Back in the ‘70s, most Elkhart kids with braces were patients of either Dr. Burns or Dr. Lehman. A visit to the late Dr. Richard Burns’ Kilbourn Street orthodontics office meant proximity to original works by Leroy Neiman and Norman Rockwell, with glimpses of a stunning Remington bronze. Richard and Jane Burns began collecting art as a young couple, soon after moving to Elkhart in 1967. At a time in history when many critics dismissed Rockwell subjects as too sentimental, the Burns saw profound and beautifully-rendered expressions of American life. In 1978 they purchased the imposing neoclassical limestone building at Main and Marion streets (formerly St. Joseph Valley Bank) with the idea of establishing a museum devoted to American art.
Steve Gruber is an Elkhart native who produces ArtWalk, founded a gallery and studio space called Arts on Main, and is an advocate for local art. You can read more of his work in his community blog
for The Elkhart Truth, Art Sense
Jane’s unflappable determination, southern charm and marketing instincts quickly grew membership and helped the Midwest Museum of American Art become a magnet for school groups, events and lectures. Over 3,000 works were carefully acquired and catalogued to form a dazzling permanent collection. An ever-changing roster of special exhibitions brought even more compelling reasons to visit. Trips were organized to see great works and to discover more about sculpture, ceramics, fiber, watercolor and other media. Invitations were made, and lifelong friendships were formed. Brian Byrn, a mustachioed art scholar with a southern accent, was hired as curator. Thirty-five years later, he still presides – genial and knowledgeable, unfailingly warm and eager to talk about art at YOUR level. A straightforward, unpretentious approach is the hallmark of the museum’s success in helping the public to interpret art.
Elsewhere downtown, Berman’s closed, Zeisel’s closed and the ill-fated Midway Motor Lodge was razed. Portions of Main Street were dug up, then dug up again. Despite these surrounding conditions, the museum achieved a reassuring permanence. Docents were trained, legions of school children were inspired, and hundreds and hundreds of purchase prizes were awarded to promising local artists from 22 Michiana counties in the prestigious Elkhart Juried Regional Competition. (The best of these works can be seen at the current exhibition, “Made in Michiana: 35 Years of Best of Show,” through Oct. 5).
At precisely 12:20 p.m. every Thursday, the always-informative “Noontime Gallery Talks” are held. Sometimes it’s a visiting artist, sometimes a film or a live demonstration. In an era of vapid sound bites, the museum delivers 40 minutes of well-researched, high-quality content. And it’s free.
For 36 years, with no salary compensation, Director Jane Burns has greeted visitors, graciously welcomed them to the galleries, taken them on tours or allowed them to guide themselves, according to their preferences. By her tireless devotion – staying up countless nights to mount new shows, calling to remind patrons of upcoming events, keeping apprised of new talent – she (and Brian) have made the Museum accessible and enticing. With regard to the nonprofit’s operation, she is famously frugal. She will save an unused stamp and turn out the lights on wintry mornings when there are no visitors, but the moment a visitor does appear, on go the lights and charm. The museum has achieved “must see” status among art lovers nationwide which is why – on average – as many out-of-towners visit on a given day as do Elkhartans. There still remain thousands of Elkhartans who have no idea that this public amenity exists.
The irrepressible “can-do” American optimism, a reverence for the land and respect for family life are evident in the museum’s many 20th and 21st century works. That pioneer spirit that so imbues the American experience is the same powerful fuel that ignited lifelong passion and vision in an orthodontist from Leola, Iowa, and a marketing maven from Holdenville, Okla., to create a public treasure in Elkhart, Ind. A visit to the Midwest Museum of American Art is an experience – both for what is on display and for the many ways this beloved institution connects John Q. Public to that which inspires.
Midwest Museum of American Art, 429 S. Main Street (at the corner of Marion Street)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $5 for adults and $4 for students (age 5 through college age); free on Sunday
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