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Sights to Behold

Seeing Is Believing at the Midwest Museum of American Art

Writer / Lois Tomaszewski
Photography Provided

For more than four decades, the Midwest Museum of American Art (MMAA) has welcomed art lovers and artists into an environment that celebrates the creative spirit. From a friendly greeting at the front reception desk to knowledgeable staff and volunteers, art enthusiasts of all levels are invited to enjoy a variety of genres, including an extensive collection from Norman Rockwell and the pottery of the Overbeck sisters.Midwest Museum of American Art

The 68 personally signed and numbered lithographs in the Norman Rockwell collection, the extensive pottery from the Overbeck sisters, and an original Grant Wood painting, one of only two on public display in Indiana, are the keystone to establishing and growing the museum, according to Director and Curator Brian Byrn, who will have been at the museum for 42 years as of this November. The other component of the museum’s longevity and success can be attributed to its ability to connect art to the local and regional arts communities, and to local art teachers and students – and also its accessibility in bringing about an appreciation of fine art in the community.

The museum was founded 44 years ago by Dr. Richard and Jane Burns. The couple purchased a 1920s bank building that was scheduled for demolition, and established the building as an art museum. The Paul D. Keefe Gallery encompasses that banking past, with the circular vault door as the entrance to the gallery, and iron bars and air shafts still in place among the art now displayed within.

Midwest Museum of American Art

The MMAA name is to establish the geography, but not to limit the artists to a specific region, Byrn says. In fact, the museum also exhibits pieces from throughout the United States, including the Four Corners area of the Southwest. Work on display is traditional and modern, captured by artists’ brushstrokes, sculptors’ visions, and the artistic interpretation of photographers, potters and others.

“There is something new to be seen on every visit,” Byrn says. “A lot of the collection is moved around. A visitor can see 1,200 objects on display every day.”

When the museum opened in 1979, its collection numbered at 224 works of art. Today, the collection includes more than 6,400 permanent pieces. New pieces that add to the story of American art are still being added to the collection, Byrn says.

He likens the MMAA experience to a library.

“You don’t go to the library and read all the books at once,” he says. In his view, the MMAA represents the hub of intelligent life, the same way a library stimulates thoughts and perspectives.

The Spotlight Exhibit, one of Byrn’s programming ideas, features an artist who is known locally or regionally. The artist selected for the spotlight may be someone who entered the annual juried art competition in the fall, or someone with talent living within a 24-county radius.

Midwest Museum of American Art

For example, Walkerton potter Tom Meuninck occupies one of the eight galleries in the museum. A retired teacher, Meuninck’s work has been exhibited at other museums in the region, and his family shares the artist designation with him.

From the Thursday Gallery Talks at noon, to exhibits featuring the best work from art students in the four Elkhart-area high schools and local artists throughout Michiana, Byrn sees the MMAA’s mission as meeting four criteria. Art museums large and small, he says, collect unique and original objects, exhibit these, educate those who come to see the objects, and present these to the public.

“Art has to be enjoyed in person,” Byrn says.

The MMAA is located in downtown Elkhart at 429 South Main Street. It is open all year. For more information including hours and admission details, visit midwestmuseum.org or call 574-293-6660.

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