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Spencer Museum Renovation Pushes Art Programs into Lawrence's Public Spaces

The galleries in the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas are closed for renovation, but that doesn't mean the end of art programs. Some of it has been pushed out onto the streets of Lawrence. As KPR's Stephen Koranda reports, the Spencer Museum may be closed, but it's still keeping art in the public eye.

The Spencer's renovation is not just a couple coats of paint or new carpet. KU's art museum is getting a major overhaul. On this day, cranes are setting up scaffolding. They’ll be cutting holes in the exterior wall to install massive windows.

Janet Dreiling, assistant director for collections, says they’re maintaining the heritage of the building but changing the feel of the museum.

“The entry will be a lot more open and you’ll actually be able to see into the building and get a sense of what’s inside the building, that it’s actually an art museum. Right now, it’s a kind of forbidding, fortress kind of atmosphere,” says Dreiling.

A quick ride up the elevator leads to the construction zone. When the doors open, it’s a huge open space where workers have gutted most of the rooms. The project is focused on the public galleries and educational spaces.

“That used to be the projection booth for the auditorium. We’re just seeing this opened up. A lot of these things have just happened in the last couple of hours or so,” says Richard Klocke, who designs exhibits for the Spencer.

Soon, Klocke will have a lot more options when it comes to displaying art.

“It’ll have all new ceilings and lighting system, a whole new track lighting system, all LED,” says Klocke.

This space recently housed a massive exhibit named Gard Blue. It was a white cube large enough to walk inside, where it was bathed in blue light. Those types of displays will be easier and quicker to set up in the future.

“We’ll have capability to do special exhibits like that in the future and also the possibility of hanging things from the ceiling. So it will have a lot of flexibility as well,” says Klocke.

While the galleries are closed, art programs go on. A few miles east of the museum, Curator Stephen Goddard stands next to a piece of public art: the Nupenny Toy Stand. It’s a structure about 8 feet wide styled with a 1950s motif and filled with toy items created by the artist, Randy Regier.

“It’s a work that is trying to maybe take us back to childhood memories of maybe an imagined toy store,” says Goddard.

The Nupenny was specifically placed on the edge of an industrial area in east Lawrence, and Goddard says finding it is part of the experience.

“It’s in a totally unanticipated place, as if when you’re back in childhood and you wish for something so badly that never seems to appear in your backyard or around the corner, and suddenly there it is,” says Goddard.

The best time to visit this exhibit is may be at night, when it lights up. While looking at the Nupenny, Spencer’s director of external affairs, Margaret Perkins-McGuinness, sees something that someone slipped under the door. It's a letter stamped "priority" and addressed to "Nupenny."

Perkins-McGuinness says this exhibit is part of an outreach program known as Spencer Museum: At Large. It puts art in the community and in September will host public talks and presentations by artists. There will also be programs for school kids in the coming months.

“The goal of At Large is for us to build the audiences and reach new audiences, but also to think about our work in different ways,” says Perkins-McGuinness.

She says they’re hoping public events can put art, and the Spencer Museum, in the minds of more people.

“It’s really a time for us to spread our wings and think about how we reach people throughout this community and beyond that may not naturally feel comfortable or compelled to enter the museum, with the hope that when we reopen it will be a place that feels very welcoming and at-home for them,” says Perkins-McGuinness.

The Nupenny toy store will be in its location on east 19th street for the coming weeks and it may appear in other places in Lawrence. The museum’s renovation is slated to continue into 2016.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.