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Reuter announces upcoming retirement, concluding 50-year career as North Dakota Museum of Art director

Laurel Reuter reflects on her unwavering dedication to the mission of building a "world-class museum for the people of the Northern Plains"

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North Dakota Museum of Art director Laurel Reuter and other leaders of art organizations are implementing creative ways to navigate some of the financial issues that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, has announced that she will retire after a 50-year career at the helm of the museum. She will retire when the current nationwide search for her replacement has been completed.

Reuter is concluding a career that began in a student art gallery in the Memorial Union, which was razed in the summer of 2019 to make way for construction of the new Memorial Union, and spans decades marked by extraordinary accomplishments in bringing art to people of all ages and backgrounds.

“I dedicated my life to creating a vibrant art world on the plains of eastern North Dakota,” she said in an announcement.

Over the course of her career, determined to see as much art as possible, she traveled across North America and Europe, and to South Africa, Japan, Tiananmen Square in China, South America and the far reaches of Canada and Iceland in search of exceptional art. Her goal was to introduce that art to her growing audience and the fledgling museum she would dedicate her life to building.

Her decision to retire wasn’t sudden, Reuter said, “but one I have been thinking about for some time. Age creeps in, and I didn’t want to overstay the good years for my body, my mind, our expanding audience, and the pleasure I take in my work.

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“There have been challenging, difficult years at times – always worrying about money – but great fun.”

The next director of the museum “must have a great eye, hard to define but based in visual language,” Reuter said. “I believe the museum is ready to take the next steps.”

She plans to assist the new director in any way that person wishes, she said, and “help with the transition in every way I can, even while stepping aside. I don’t want the museum to become a local art center.”

She is hopeful, she said, that the new director “has a curious and inquiring mind, can gracefully live through controversy and criticism, and is deeply steeped in art of all kinds, both past and present.”

The museum board must find a director “who is ‘in love with art,’ and capable of scattering that passion around like confetti,” she said. “He or she must also be a skilled manager, able to raise money, and comfortable with and respectful of our Upper Midwest audience. The new director and the trustees must understand that the North Dakota Museum of Art holds a significant seat at the larger art world table.”

Her first transitional goal “was to build a strong, experienced, decisive and capable staff, committed to the museum and the place: North Dakota and bordering Minnesota, both rural and urban,” she said. “I believe we have done that.”

Reservation roots

Reuter grew up in Tokio, N.D., a small village on the Spirit Lake Reservation. As a student at UND, she studied literature and enrolled in the few courses in art history offered at the time.

“I was just a kid in the English Department at the University of North Dakota when the director of the Student Union asked if I wanted a part-time job keeping a student gallery open on the top floor. It was there I began to think about space, installation, how does a gallery work. With full support from the union director and assistant director, I began.”

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In 1973, she appointed herself as director “and no one cared,” she recalled in the statement that outlined highlights of her career. “I remember it as an exciting time. With the help of my very small staff, we grew the Student Union gallery beyond our expectations.”

They organized solo exhibits featuring the works of celebrated artists, including Fritz Scholder, Ed Ruscha, David Gilhooly and N. Scott Momaday.

In 1989, along with a legion of friends, Reuter relocated the gallery to the former women’s gymnasium on the UND campus.

After the Flood ‘97, which devastated the Red River Valley region, the North Dakota Museum of Art became a place for community and church members to gather, and where recovery events were planned.

In 2002, Reuter organized the exhibition “Re-imagining New York,” highlighting artists who lost their studios in the terrorist attacks in 2001.

In 2004, she opened “The Disappeared,” an exhibition about those who vanished under military dictatorships and civil wars in South America. The exhibition toured to five locations in South and Central America and five sites in the U.S. It went on to win many prizes and recognitions, including being named one of NewsDay’s top 10 arts events in 2007 in New York City.

‘Priceless legacy’

Brian Larson, chairman of the North Dakota Museum of Art Board, said, “Laurel Reuter has given the people of North Dakota a priceless legacy. We will be forever indebted to her for her vision, courage, and leadership.”

The North Dakota Museum of Art Board of Trustees and the North Dakota Museum of Art Foundation, with Reuter’s support, has established the Laurel Reuter Director’s Fund, an investment fund focused on carrying out her vision and dedication to contemporary art on the Plains, Native American initiatives, commissions, publications, and the continued communication between museum audiences and supporters, as well as national and international artists.

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A collaborator and friend, Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Fort Totten, N.D., said, “Laurel has brought artists and artistry into the fold for the North Dakota Museum of Art and in doing so she has impacted lives.”

“She is a brilliant collaborator, partner with great insight and vision,” Lindquist said. “Laurel exemplifies and practices Dakota values of compassion, fortitude and generosity. She has always helped when asked and she does not seek the limelight but prefers to bring forward those who speak via art.”

In making her retirement announcement, Reuter referred to the museum’s mission, which states in part, “We have come to value the arts because they make our hearts wise – the highest of human goals,” she said.

“I will go forward knowing we have done this to the best of our abilities. I will depart the museum knowing I have left a fully capable staff entrenched in creating an environment dedicated to equal participation in the arts – be it camps for children, concerts for those who enjoy blues, folk or classical (music) or exhibitions not seen in this part of the world.”

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Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, walks through the museum recently during the closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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