It took 20 years after her death, but in 1935 Louise Caldwell Murdock’s wishes for Wichita to have an art museum became reality.
It was Elizabeth Navas — who worked for Murdock in her design firm and went on to buy the paintings for what art historians consider a premier collection of American art —who helped create that reality when the Wichita Art Museum opened in September 1935.
Both are being celebrated for their roles in establishing WAM with the recently opened WAM exhibition “The Tale of Two Women: Louise Caldwell Murdock and Elizabeth Navas” that celebrates the museum’s 85th anniversary.
“One provided the money and one provided the collection,” said former WAM docent Georgia Stevens.
When Murdock, an interior designer and widow of Wichita Eagle business manager and part-owner Roland P. Murdock, died of cancer in 1915, her will provided the seed money to start WAM’s initial collection.
WAM curator Tera Hedrick calls WAM’s early pieces the “crown jewel” for the museum, which now holds more than 10,000 pieces.
“We have a lot of different sub-collections but the Murdock Collection, of course, is the crown jewel and includes many of the things people know and love, like the Mary Cassatt (“Mother and Child), “Kansas Corn” and the Edward Hoppers,” Hedrick said. WAM has four of Hoppers’ works: one watercolor and three oil paintings. The Murdock Collection refers to the pieces purchased with Murdock’s financial gift.
Created by native Kansas artist John Steuart Curry, “Kansas Corn” was the first piece purchased for WAM by Navas, who was tasked in Murdock’s will with buying the art for WAM. Because of its distinction as WAM’s first piece, “Kansas Corn” is part of “The Tale of Two Women” exhibition.
The exhibition, which Hedrick put together, consists of about 30 items, including a few of the early paintings Navas purchased, Murdock’s sample trunk from her days as an interior designer, a copy of her will making provisions for Navas to buy the art and more.
In what Hedrick calls “a happy coincidence,” the exhibition is on display in a section of the original WAM building, in the DeVore Gallery. The current WAM building is the result of various expansions and renovations. The original 1935 art deco building was featured in both Art Digest and Architecture magazine, according to the archival Tihen Notes of Wichita’s newspapers.
Stevens, 71, a former WAM docent, said she remembers running up and down the original building’s outdoor staircase when her mother took her to the museum as a child. Stevens worked as a WAM docent for 25 years until 2007.
Hedrick said that as WAM visitors go through “The Tale of Two Women,” she hopes they’ll feel inspired by the efforts of Murdock and Navas.
“These two women felt they could make a change and use their resources to make a change in their city for the better and they did that. They dedicated themselves to something that would outlast them,” Hedrick said.
Novelene Ross, a former WAM curator, calls Murdock “an extraordinary visionary and a shining example of the best ambitions of the early 20th century Progressive movement.”
According to historical accounts, Murdock was born in 1857 in New York and moved to the newly incorporated city of Wichita at age 14 where her father, Jonathan Caldwell, opened a business. She married Roland Murdock in 1877. In 1899, she founded the 20th Century Club that promoted performing arts, literature and science in Wichita.
After her husband died in 1906, Murdock went to New York City, where she studied interior design at what is now the well-regarded Parsons School of Design. She came back to Wichita and opened a design firm in the building she and her father built in 1907. Now vacant, the seven-floor Caldwell Murdock building at 111 E. Douglas was Wichita’s first skyscraper and just recently got a colorful new look. One of Murdock’s notable jobs was being the interior designer of Wichita’s Carnegie Library.
With the heady job of trying to create an art collection for the city, Navas, who was originally from Independence, Kansas, moved to New York City in 1917 to immerse herself in the art community and learn more about collecting art.
“She prepares for the day when the funds will be released and she’s responsible for this mission,” Hedrick said. Murdock’s will stipulated that the money for the collection would come after the last of her surviving family members had died, so that created a lag in getting WAM started. Other funds for the Murdock Collection came from a trust that was still getting rental money for the Caldwell Murdock building.
Navas hung around artists, gallery owners, dealers and people who would go on to direct other museums, like the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Hedrick said she read stacks of correspondence to determine which letters to include in “The Tales of Two Women exhibition.”
The letters she read showed how Navas “was a fierce negotiator and how she had an eye for art,” Hedrick said.
Patricia McDonnell, WAM director, said the collection Navas assembled is one that she became aware of while working for other American art museums and is well-recognized in the American art world.
‘The Tale of Two Women: Louise Caldwell Murdock and Elizabeth Navas’ exhibit
What: Exhibition recognizing the two women who helped found the Wichita Art Museum, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary
Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.
When: Through Feb. 28, 2021; Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $10 adults, $5 ages 60 and older, $3 college/university students with ID and youth ages 5-17, $5 for children younger than 5 and WAM members. Free for everyone on Saturdays.
More info: 316-268-4921 or wichitaartmuseum.org