When potential residents explore a new community, they often focus their attention on the practicalities of life: housing, cost of living, schools, health care, and job opportunities. However, the leaders of the Greater Manhattan region also recognize the importance of the arts to excite and inspire people to make a community home.
As part of a multi-year effort to make this region more competitive and appealing to new residents and visitors alike, leaders from the chambers of commerce of Manhattan, Wamego and Junction City organized trips to several successful university cities — including Columbia (Missouri), Fayetteville (Arkansas), Ames (Iowa), and Lincoln (Nebraska) — to study their strengths. One common feature that connected all four was an abundance of outdoor public art.
“My favorite part of those inter-region visits was seeing what each community offered in the way of art,” said Larie Schoap, a devoted art collector and the 2020 chair of the board for the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce. “Art just brings more culture to a community, and I think it brings more people to town as well. As visitors spend time here enjoying our art, they shop in our stores, stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants. When we got back, I couldn’t wait to get started bringing more art to Manhattan.”
Those visits between 2015 and 2018 inspired several new local initiatives. Jeff Sackrider, a customer sales consultant for WTC and another self-professed art fan, was one of the participants on the trip to Lincoln. During that experience, he and a group of friends noticed how excited others in the group became after interacting with a downtown alley that had been revitalized with art and lighting.
“People who didn’t care about art went out of their way to take a picture of an alley,” Sackrider said. “We wanted to bring back the magic of that alley to Manhattan.”
This group of friends — soon organized under the name Incite MHK — began brainstorming and raising money for art-related projects. They began by exploring public channels, but soon the bureaucracy and lack of speed at which city governments move led them to approach the idea independently.
A member of the group learned about efforts that Fort Smith, Arkansas, took to revitalize their downtown through an organization called Justkids, which represents international artists and brings them to work in the United States. Incite MHK partnered with Justkids in the fall of 2019 to hire the Brazilian duo who call themselves Bicicleta Sem Freio to paint a mural in downtown Manhattan, on the side of a building overlooking the AJ’s Pizza courtyard at Third and Poyntz.
The artists – Douglas Pereira and Renato Reno – spent a week in late October 2019 painting the mural while the entire community watched. Sackrider said everyone embraced the artists while they were in town, and truly seemed to enjoy seeing the process unfold.
“I got a bunch of gift cards for local restaurants so (the artists) wouldn’t have to spend money to eat while they were here, and when I took them to the airport afterwards, they gave them back to me. They said that no one let them pay for food. People took care of them everywhere they went,” Sackrider said. “They’ve traveled all over the world, and they said they’ve never had an experience like that. When they were in New York City they were just another muralist, but in our Manhattan, they were treated very special.”
Incite MHK was inspired again in the fall of 2020 to paint a mural to honor the legacy and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The group quickly found wall space in a downtown alley, raised private funds from friends and other supporters, and worked with local artists Taylor Carr and Jessica Preston Kerr to get the mural created — within just a few weeks of Ginsburg’s death.
The group also has several other projects in various stages of planning, and Sackrider said he is taking meetings almost weekly about other possibilities. He says it’s been exciting to have artists he didn’t even know seek him out with ideas and to watch the community buy-in grow.
“We want Manhattan to be seen as a vibrant, colorful, happy place to live,” Sackrider said. “That’s hard to quantify, but maybe that means we just need to work harder at it.”
Vern Henricks, president/CEO of the Greater Manhattan Community Foundation (GMCF), also attended the inter-region visits. In 2016, the GMCF announced a $12 million-plus endowment from the estate of Lincoln and Dorothy Deihl to support local projects in the arts, basic human needs and youth. That endowment has provided GMCF with between $150,000 and $200,000 per year to fund arts projects in the community, which Henricks said couldn’t have happened at a better time.
The Deihl fund has already contributed to several arts initiatives across the community. In addition to projects for the Manhattan Arts Center and the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, the fund recently provided two grants to the City of Manhattan’s Arts and Humanities Advisory Board (AHAB) of $10,000 each to support the City’s 2020 sculpture walk exhibit. This exhibit installed 10 outdoor art pieces along downtown Manhattan’s Third Street corridor for a year. The grants provided honoraria for artists and covered some of the installation expenses.
Despite AHAB’s exhibit being installed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the community has been very receptive to this latest attraction. Randi Clifford, director of recreation for Manhattan Parks and Recreation and staff liaison for AHAB, said the committee is planning on a second exhibit to open in the summer of 2021. This time, the committee hopes to bring in a few more pieces and incorporate a voting process to allow the public to pick their favorite sculpture, with the hope that funding can be secured to purchase the winner so it can become a permanent fixture of the community.
Another future project will tell the story of the rich African American history of the South Manhattan/Yuma neighborhood. The plan is to install an exhibit celebrating this neighborhood in the new Douglass Community Recreation Center, which is currently under construction.
“There are very few people left to tell that story,” Henricks said. “I want people to be able to read about it and keep the story alive. There have been some very famous people who have passed through that area over the years, and we want to celebrate it.”
The City and the GMCF have applied for a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant to fund such an exbibit in the new center; however, Clifford said if the NEA grant isn’t awarded, some version of the idea will nevertheless be created using local funds.
Much like Incite MHK, Henricks said it’s been the goal of the GMCF to get more outdoor art in the community so that when people visit Manhattan, they’re impressed with what they find. His goal is for Manhattan to become known as having one of the best public art collections in the state.
In the meantime, there are many ways for art enthusiasts to get involved. Both Henricks and Sackrider have funds established to accept donations for future projects, and volunteers have many opportunities to get involved — whether by looking for locations to display art, researching artists or reviewing proposals.
“It’s been a little hard to get people to believe this is actually going to happen,” Henricks said. “We need people who are willing to work together and see the big picture. This is about building a collection that will make Manhattan a better place to live.”
If you’d like to lend your support or volunteer your time to any of these public art initiatives, please contact these three organizations:
Sculpture Photos by Theresa Mueller, Manhattan Parks and Recreation