Kauffman Museum director combines love of art, history

Annette LeZotte has been director of Kauffman Museum, which is part of Bethel College in North Newton, for about a year. She?s going to give a TED Talk in September on a recent exhibit there about race.
Annette LeZotte has been director of Kauffman Museum, which is part of Bethel College in North Newton, for about a year. She?s going to give a TED Talk in September on a recent exhibit there about race.

Article and Photos by Wendy Nugent

When Annette LeZotte was growing up in the Chicago area, the hallowed halls of museums her grandparents and parents took her to made a great impact.
?I thought they were almost spiritual places,? said LeZotte, who has been director of Kauffman Museum at Bethel College for about a year. LeZotte also went on many field trips to museums in that area.
In 1977, when LeZotte was 7 years old, her parents and grandparents joined her in visiting the ?Treasures of Tutankhamun? exhibit at the Field Museum in the Windy City. This exhibit attracted 1.3 million visitors in the four months it was there.
?I remember it being packed as a 7-year-old,? she said.
The exhibit had a numerous artifacts, many of which were drenched in gold. The collection has perhaps the most famous Egyptian antiquity ever found, which is the solid gold mask used to cover King Tut?s head and shoulders, and it appears many of the artifacts have creative, artistic qualities to them.
Also as she grew up, LeZotte?s grandmother had a love of art, and the two also went on trips to museums.
These factors influenced LeZotte?s career choices. When going to college, she looked at the course catalogue and chose her major by deciding which discipline she could taking endure 32 credit hours, so she majored in art history.
To this day, she can recall which two paintings were on the screen at the front of the classroom when she walked into her first art history class at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They were the ?Merode Altarpiece,? circa 1427-32, and ?The Deposition? from 1507.
After receiving her bachelor of arts degree in art history, LeZotte earned a master of arts in the same area from Florida State University and a doctorate in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. Her areas of study included Renaissance and Baroque art.
She did a number of internships as an undergraduate and graduate student, working in the education departments of university museums. While earning her doctorate, she did the initial research and training of docents regarding the Suida-Manning Collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings given to the college?s Blanton Museum.
?I always knew working for a museum would be a logical choice for an art historian, so I always tried to stay knowledgeable about museums and museum practices,? LeZotte said.
Before she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, LeZotte was offered a teaching position at Wichita State University, which is what brought her to the area. Her titles there included visiting assistant professor of art history, 2000-02; assistant professor of art history, 2002-09; and associate professor of art history, 2009-12.
After working at Wichita State, she was offered the position of interim curator of education/interim curator at the Wichita Art Museum.
?And then I ended up here,? LeZotte said of Kauffman Museum. ?So this was kind of a way of merging those two interests ? working for a college museum presents some unique challenges?and so having that unique knowledge of how colleges work is beneficial.?
LeZotte enjoys her job at Kauffman, which is a part of Bethel College.
?I like the creativity of it,? she said. ?I?m an ideas person, and I think museums always spark new ideas.?
When she came on board at Kauffman, the exhibit that was up was ?Climate and Energy Central: Doing Science in Kansas,? which was funded partly by the National Science Foundation through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.
?The goal was to get local universities to study the impact of global climate change on local communities,? LeZotte said, sitting in the museum?s library.
The exhibit featured ?Kansas scientists who are working together to address the grand challenges of renewable energy and potential climate change,? according to kauffman.bethelks.edu. NSF subsidized the exhibit to travel in Kansas.
Then from Feb. 27 to May 24 of this year, another exhibit, ?Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations,? was featured. This exhibit had been in the planning stages for about five years before LeZotte arrived.
??Sorting Out Race? arose out of a desire to divert artifacts with racial content from thrift stores to an exhibit that would generate a healthy community conversation about racial stereotypes past and present in order to heighten awareness of our continuing struggles with race,? according to the museum?s website.

Annette LeZotte (left), director of Kauffman Museum in North Newton, talks to docent Rosiland Andreas in the prairie reconstruction area outside of the museum.
Annette LeZotte (left), director of Kauffman Museum in North Newton, talks to docent Rosiland Andreas in the prairie reconstruction area outside of the museum.

?This is a project I inherited,? LeZotte said. ?Very unique idea.?
This idea was so unique, in fact, that she?s been asked to do a TED talk on the subject, which will be Sept. 15 at Kansas City Community College. The theme of the TED talk event is, ?Breaking Through: Confronting the Barriers That Divide Us and Challenging Ourselves to Move Beyond Them.?
?The auditorium seats 300, so it will be done in front of a live audience,? LeZotte said.
TED is a nonprofit dedicated to spreading thoughts, usually through powerful, short talks. It initiated in 1984 when technology, entertainment and design came together and now covers many other topics. To view TED talks, visit www.ted.com.
In the past four months, LeZotte has given 14 presentations on the ?Sorting Out Race? exhibit, and the TED talk will be the 15th. She sees the 12-15-minute time limit as being a challenge because she hasn?t given a presentation on the topic in less than 30 minutes.
?How do you talk about race in America in 15 minutes or less if you want to do it any justice in explaining the concept?? she said.
The exhibit was the brainchild of Leia Lawrence, and exhibit team members included LeZotte, Nicole Eitzen, Jake Harris, David Krieder, Paloma Olais, Chuck Regier and Rachel Pannabecker.
Although she?s frequently been asked to speak about the exhibit, she said, ?Of course, those aren?t easy conversations to have.?
?So obviously this exhibit is quite timely considering what?s going on in America right now,? LeZotte said.
When the exhibit was up, many had positive reactions.
?I would say that overall our core constituency here at Kauffman Museum reacted very positively,? LeZotte said, adding the word that kept being repeated by patrons when they wrote in the comment book was ?sensitizing.?
The most controversial artifact in the exhibit was the state flag of Kansas, as there were a lot of people who didn?t like the suggestion the Kansas flag might be racially charged. The Ad Astra Per Aspera flag features American Indians and buffalo in the background that appear to be heading out of the scene with larger settler images in the foreground.
LeZotte said from her studies of art, she?s learned the important items in paintings are larger and in the foreground. The largest subject in the Kansas flag is a white man plowing with two horses leading the way.
The museum posed rhetorical questions throughout the exhibit.
?It was intended to get people to think differently about these objects,? LeZotte said.
The exhibit has been designed to travel and will be available for the road in the fall.
In one part of the exhibit, there?s a colorful dress in what represents a thrift-store window. The most-asked question regarding the exhibit was, ?What is racist about the dress in the window?? LeZotte said, and ?What is racist about the Pyrex mixing bowls in the window??
?We filled the ?thrift-store window? at the front of the exhibit with a variety of items ? some with racial content and others without ? to make the point that such objects are readily integrated into our homes and resale shops, and we need to challenge ourselves to think about the images displayed on them,? LeZotte said. ?And I did select the dress just because I thought it was visually stunning, and we were looking for an eye-catching dress to put in that window display.?
In addition to the TED talk, LeZotte has other plans for the museum. These include switching from having multiple exhibits up every year to having one exhibit up during the college?s academic year. She envisions more programming related to the exhibit and more collaborative programming with the college and particularly with classes at Bethel.
The current exhibit, ?Root for the Home Team: Building Community Through Sports,? opened Sept. 1 and will run through Jan. 23, 2016. Bethel and Kauffman are official partner sites for the Smithsonian traveling exhibit ?Home?town Teams: How Sports Shape America.? There are a total of 18 other partner sites, including Lawrence, Oakley and Wichita. The actual Smithsonian exhibit travels to Ellinwood, Good?land, Greenburg, Atchison, Perry and Humbolt in 2015.
Kauffman?s exhibit will localize ideas in the Smithsonian exhibit, and there will be events to which museum members are welcome, including ?From Football to Futbol? presented by Marlo Angell at 11 a.m. Sept. 18 in the BC Luyken Fine Arts Center, and ?Every Fourth of July in Newton: Memories of the Oldest Mexican American Fast-Pitch Softball Tourna?ment in the United States? panel discussion at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 in the same location.
?Bethel College students will explore how sports impact the identity and inclusiveness of communities through a series of readings, lectures and assign??ments throughout the 2015-16 academic year,? a news release stated.

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