Schwerdt Design Group, Greg Schwerdt, Architect of Record, Principal in Charge, Lauren Fitzpatrick, Designer
Photography by Rachel Lock
Rita Blitt Art Gallery
by Camille LeFevre
Rita Blitt is not only celebrated in the world of visual art for the drawings, paintings, and sculpture she creates, which convey a vibrant simplicity. The artist, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and now lives in California, is also revered by her colleagues in the worlds of dance and music for the singular ways in which those art forms have inspired her work.
Choreographer David Parsons has said: “In Rita’s creations, I find movement caught in time. Her paintings and sculpture allow me to see elements of my dances, which normally pass too quickly.” Conductor David Barg once told her: “You make energy visible like one needs the trees to see the wind.”
David Knaus, founding director of Marrakech Museum of Photography and Visual Arts in Morocco, describes Blitt’s work as “reflective on both a visual and intellectual level, inviting the viewer to share in its simple beauty.” About her own artistic process and work, Blitt has said: “I feel like I’m dancing on paper.”
In 2017, Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, invited Blitt to endow her work and archives to its Mulvane Art Museum. In return, the University would build a gallery devoted to exhibiting Blitt’s work. Once an agreement was reached, the question became how to design a gallery that would best showcase Blitt’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, and archival materials. The Topeka-based office of Schwerdt Design Group, in collaboration with Westlake Reed Leskosky, took the most sensitive and sensible approach, designing a clean light-filled space that positions Blitt’s artwork at the forefront.
The Rita Blitt Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden was added on to the University’s White Concert Hall, in order to emphasize the connections between art, music, and nature so integral to Blitt’s creative process and artwork. “We designed a bold modern gallery with interior access through the lobby of White Concert Hall, with plans to later connect the gallery to a new recital space in order to generate a meaningful link between the performing and visual arts,” explains Lauren Fitzpatrick, Designer, Schwerdt Design Group (SDG).
On its southeast wall, the gallery opens to the concert hall via a glass entry bracketed by the rough Kansas cottonwood limestone of the hall’s former exterior. “The existing exterior of White Concert Hall now makes up the south interior wall of the gallery corridor, and was kept intact and practically untouched,” Fitzpatrick says.
The gallery can also be entered from the sculpture garden, where Blitt’s outdoor works are on display. Uplighting around the sculpture bases illuminates the pieces at night. Bollards light the walk in the sculpture garden, which includes a custom-designed limestone fireplace with zinc-paneled chimney. Along the base of each limestone bench is a rope of LED lights that “creates a nice glow on the graphite-colored plank pavers of the walk,” Fitzpatrick says.
Located at the edge of campus, on a high-traffic street, the gallery is clad in honed Kansas cottonwood limestone panels and zinc composite metal panels, in contrast to White Concert Hall’s narrow, horizontal limestone banding. “The contrast between the zinc and the limestone is stunning,” says Fitzpatrick. “We also played with pushing and pulling different sections of the façade to create more interest and to add shadow lines.”
The gallery proper is 1,685 square feet. Surrounding vestibules and corridors added 830 square feet. Another 500 square feet was used for mechanical, technology, and storage areas. “The volumetric glazing system carefully introduces modulated natural light to the interior during the daytime and functions as a backlit ‘lantern’ at night, indicating to passersby that exciting things go on in the space,” says Fitzpatrick. Large volumes within the gallery “give a sense of monumentality and room for the curators to position Rita’s large pieces.”
While the vertical surfaces are drywall, the hard-maple floors cover layers of foam in an assembly that functions as a “sound control underlayment,” Fitzpatrick explains, “similar to a gymnasium.” The unique acoustical ceiling also was designed to absorb sound. “We took care in providing technology that would allow the gallery to enjoy enormous flexibility, so it can be used not only as a gallery, but also as a lecture space, reception space, and for musical performances,” says Fitzpatrick.
Several walls are on casters, for easy reconfiguration. “Cleverly disguised floor boxes and a continuous electrical strip hidden in the wall bases allow the gallery staff to plug in equipment along any wall,” she explains. Along with flanged track lighting integrated into the acoustical ceiling tile, Fitzpatrick and her team specified slot diffusers around the perimeter of the gallery, “which blend in with the motif of the track lighting.” Wall-wash fixtures and round trim-free downlights were incorporated for additional lighting options.
Within the gallery, from east to west, strategically placed glazing creates connections with the outdoors while letting in natural light. “We didn’t use a lot of glass in order to maximize the wall space,” says Fitzpatrick, “but by inserting slivers of glass, and by using Rita’s sculptures as end points for the views, we created a fun interplay between interior and exterior, nature outside and the nature-inspired artwork inside.”
The first phase of an ongoing expansion project, the gallery will soon open to another rehearsal room and recital hall on its east end. “Rita’s work is inspired by music, dance, nature, and her love of life,” Fitzpatrick says. “We feel the new Rita Blitt Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden is a perfect setting for her legacy collection of works and that we’ve created a connection to all of the things that are important to her.”