Downing's challenge gift seeks to make WSU a magnet for Gordon Parks research

Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at WSU, inspects photographs from the Gordon Parks collection.
Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at WSU, inspects photographs from the Gordon Parks collection.

Wichita philanthropists Paula and Barry Downing have pledged a challenge gift of $150,000 to help Wichita State University expand its Gordon Parks archive, creating what would become a leading repository for the works of the Kansan artist, filmmaker, poet and composer.

   The pledge requires matching donations to make the acquisition of more of Parks’ work a reality, said Elizabeth King, WSU Foundation president and CEO. It kicks off a fundraising campaign to secure the remaining funds.

   “We know that many admirers of Gordon Parks support this effort to make Wichita State an international center for study and research on his life,” King said. “It’s our hope that this challenge gift from Paula and Barry Downing will motivate people to make their own gifts. That kind of generosity is absolutely essential to move this campaign forward.”

   Bob Workman, director of the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State, noted that support from the Downings also made possible the Asmat Collection at the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at WSU.

“Generosity like this has great impact.”

- Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at WSU

   “Once again, they seek to bring to campus a key resource that would set Wichita State apart from its peer institutions,” Workman said. “Generosity like this has great impact.”

   Well known as the director of the films “Shaft” and “Leadbelly,” Parks’ career began as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. His work for Vogue and Life magazines made him the first African-American photographer to have an international audience. Parks returned to his native Kansas to produce photo essays for Life and to shoot his autobiographical film, “The Learning Tree.”

   Under the leadership of Ted Ayres, WSU general counsel, the Ablah Library at Wichita State acquired the artist’s papers from The Gordon Parks Foundation in 2008. Additionally, Wichita State has acquired about 45 of Parks’ photographs from a variety of sources. The Downings hope their gift will make a comprehensive collection of the artist’s work possible.

   “They’ve already made a great start with the Gordon Parks collection of papers at Ablah Library, which is a great resource,” said Paula Downing, “Adding to the university’s collection will be a tremendous step forward in securing our position as an important authority on his life and art.”

   The couple admires Parks’ photography, she said.

   “You can’t look at his work without being moved, either with joy, sadness or awe. The fact that he’s a Kansan is even more reason to treasure his work and to honor his life, which was full of remarkable achievements.”

   It is all of those achievements — in film, books, music, poetry and photographs — that have inspired Ayres to help achieve the university’s vision. He lauded the Downings for their contribution.

   “Over the years, they have done so much to improve and enhance the life of Wichitans through their philanthropy,” he said. “It is particularly gratifying to me that they recognize and appreciate the genius of Gordon Parks and the amazing life and career of this native Kansan.”

   Workman said he shares the passion that his predecessor at the Ulrich, Patricia McDonnell, had for Parks’ work.

   “I am delighted to be developing a comprehensive approach to fully represent Parks at WSU,” he said. “This is the kind of experience all art historians crave, to see so much great work by one artist across their entire lifetime, all at once.”

   If the fundraising campaign is successful, Workman said, the Ulrich museum and Ablah Library’s Special Collections department will boast a comprehensive overview of Parks’ artistic career, making the collection at Wichita State one of the most significant in the world.

   “The substantial expansion of the Ulrich’s Gordon Parks holdings would directly support the value of the Gordon Parks Papers in Special Collections,” he said. “All serious Parks researchers would draw from these two collections at WSU going forward.”

   Paula Downing said she hopes the couple’s gift helps draw attention to the university’s efforts.

   “We would be thrilled if others who admire and appreciate the work of Gordon Parks would support this effort,” she said. “Our hope is to inspire other contributions that will advance this cause, while also creating a truly impressive collection that WSU students and visitors to the Ulrich will enjoy and benefit from for many years to come.”


circle arrow If you would like to help Wichita State build its collection of Gordon Parks photography, please contact Diana Gordon, WSU Foundation director of development for the College of Fine Arts, at 316-978-7307 or at

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