Aiming to temper speculation, SMSD security chief appears with ‘Utah Highlands’ painting

Shawnee Mission School District Director of Safety and Security appeared with "Utah Highlands" Friday.
Shawnee Mission School District Director of Safety and Security John Douglass appeared with “Utah Highlands” Friday.

Responding to mounting scrutiny in the days since a Kansas City Star article prompted speculation on the whereabouts of a Thomas Hart Benton painting given to SM North by its class of 1957, Shawnee Mission School District Director of Safety and Security John Douglass on Friday appeared at the McEachen Administration Center alongside the vibrantly colored “Utah Highlands” and said the district is working to find a partner to display the work for public view.

Noting that the painting’s appraised value of at least $700,000 in 2008 far exceeded the take from a typical bank robbery — $10,000 or less in most cases — Douglass said it was his opinion that the continued presence of the painting on the SM North campus would create an intolerable security threat.

“The value of this painting is 70 to 100 times greater than what you’d get in a bank,” he said. “It wasn’t but two weeks ago that four individuals armed entered a gun store a mile and a half from this location. The take in that robbery was $500. So, again, using common sense, the value of this painting creates a significant risk.”

Douglass noted that the painting had been in the district’s possession continuously since it was given as a gift by the class of 1957. After news of the painting’s high-value appraisal broke in 2008, SM North administrators removed it from publicly accessible view and stored it in a vault on the SM North campus. A replica took its place in the school library. The painting remained in the SM North vault until last week, when inquiries from the Star and other media outlets “created a level of curiosity and discussion bordering on a mystery.”

“And this, in fact, compromised our security plan both for the school and for the painting,” Douglass said.

At this point, the district is speaking to a handful of potential partners who would be able to provide the security necessary to display the work publicly. But, Douglass said, he has no timeline or comment on possible locations for the painting at this point. The painting will be held by the district at a location off the SM North campus until a public display space is identified.

Douglass also noted that the district is in the process of creating a comprehensive plan to secure all of its art — a point that may cause concern for northeast Johnson County residents hoping that the ten Thomas Hart Benton Grapes of Wrath lithographs in the SM East library remain on display.

Neither Douglass nor district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal knew the exact value of those lithographs, but Douglass noted they were “no where near the value” of “Utah Highlands.” Still, Neal wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a security plan for the district could require the lithographs to be relocated.

The lithographs, donated to SM East by the class of 1963, were remounted last year.

The district approved an insurance policy in May 2014 that included coverage for up to $1,213,467 in fine art losses. That policy included a $25,000 self-insured retention provision for the Benton work.

The landscape was painted in 1954 by Thomas Hart Benton, and publicly displayed at SM North from 1957 to 2008.
The landscape was painted in 1954 by Thomas Hart Benton, and publicly displayed at SM North from 1957 to 2008.