Surrounded by cattle-flecked plains smack in the middle of America, Wichita generally has a reputation as a sleepy, middle-of-nowhere kind of place—even though it’s Kansas’s biggest city (population 382,000).
Its main industry is aircraft manufacturing—Boeing, Learjet, and Cessna all have operations here—while Koch Industries, known for funding right-wing causes, also calls it home. That means there’s money—but money tied to conservative priorities. With the exception of the Finn Lofts, and a Moshe Safdie–designed science museum, “there’s nothing even remotely progressive” about the city’s design scene, says architect Doug Stockman.But for creative people yearning for low rents and plenty of space, Wichita is a sleeper hit. The hub of the city’s budding art scene is the downtown collaborative Fisch Haus, a madcap studio-gallery-home in a 21,000-square-foot warehouse building, founded by four friends more than two decades ago. These days, with Fisch Haus as the centerpiece, the city holds an open-gallery night once a month. On a recent spring night, hundreds of visitors turned out, popping into over a dozen galleries within a ten-block radius to the soundtrack of a pork-pie-hatted three-piece band. “There are a lot of people who badmouth this town,” says Fisch Haus resident Elizabeth Stevenson, a native of Montreal who moved to Wichita over a decade ago after stumbling onto the city in the course of her worldwide travels. “But then they come here and humble pie is served.”