists were Modern painters interested in bringing to Wichita high art on par with current international styles.In a review of their opening show, the Wichita Eagle noted,
“The indeX group at present is concentrating on abstract art — so abstract that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But America right now leads in this particular phase of art life, and it is only natural these men would be concentrating their efforts in what is now the main stream of art in this country.”
Being in a prime location next door to the fashionable Henry’s Clothing Store the indeX brought a new professionalism to selling art in Wichita. Although the enterprise lasted less than two years, it defined the standards for future local commercial galleries and set the stage for the next gallery that made a mark in Wichita — the Bottega Gallery.Untitled by Rex Hall (1956)Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.“High Country” by Robert Kiskadden (1959)Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.
The Bottega Gallery, like the indeX Gallery, was a product of Wichita University. The difference being, it was organized by students (and graduate students) instead of faculty members. The Bottega was a cooperative gallery with studios as well as an exhibition space. Founded by James G. Davis, Eugene “Skip” Harwick and his mother Gladys (a puppeteer), and Ken Jones the group eventually included most of the serious young artists in Wichita. Located at 110 East Douglas, the gallery opened in 1959 and remained open until 1962.
Bottega was an edgier place than the indeX in terms of the art as well as the personalities of the artists. Its members were the “young Turks” of the Wichita scene, ready to make their mark on American art. Openings were often loud parties where little commerce occurred — a situation now understood as standard operating procedure. Although not a commercial success, the Bottega gallery remains historically important. Of the 10 or so young artists who exhibited during its brief time, at least 8 became professors of art, a tribute to the Wichita University graduate art program, and several, notably James G. Davis, and Mary Joan Waid, became important artists whose work is still shown internationally.
© 2001 by James Wallace Johnson. All Rights Reserved.