The rough textures of heavy timber and brick walls commonly found in a warehouse present a striking contrast to the refined and refinished modern art gallery interior of Fargo’s Plains Art Museum.
What began as the Red River Art Center in the mid-1960s in the former Moorhead, Minnesota, post office became the Plains Art Museum in 1975. The museum acquired Fargo’s International Harvester warehouse building at 704 First Avenue North in 1994. After intense renovation, it moved into its new home in 1997 and now combines elements of the original warehouse and a modern museum.
Plains Art Museum relocated to downtown Fargo before the area’s “renaissance.” In the decade since the museum made downtown its home, the area has come back to life. Shops, restaurants, offices and the North Dakota State University’s College of Art, Architecture, and Landscape Architecture now surround the museum.
“The decision to locate there long ago has really been the impetus for bringing downtown Fargo back into focus,” says Roger Reierson, the museum’s capital campaign chair and owner of Flint Communications in Fargo. “The Plains Art Museum is a great piece to have downtown and was the start of making downtown a little more of a cultural center than it might have been in the past.”
Dave Anderson, president of the Downtown Community Partnership, agrees with Reierson.“I specifically consider our Plains Art Museum to be one of the essential catalysts for downtown’s expanding renaissance,” he says.“Many now almost take for granted the vigor of our downtown’s growth, but a lonely decision was made in the mid-1990s to locate the museum there. It transformed a pigeon-infested warehouse located in a declining, directionless part of the city into what would be widely recognized as a shining jewel in our revitalized downtown’s crown.”
Better facilities that came with the Museum’s new home, including enhanced climate control in the galleries, allowed for the Museum to expand its permanent collection and to earn accreditation by the American Association of Museums. Plains Art Museum and the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck are the only two museums in the state and among only 750 museums in the country that are accredited by the AAM.
The Museum’s permanent collection now contains approximately 3,000 works, including national and regional contemporary art, traditional American Indian art and traditional folk art. Its accreditation also allows for the museum to show major exhibitions from around the world and to attract art collectors who wish to donate their art. “We are currently working with several collectors interested in donating their art to the museum,” says Rusty Freeman, vice president of curatorial at the museum. “Pending acquisitions of Inuit art from Dr. Ronald Olin and photography by Wayne Gudmundson, the museum’s collection is positioned to share the rich artistic legacy of our region with visitors now and in the future.”
Olin is a retired Fargo physician, whose collection of Inuit sculpture and decorative art made of such materials as soapstone, deer hide and other organic material, will significantly expand the museum’s collection. An exhibit of Gudmundson’s North Dakota photographs is now showing at the museum into January.
Among the regional artists whose works have found a home at the museum are Star Wallowing Bull, a Minneapolis native who incorporates historical events, popular culture icons and personal events into elaborate color pencil drawings; Walter Piehl, a Marion, North Dakota, native who has been an art professor at Minot State University since 1970, and who is best known for his expressionistic Western theme paintings; and David Bradley, who grew up in Minneapolis and the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in Chippewa, Minnesota, and whose work presents political messages concerning American Indians.
The nationally known artists in the collection include works by Mary Cassatt, one of the most celebrated American artists who was instrumental in promoting the spread of impressionist art to the United States; Luis Jiminez, the southwestern sculptor whose “Sodbuster” sculpture was displayed in Fargo for many years, and who paid homage to the strength and determination of farmers; Fritz Scholder, who spent much of his childhood in Wahpeton, is considered one of the most celebrated artists from the Midwest and is known for his untraditional depiction of American Indians; William Wegman, who is best known for his whimsical photographs of Weimaraner dogs; and Grand Forks native James Rosenquist, who is playing a prominent part in the museum’s current expansion plans.
Collecting the 3,000 artworks is only part of the work at the museum, says the museum’s president and chief executive officer Edward E. Pauley. “As an accredited museum, we have the staff, expertise and resources to preserve the art in our collection. This includes storage and care areas and interpreting the collections.”
Either curators from elsewhere interpret the art the museum receives from visiting exhibitions, or Plains Art Museum curators interpret the art from its own exhibitions. In the case of exhibitions produced at the museum, the interpretation begins with the exhibition curator, who reviews and assembles the work and writes about it and the artist. Interpretation continues with the art educators at the museum who prepare additional information and present it through classes, tours and publications, which can include highly researched and beautifully produced catalogs as large as 100 pages.
To strengthen the region’s pride in the museum, Plains Art Museum commissioned Rosenquist to paint a mural depicting the plains region and to be a cornerstone of the museum’s permanent collection. The 13-foot-by-21-foot mural will be exhibited on the museum’s two-and-a-half-stories-high Ruth and Seymour Landfield Atrium wall.
Rosenquist is credited with being one of the five most important painters of the Pop Art movement and is known for his billboard-like paintings. “James Rosenquist is one of America’s most celebrated artists, an American pop artist,” says Pauley. “His mural will celebrate our region and be an icon for our state. And we’re not talking so much about the past as about where we are heading in the future.”
The museum expects the mural to be completed in the next two years.
In addition to its galleries, the museum draws the public to its building for wedding receptions, holiday parties, meetings, graduations, birthday parties, corporate functions and conferences and seminars. Its store sells hand-made items and work from local and regional artists.And, its Café Muse is a partnership between the museum and chefs Sara and Eric Watson of Mosaic Foods.In addition to its wide variety of foods, the Watsons conduct cooking classes and demonstrations. Mosiac Foods has been accredited by the American Culinary Federation, which means its cooks can be apprentices who can complete requirements there to become “Certified Culinarians,” the equivalent of a degree from the Culinary Institute of America or a similar institution. Those closest to the museum believe the strength of the arts in Fargo-Moorhead benefits North Dakota as a whole. “A strong presence of art in a region can increase its attractiveness to visitors and future residents,” says Jon Offutt, Fargo glass blower and founding mayor of New Bohemia North Dakota, a statewide organization of artists.“The arts facilitate the retention of North Dakota’s youth and strengthen the workforce through increased creativity.”
“In order to attract people to a community, you have to have to have activities that are worthwhile,” says Jan Webb, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts. “You have to have quality activities that residents can participate in, that students can participate in. You have to have a well-rounded lifestyle. Those are all things that attract people to come to the state.”
Mara Brust is a native of Fargo, and a senior at North Dakota State University, majoring in journalism.
For more information about Plains Art Museum call 701-232-3821, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.plainsart.org