8 John F. Helm Gallery

By Anthony R. Crawford

Helm wearing an artist’s smock, sits at a table with a work of art near him.
John Helm at work, ca. 1940, Beach Museum of Art file photograph

Jon Wefald, president of Kansas State University, wrote Mary Helm Pollack in August 1993 to inform her that a gallery in the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art would be named in honor of her father. Wefald added that the art museum is the realization of a dream envisioned by John Helm.

It is most appropriate that the large gallery in the original wing of the Beach Museum of Art be named in honor of John Helm. As Bill North wrote in The Prints of John F. Helm, Jr.: A Catalogue Raisonne, “More than any other individual, Helm is responsible for establishing the permanent art collection at K-State.” North added, Helm “must be considered among the most significant champions of the art and artists of Kansas in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century,” and he possessed an “evangelistic desire to promote the art and artists of Kansas throughout the state and well beyond its borders, a quest that would be his raison d’etre from the time of his arrival on the K-State campus in 1924 until his death in 1972.” Among those who praised Helm’s contribution to art in Kansas was Peggy Green of the Topeka Capital Journal who wrote in 1955, “Dr. John Helm has probably done more than any other one person to promote art in Kansas.”

Helm was born in Syracuse, New York on September 16, 1900, and earned a bachelor’s degree in interior design from Syracuse University in 1924. Later that year he accepted a teaching position in drawing and painting at Kansas State College. Upon his arrival he devoted his efforts to acquiring art for the college, and he became known as the “de facto” curator of K-State’s art collection from 1928 until his retirement in 1970. During these years he worked tirelessly to acquire paintings for the institution which ultimately justified K-State’s need for an art museum.

He initiated and developed the permanent collection of art for the college, which began in 1928 when Birger Sandzén’s Still Water and Autumn Gold were acquired after an exhibition of Sandzén’s art was held at the dedication of K-State’s new library. Among the most important sources for the acquisition of art for the collection were the eleven biennial regional exhibitions held from 1950 to 1970. Organized by Helm, he persuaded President Milton Eisenhower to allocate $2,000 to support the first exhibition and acquire art from it. The purpose of the biennial exhibitions was “to bring to the Kansas State campus an exhibition of contemporary work for our students from which purchases may be made for the permanent collection of the College.” Over the next twenty years the exhibitions were an important source of acquisitions for K-State’s art collection with over ninety significant pieces of art purchased from the eleven exhibitions. Helm was usually successful in his attempts to get the artists to give K-State a discount.

The first four exhibitions (1950 – 1956) were displayed in the galleries of the architecture and allied art department in the engineering building, Seaton Hall. The art for the last seven (1958 – 1970) was exhibited in the K-State Union art lounge. The average length of an exhibition was sixteen days. By the time of the eleventh biennial exhibition, many of the individuals who supported the event had passed on and interest subsided. John Helm, who led the efforts to produce all the biennials and build the art collection for decades, retired in 1971.

In 1949 a Fine Arts Festival originated “to demonstrate the arts of specific times and places.” The festivals were most often held during the years between the biennial art exhibitions. The festivals, usually lasting one to two weeks, were devoted to the arts, drama, music, painting, and architecture, with the appropriate departments of the university presenting various programs. The first was devoted to nineteenth century French art followed by two concerning contemporary American art. The 1955 festival related to the city of Manhattan centennial. It is not surprising that John Helm was chairman of the Fine Arts Festival committee!

The Friends of Art organization was established in 1934 through the efforts of Helm and Russell I. Thackrey, a faculty member in the Department of Industrial Journalism and Printing. One of its goals was to acquire art for K-State’s permanent art collection. The Friends group was endorsed by President Francis Farrell. One of the organization’s first accomplishments was its involvement with the purchase of Sun Dogs by John Steuart Curry, one of the museum’s most famous artworks.

Another means that Helm used to promote Kansas art and artists was The Kansas Magazine. He, Thackrey, and a few other faculty revived the magazine in 1933; it had been published briefly in 1872 to 1873 and in 1886 and 1909. It was devoted to high quality poetry, prose, and writings on art and history. Helm served as the magazine’s art editor from 1933 to 1968 when it was published at K-State. It was important for distributing the print culture in the state and regularly featured the work of Kansas printmakers. It was also a forum for Helm to present his thoughts and views about Kansas art and artists.

Helm and others revived the Kansas State Federation of Art in 1932. It originally existed from 1916 to 1919. Its primary purpose was to make low-cost, high-quality art exhibitions available to institutions, organizations, and groups in the state with the expenses shared by members of KSFA. Helm served as director from 1935 to 1954.

He was actively involved with numerous art-related endeavors including the following: director of the Federal Art Project in 1935 – 1936, director of K-State’s Rural-Urban Art Program that provided education and experience in the visual arts for residents in the state, chairman of the art committee for the Kansas State Centennial, consultant for Kansas Cultural Arts Commission, and others.

In addition to Helm’s involvement in the arts, it should be noted that he was recognized nationally for the quality of his own art. Specializing in the Kansas landscape, his favorite media were painting and etching, as well as aquatint and wood engraving. His works are in the permanent collections of numerous regional, national, and international galleries, including those in Manhattan, Lindsborg, Tulsa, Salina, Hutchinson, California State Library, Derby Museum (England), and others. His art has been shown in many galleries throughout Kansas and the United States, most notably the National Academy of Design in New York City and the annual Art Alliance Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The prestigious Prairie Print Makers group was founded in December 1930 in the home of Birger Sandzén; Helm was invited to become a member in 1931. He was a member of other organizations including the Prairie Water Color Painters, College Art Association, and Midwestern College Art Conference. He was a member of three honorary societies: Phi Kappa Phi, Tau Sigma Delta, and Tau Epsilon. In 1951 Helm was awarded with an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Bethany College in Lindsborg. He was an excellent teacher and when K-State inaugurated a Distinguished Lecture Series to recognize outstanding contributions by faculty members, he was the first person selected for the honor.

In the 1960s Helm led the first serious attempt to raise funds for a facility to house K-State’s art collection, and he was selected as the executive director of the Kansas State Art Center Foundation. Unfortunately he did not live to see the results of his decades of devotion to K-State’s art collection in terms of a museum to preserve and show the holdings. He passed away on March 27, 1972. In addition to the gallery named in his honor in the Beach Museum of Art, a special retrospective exhibition of Helm’s works of art (The Prints of John F. Helm, Jr.) was shown during the museum’s fifth anniversary in October 2001. Bill North described Helm most appropriately in The Prints of John F. Helm, Jr.: A Catalogue Raisonne, “He is, without question, the single most important figure in the history of visual arts culture at K-State and must be considered among the most significant champions of the art and artists of Kansas in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.”

An important mainstay of Helm’s was his wife, Mary Brownell Helm. They met at K-State and for forty-four years she supported and advanced her husband’s endeavors in the arts. Mary passed away in 2005 and was buried by John Helm’s side in Sunset Cemetery, Manhattan.

[Editor’s note. For more information about Mary and John Helm, please see the article on the Mary B. Helm Works Examination Room in this publication.]

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Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at 25: People and Spaces by Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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