Museum curator makes art education part of the Manhattan community

Kathrine Walker Schlageck is the associate curator of education for Beach Museum of Art on K-State’s Manhattan campus. Schlageck has worked at the museum since it opened in 1996 and has been recognized for her commitment to integrating art and STEM through educational opportunities. (Kaylie McLaughlin | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Kevin Wanklyn’s name was misspelled. The Collegian regrets this error.

Twenty-six years ago, a young woman left her museum career on the east coast to become a part of Manhattan history. She joined the staff at the Beach Museum of Art before its opening on Oct. 13, 1996, and has advocated for art education in the area ever since.

Katherine Schlageck, associate curator of education, never really saw herself returning to the Midwest to settle down, but the prospect of creating something from scratch appealed to her.

“The idea of being in on the ground floor of a project and really building an education department that I totally believed in, using interactive ideas and stuff like that,” Schlageck said, “…it was a chance to really build a vibrant program for an art museum.”

Schlageck arrived in January 1995 and began building a burgeoning art education program that 26 years later resonates with museum-goers, campus and the local community.

However, working in a museum was not something Schlageck considered when she majored in history at Stanford University in the mid-eighties. Though museums were always a part of her life, she thought working in one was not a practical way to make a living; however, her perspective changed her junior year of college when she worked in Washington, D.C., for Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum.

A tour of the Capitol opened Schlageck’s eyes to museum work as something practical when she saw the art curated by Clement Conger in the staterooms. The experience stuck in the back of her brain and planted the seed for an idea that continued to flourish her senior year of college.

The idea became a reality when she went home for Christmas break her senior year.

“I think my father sort of sensed that I was lost a bit and I was a history major, so I started thinking, ‘well, maybe I’ll go into the education program and get my master’s in education,’” Schlageck said. “He said, ‘If you could do anything you wanted to do and didn’t have to be practical about it, what would you do?’ And I said, ‘work in a museum,’ and he said, ‘well, then do that.’”

Two years later, she graduated from the College of William and Mary with a master’s in museum studies and began her career.

After graduation, Schlageck accepted a position at the Nantucket Historical Association creating educational programs for the Nantucket schools. Her following positions focused on education and fostered her passion for objects.

“I think by that time, what I really understood about myself is I loved objects, but the reason that they were important to me was what I could share with people and make connections,” Schlageck said.

Making connections between people and artworks became a reality when she accepted a position in Connecticut that had both an art collection and a historical objects collection. The constantly-changing exhibits excited her and ignited her passion for working with art. Her experience there eventually led her to the Beach Museum because she enjoyed the challenge of constantly creating something new for people.

The Beach Museum’s art education programming is Schlageck’s brainchild, but its growth and sustainability developed with help from a cadre of others — student workers, volunteers, other professional education staff and her team.

Kim Richards, an education assistant, started at the museum in 2004 as a docent. Over the years, the two have worked closely to develop art education programs.

Richards said Schlageck is supportive no matter how busy she is during the day and works on helping her team develop their ideas and make them work.

“There’s always just this bouncing and this feedback,” Richards said. “She’s kind of there; we bounce in-and-out, and she keeps us organized and always busy. She’s always supporting and fostering the new ideas.”

Schlageck also values ideas presented by students who work or volunteer at the museum and provides them with growth opportunities.

Former student Rachel Lord, who worked at the museum when she was studying for her bachelor’s in fine arts, said Schlageck offered her an opportunity to teach in the Young Artists program. That opportunity changed her life.

“The role she played in my life during that two months was really pivotal to me cause before I always thought ‘I’m just gonna be an artist,’ gonna paint, you know, sell, all those types of things,” Lord said. “But when I started teaching in the classroom, it just like opened a whole new thought in my head and doors opened, and I got really passionate about it … I probably wouldn’t even have that thought to this day if it wasn’t for Kathrine offering me that position.”

Other people in her life also notice Schlageck’s generous spirit and her willingness to reach out to provide support or recognize the strengths and talents of those she meets.

“She just takes everything to the next level,” Smith said. “She wants [you] to know you are seen that you are recognized [and] that what you are doing makes a difference. And having that quality in both a friend and a colleague has just been really phenomenal over the years.”

Kevin Wanklyn, teaching associate professor for nuclear engineering, whose children Lilla and Jonah attend the art education programs, agrees Schlageck’s interest in others is genuine.

Wanklyn said Schlageck greets him whenever they cross paths in Dillons.

“She would see me, and she would say, ‘Hey, say hi to Jonah and Lilla,’” Wanklyn said. “This is not a job for her. It seems like it’s a passion for her, and she wants to keep connecting to people. It’s not like, ‘Well, I’m not in my Beach Museum, I’m not wearing my Beach Museum hat, so I’m sorry, uh, you’re not part of my life here,’ She brings it all together and tries to make you feel like you’re part of her orbit or existence wherever you are.”

Richards said Schlageck’s openness and generosity with her time, support and resources amazes her.

“She’s just been a great mentor,” Richards said. “And I’m just always amazed at her graciousness with sharing all these things.”

However, Schlageck’s generosity reaches beyond the museum. She leads Monday sessions at the Flint Hills Summer Fun Camp for children on the autism spectrum, developed an online art program for childcare workers and does extensive outreach in the local schools.

Courtney Smith, art teacher for USD 383 and K-State alumna, said Schlageck is a “phenomenal” resource for USD 383 art educators.

“I’ve had her for like three years, not since COVID, but for three years in a row she would pick a day and she would come teach my classes all day long,” Smith said. “She’d be like, ‘What grades do you have? Okay, I’ll bring some stuff. Do you want to do this? Does this sound fun? Have you ever done this?’ And she just brings all the supplies, and we team-teach together, and the kids make the connection because they’ve seen her at the museum.”

Schlageck strives to make connections in everything she does for the museum, and the people aspect of her position is key to her job enjoyment.

“I guess what makes me feel good is when I can help somebody see something new or understand something a little bit differently,” Schlageck said. “I like to share those experiences with people.”

Schlageck shares art experiences with a wide range of campus and local community members.

“I think one of the wonderful things about this museum is there’s really a place for everybody,” Schlageck said. “We kind of joke in my department that we work with ages 2 to 102.”

Serving such a wide range of museum-goers makes her job challenging, exciting and busy.

Richards said Schlageck is constantly busy and works on a variety of projects at once. Most days, she is already in her office for a couple of hours before Richards even arrives.

Juggling meetings, exhibits, classes, tours for the current semester, Schlageck also spends her days working on projects six to nine months in the future.

“There’s always just this cacophony of just activity happening around her, and I do my best to dive in and keep up,” Richards said. “I told someone the other day that I just feed off the energy from her turbine. I mean, she’s just constantly going.”

Schlageck’s busy pace extends outside of the museum walls into her personal life. Outside of work, she said she enjoys cooking, reading, gardening, “stopping and starting” various creative projects and listening to music. She likes to experiment in the kitchen and enjoys making up dishes and trying new dishes.

“The only thing, I’m not the best baker in the world,” Schlageck said. “I have to follow directions too carefully. I want to add other stuff and sometimes that doesn’t work.”

However, mixing disparate components for a recipe that works is part of what makes Schlageck so good at her job. Her collaborations with outside entities provide a mix of experiences for museum-goers and give them a taste of something new and rich.

“The last 10 years of the museum has really been focused on this idea of collaboration and … really being a part of the community, whether it’s the university community or the Manhattan community,” Schlageck said.

The Dan and Beth Bird Arch is a symbol of the museum’s ongoing dedication to community engagement.

“The idea of that arch was to really create a gateway, right on the corner of campus,” Schlageck said, “and so the idea was to have that gateway to be that place where the community and campus connect. It took some time, but I think we really do that well, and I think that’s kind of a neat thing about us and maybe makes us different from other university art museums.”

Schlageck said living in Manhattan for the last 26 years has given her a chance to see the museum integrate itself into the community vernacular, and is impressed by the connection between the museum, the campus and the local community.

“At this point, I think Manhattan would feel really weird without the museum,” Schlageck said.

The museum, like Schlageck, is not going away anytime soon. With a son starting medical school, she said retirement is not on the horizon.

“Sooner or later, I will have to leave,” Schlageck said. “I still have plenty of ideas to work on, so I’m not ready yet.”