Grand Forks museum's growing collection prompts expansion plans
Last month, $500,000 worth of African artwork arrived at the North Dakota Museum of Art on the UND campus in the back of a 17-foot U-Haul.
Museum Director Laurel Reuter and Associate Director Matthew Wallace had driven the truck across the country and through a snowstorm to bring back the gift from an art-dealer friend of the museum.
The museum's entire staff was waiting to help unload the truck.
"It was like Christmas," Reuter said. "Nobody could believe the gifts we brought back."
Now, the collection of more than 130 masks, sculptures, staffs and furniture are overflowing out of a back room, while she and her staff catalog each piece for the museum's permanent collection and secure additional storage space.
Reuter said the museum is considering its expansion options, which include moving to the 42nd Street art corridor and building an addition to the current building on campus.
Reuter said despite a lack of space, developing permanent collections is essential for the museum because they record ideas and expand the state's knowledge of other cultures.
"As the state museum, it's our mission to create a place where we grow as human beings," she said. "To bring the African art here is to open up a whole other world of understanding."
Much of the museum's collection came as gifts from artists, collectors and sponsors. From 2010 to 2013, the museum added more than $800,000 worth of art to its permanent collections, but it spent less than $100,000.
Reuter said the museum will "pay a dime on the dollar over as many years as it takes."
The new African collection was a gift from art dealer Thomas McNemar in Lexington, Va. He earlier donated more than 150 pieces from West and Central Africa worth about $200,000.
"We are highly dependent on gifts," Reuter said.
For some donors, the gifts are a kind of repayment.
Juan Manuel Echavarria, a Colombian artist, donated 20 pieces of artwork to the museum last year.
"He gave us these gifts in gratitude," Reuter said, adding that the museum helped introduce his name to the art world.
"When I was doing the big show 'The Disappeared,' I visited him in Bogota," she said. "I thought his art was just terrific, so I put it in the exhibition and did a separate solo show of his work."
The exhibition traveled to several important museums and really established his art career, she said. Echavarria remembered Reuter and invited her to his first opening in Europe, where he gave the museum artwork valued at $80,000.
"We have to get artists when they're young," Reuter said. "Often, we become an important first place for artists, and there are many artists who remember that."
Barton Benes is another artist who showed his appreciation of the museum through a donation. He died in 2012, leaving the museum his artwork and the contents of his New York City apartment, which includes a collection African, Egyptian and contemporary art worth more than $1 million.
Reuter has said that Benes always remembered the North Dakota museum for its willingness to display his artwork, which included his own HIV-positive blood, when no one else would.
Besides gifts, the museum also adds to its permanent collections by buying artwork on exhibit and commissioning artwork.
On occasion, Reuter and her staff members will drive across the country to haul gifts and special purchases back to the museum.
When Reuter visited McNemar to get more African artwork, she said she planned to rent a hatchback but soon realized she would need a far bigger vehicle.
"I called Matt (Wallace) and said I'm going to fly you down," she said. They rented a U-Haul and spent the next couple days taking turns behind the wheel, she said.
Wallace said the truck was absolutely packed, and he worried about damaging the art along the drive.
"We stayed below the storm all the way to Omaha, and then we turned north and hit the slippery roads," Reuter said. "In Omaha, the roads were very bumpy."
The artwork was packed carefully into the trailer with bubble wrap and cardboard boxes, but Wallace and Reuter were still nervous with every bump. Reuter said they also had to be careful where they parked overnight because the trailer's locks can be snipped.
"All of that is very worrisome," she said. And, many times they aren't aware of any damage until it's in the museum. On one occasion, Reuter said a crate was dropped about a foot from the ground during the delivery of a glass exhibition. The crate held the middle panels of every mural, and the entire exhibition was ruined.
There was an insurance settlement, but Reuter said, "That was the worst thing that's ever happened."
They managed to deliver McNemar's gift without damage.
Forced to expand
After all the pieces were photographed, they were brought to the basement of the museum, where they'll be stored temporarily.
The museum rents storage space in buildings throughout Grand Forks. They also have a 40-by-80 foot steel building at the McCanna House in McCanna, N.D. But, it isn't enough.
With the collections constantly growing, Reuter said they are being forced to do something about it.
"We go round and round in our minds about our location on campus," she said. "The location is obscure and hard to find, and there's no parking space and expansion space... and yet I really find an obligation to be near campus."
Reuter's dilemma is the students, who she believes need to grow up with a more humanistic background.
"The question is would they travel if we moved off campus," she said.
Whatever the decision, the museum will continue to grow its permanent collection because, she said, it is the "touch tone to history and the ideas that came before."
She added that the new gifts will be shown in a future exhibition with work by contemporary African artists to give visitors a sense of how the world today has changed, as well as a view of the continuity from generation to generation.
"All contemporary art need to be put in a richer perspective," she said. "That's what I think is the most important part of why you collect art."
"(In a history museum) you're getting the history that objects carry," she said. "In art museums, you're also getting the ideas that the artwork carries and the ideas that were held by generations before us."
To visit the museum: The museum at 261 Centennial Drive on the UND campus 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 5 p.m. weekends. The African artwork is not scheduled for exhibition, but visitors can view Barton's place and artwork for the Feb. 1 silent auction.
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