‘Open Prairie’ — $500,000 public artwork unveiled at new Johnson County Courthouse

After four years of planning and construction — and having recently reached “substantial completion” after 26 months — officials unveiled a $500,000 piece of public art inside the new Johnson County Courthouse in downtown Olathe Wednesday.

The work, entitled “Open Prairie,” hangs in the entryway of the new $193 million courthouse at 150 West Santa Fe Street. Larry Meeker, chairman of the county’s public art commission, said the piece allows each individual who walks beneath it to bring their own story and background to it.

“Even the people who work here are in conversation about how do we maintain a better and just society,” Meeker said. “Conversations are part of what this inspires us as a piece of artwork. I think it’s very much in sync with what we’re trying to accomplish with the building.”

“Open Prairie” is a chandelier-like structure made of 5,400 tiny strands of material similar to that of keychain links, Meeker said. The links are made of colors drawn from landscape painters of years past who used to depict the Midwest, he said.

A selection panel narrowed down from 130 applications a handful of artists for the courthouse public art project, Meeker said.

Benjamin Ball, the artist who created “Open Prairie,” worked closely with the courthouse’s architect and chose the entryway for his commission, Meeker said.

“We spend extra money building our public buildings, landscaping around them so that they establish a sense of why they’re there, and our values underpinning those institutions,” Meeker said. “I think the county has done a phenomenal job of establishing its values through what they have done with this building, with the landscaping and with this public art in the entryway.”

Dan Wehmueller, project manager of Johnson County Facilities management, said the county is excited to have “Open Prairie” as a component of the courthouse. He said it was a new approach for the county to bring Ball in early to integrate his work with the architect’s designs for the building itself.

Wehmueller said the 356,000-square-foot facility is intended to serve the county for at least the next 75 years, and possibly longer. All of the issues in the existing courthouse, including complaints about air circulation and lack of ADA accessibility, have been fully resolved in the new design, he said.

The new courthouse includes 28 court rooms, with room to grow to 36, and can hold up to 40 judges, Wehmueller said.

The new courthouse is set to open to the public on Jan. 4, 2021, and Wehmueller said he hopes the taxpayer-funded project can serve the community for generations to come.

“We’re excited to open the doors after this four-year period and show them what they got,” Wehmueller said. “I think they got good value for their dollar, and should be very pleased and excited. Even if they don’t have to use this amenity, it’s for the betterment of the entire community.”