THE NEW WEST: Creativity That Fosters Conservation

By on April 25, 2017

An impending anniversary should remind locals of the art hub sitting in their backyard.

‘We are in an amazing era of worldwide concern for the earth.’ (Photo: NMWA)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As Greater Yellowstonians, there is much we take for granted, especially if one has never dwelled beyond the provincial bubble. We often forget that 99 percent of the rest of humanity does not have it as good as we do here.

Wealthy or poor, few remain against their will, which is not to say there isn’t a lot of suffering and material inequality going on.

But in so many ways we’re spoiled by an abundance of riches. Figuratively, just beyond the backdoor, are Yellowstone and Grand Teton, crown jewel national parks; framing them an equally-inspiring tapestry of national forests and wildlife sanctuaries; rising above, breathtaking peaks, and below, unmarred pastoral river valleys; between, a flow of migratory native animals, from bears and wolves to elk, bison and pronghorn, moving across the landscape unlike anywhere else in the Lower 48.

The vast majority of the 22.5-million-acre ecosystem belongs to us, held in trust, as citizens. The rest, huge expanses of it, belongs to private ranchers and other entities, many of whom know they play pivotal roles in keeping the wildness of Greater Yellowstone intact.

But this is a column about another kind of national treasure, often overlooked, not only by the people dwelling here permanently but millions of travelers coming to snatch glimpses of lobos, grizzlies and geysers. World-class museums—we have a surprising diversity of them too.

Over in Cody, there’s the Buffalo Bill Center of the West complex holding the Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, and the Draper Museum of Natural History; in Bozeman, the Museum of the Rockies with its astonishing trove of dinosaur bones and paleontological exhibits; in Billings, Montana, the Yellowstone Art Museum; and, nearby in Big Horn, Wyoming, the Brinton Museum.

Yet in a class by itself is the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole. As many readers know, I’ve written extensively about “nature art” for three decades. And, on several occasions, have explored the role of art in advancing the cause of conservation.

Were it not for Thomas Moran’s paintings and William Henry Jackson’s photographs, displayed for lawmakers to see on Capitol Hill, Yellowstone, America’s first national park, might never had been set aside in 1872.

While some in the academic Ivory Tower evince a patronizing attitude toward “wildlife art”—equating it to bad duck and deer paintings—in fact it’s been subject matter explored throughout human history and reflects an evolution in thinking about our species’ place in the natural world that sustains us.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art, which on May 16 officially commences its 30th anniversary festivities with a public get-together, is the only museum of its kind in the world, unsurpassed in its assets much like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are.

It still astounds me how little Greater Yellowstonians actually know about the museum, including the fact that people around the world make pilgrimages just to see the art, its collection including pieces by some of the most famous painters and sculptors who ever lived.

A great thrill has been watching it attain global distinction, moving from its original location along the Town Square to its striking edifice north of town whose architecture is equal parts ancient cliff dwelling and old-world Scottish castle.

In a world otherwise dominated by digital distractions and throngs of summer crowds, the museum is a cathedral of quiet peaceful reprieve where you’ll find priceless, historically-significant paintings and sculpture worthy of display at any fine art museum in the world, including the Louvre in Paris.

Just how relevant is wildlife art?

“Wildlife art is embedded in this zeitgeist of this ecological age. Artists today are doing all kinds of things using animal imagery. It doesn’t have to be a naturalistic portrayal,” says museum curator Adam Harris. “You can make a political point or engage in humorous satire. Or it can make people think about our own role and what we’re doing to nature and the environment. We are in an amazing era right now of worldwide concern for the earth. You see it being expressed in a multitude of ways.”

This summer, two new exhibitions open: one features pop art portrayals of endangered species by Andy Warhol. Another is titled, “Exploring Wildlife Art” and features pieces in the museum’s permanent collection dating from 2500 BC to the present. You’ll be able to savor works by Carl Rungius (considered the best painter of North American megafauna who ever lived) to pieces by Thomas Moran, Robert Bateman, John James Audubon and Georgia O’Keeffe.

There is no such thing as a bad day at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. In fact, if you’re having a bad day and need an escape, there’s a guarantee you’ll find solace and come home inspired by depictions of nature that have left others spellbound across the ages. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning New West column for nearly 30 years. It appears weekly in Planet Jackson Hole. He is author of the recent award-winning book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Grizzly of Greater Yellowstone, featuring photographs by Jackson Hole’s Thomas D. Mangelsen. Special autographed copies are only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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