Treasures in the Vault-20 Years at the National Museum of Wildlife Art
By Tammy Christel
“May it long serve those…in search of the wild, the natural, the forgotten, and the serene.” – Bill Kerr
Twenty years ago next May, a vision became reality. Twenty years ago next May, Bill and Joffa Kerr, and a handful of committed friends, opened a small museum now known as the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Standing on the threshold of twenty years, it seems right to talk about our museum’s history, and to look forward. I sat down with Chairman Emeritus Bill Kerr, Curator of Art Adam Harris, Chief Preparator Ron Gessler, and Sugden Family Curator of Education Jane Lavino to do just that. The following interview was filmed, and is now a part of the Museum’s archives.
Tammy Christel: Bill, tell us about the museum’s first days, and how you began this journey.
Bill Kerr: Our group was the most naïve group of friends you could imagine. You build it and they will come! Well, it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. But, we kicked things off with a collection from Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. Most of the art came up from Oklahoma City in the spring of ’87. We housed it in Marion Buchenroth’s garage!
BK: Yes, and it turns out that insurance value on the original borrowed art was five times the insurance value of our museum’s contents.
Adam Harris (laughing): You had the original 280 pieces, that were our museum core, and then you borrow 20 Moran sketches from the Gilcrease!
TC: Did you realize you were establishing a new genre?
BK: Joffa and I were excited. It had been a 25-year passion for us. I believe the other folks just liked the idea of trying to give something back to the community. We wanted to represent Jackson’s character, culture, and location.
AH: Our original name was “Wildlife of the American West.” How did the change of museum titles affect you and the exhibits?
BK: The original building was only 5,000 sq. feet, so there were natural obstacles to large exhibits; and therefore we were restrained in the number of topics we could address. In the old space, art was devoted only to mammalian subject matter. In the new space, we could include avians and aquatics. We could look more comprehensively—to Europe, for instance—for our exhibit.
And we have iconic objects. Robert Bateman’s “Chief” is among them, consistently capturing visitors’ imaginations. The bison was the 19th century symbol for the U.S., the most documented animal in the Trans-Mississippi West.
AH: It is iconic. It became so after 1900, when most bison had been decimated from the plains. We have a collection focused on the American bison. The sheer size of Bateman’s canvas is incredibly powerful.
TC: Adam, how will “Treasures from the Vault” be different than previous exhibits?
AH: I think it is very different. Inevitably, I am drawn to certain pieces, that illustrate a certain point well, and those are the works that end up making it into the galleries. This challenges me to look at pieces I haven’t for a long while, to think about them more carefully.
The tough part will be giving them coherence, so the collection doesn’t seem random. And that is the fun, seeing how different time periods and artists speak to each other.
The inspiration for “Treasures” is a piece of illustration art portraying a woman in an elegant 1920’s evening gown. She’s leading a black panther on a leash, and the panther is wearing a huge diamond collar. That’s a real Treasure from the Vault, and it’s never been out. We have Rungius paintings that have never been out. All stylistic periods will be represented in this show. We have very old bird stones. A Bierstadt caribou. There are unseen many works on paper, difficult to manage; and we’ll be rotating works in and out of the exhibit throughout the year.
BK: In the late 30’s Carl and Louise Rungius went to Hawaii. We have many works from that trip, and they are a totally different palette than Rungius used in Wyoming or Canada. He was two different artists in Alberta and Hawaii.
TC: Speaking of found treasures, there are some great stories about the Clymer Studio exhibit.
Ron Gessler: The exhibit began in an effort to make space. We had so many Clymer items that hadn’t made it out to the floor. Dan Provo, Doris Clymer, David Clymer and other staff set up the studio. Friends would look at the studio exhibit as it was and their first comment was, “It’s too neat! It’s not messy enough!”
Pouring over the old pictures of the original photographs of the original Clymer studio, I saw things we still had in storage. But the exhibit was sacrosanct.
I found a filing cabinet—all the clippings in it were in archival boxes—taking up a whole shelf in sculpture storage. We figured we could put that cabinet behind the Clymer desk; use it as a place to stack things.
I pulled out a file drawer, and there’s color in there! So we pull out the rest of the drawers. It had no sides, and John used what was convenient to close it up—two masonite panels. On those panels were paintings. Judging from the signature, they probably date from the mid-30’s. So here were paintings on the inside of a filing cabinet we’d known nothing of! And now they’re on display.
We’ve made numerous discoveries—a sketch box was simply cataloged. We opened it up, and there are four sketches in various degrees of completion inside! Now those are on display.
We’ve looked under almost every stone, and I think we’ve found all the Clymer treasures. We feel we know John and Doris; we dig through their stuff all the time!
Jane Lavino: There’s trivia that’s taken for granted. Like moving large pieces of art. Take the totem—it had to be lowered through the skylight! It wasn’t finished, and when we opened, there was just a steel support beam there. We had one education program that year when kids came up to study totems, and they each made, out of paper mache, a totem section. So the first totem there was actually one that local kids created.
Part of the culture of creating a totem is that you do it with one continuous tree trunk. Ours is 24 feet high. It arrived on a flat bed, a crane was hired to lift it and angle it over the roof. The skylight was removed and the piece was lowered right into the spot. The artist conducted a smudge pot ceremony, and there was concern over smoke damage and fire alarms. Our head of security didn’t sleep for a few nights, and said all he could envision was a giant totem coming loose on the new building!
RG: By the time they were ready for the crane to pick up the totem, it was getting dark. We had flashlights on it. At one point, when the totem was over the skylight opening, it was totally illuminated. That spectacle stopped traffic. All they could see was this giant, lit totem floating over the museum!
BK: Photography was not on the radar when we opened. Since our first photo exhibit, “The White Wolf,” it has become an important component for us, an integral part of our schedule. That also occurred with Junior Duck Stamp.
JL: One reason I think Junior Duck is so important is that it approaches students who may become the next great wildlife artists. We recognize them with an exhibition, and the art travels around the state. It encourages kids interested in wildlife art to continue. The award celebration affords a chance to meet other kids with the same interests, and see other renditions of Duck Stamp art. It is a great way to talk about how art can be a conservation tool, more than just a pretty picture to hang on the wall. Its success may partly be because we are an art museum, and art teachers see it as being a valuable art curriculum entry. Most state programs are run by other agencies that aren’t art oriented; through us, this is an art curriculum tool, rather than a science curriculum tool.
TC: What about the future?
JL: We want to continue to introduce school children to museums. For many school children in this region, whether they participate in Jr. Duck or other programs, it is their first experience. We want to do programs atypical of things we’ve done in the past. For example, the two dance programs we’ve done, where dancers come and choreograph around our collection; and the building inspires them. The dance moves through the museum. We are bringing in experimental filmmakers. More and more we’ll be thinking of ways to capture audiences that aren’t typical. We want to do something very different.
AH: Bill, what are our next art frontiers?
BK: Is there wildlife art in outer space? Seriously, the next region we should look to is the Asian subcontinent—India and China. In those cultures, wildlife has been thematic from the time mankind began creating art. The polar bear is represented around the world, in Russia and Scandinavia as well as in Alaska and the Arctic. So our challenge will be to keep learning, and to seek out cultures that portray wildlife.
Adam harbors a secret desire for a Roy Liechtenstein. We’re not sure if he did any wildlife art, but we’re researching it.