“I have dreams of providing original prints and good paintings for the walls of every schoolhouse in Kansas.”

—Carl Smalley, art dealer, McPherson, Kansas, 1923

This exhibition is the first survey of art collecting by K-12 schools in Kansas. The story is unique in that it is driven by specific artists, community members, and civic organizations. But the Kansas example reveals in other ways the influence of nationwide social reforms, education trends, and government initiatives.

The title—inspired by the Kansas state motto, Ad astra per aspera, or “To the stars through difficulty”—alludes to the challenge of keeping the arts in the forefront of education. A goal of the exhibition is to help Kansas school districts learn more about how to care for their art, use it in teaching, and employ it to engage the community.

The largest collection owned by Kansas public schools began in 1911 when the superintendent in McPherson organized a fundraising exhibition to acquire artwork for a new high school. This ticketed event became an annual one, allowing the McPherson schools to establish a significant collection of works by American and international artists. Before 1950 schools in dozens of Kansas communities joined McPherson in acquiring art from traveling exhibitions, graduating class memorials, New Deal art projects, and more.