A s she walked across glossy oak floors, her path illuminated by high-hanging track lighting, Gerri Sayler absorbed the University of Wyoming Art Museum for the first time.
She was awed by the exhibits, struck by the architecture, amazed by the culture.
From her home in Moscow, Idaho, at about 2,580 feet above sea level, to Laramie, elevation 7,220, Sayler figured she may need to stop from time to time and catch her breath. She just didn’t think it would be the museum—and not the altitude—that would take her breath away.
“Talk about having your perceptions smashed to smithereens,” Sayler says with a laugh.
With some 7,000 objects in its core collection, from paintings of the American West to French art of the 1850s to 20th century Japanese carvings called Netsuke, the UW Art Museum is a cultural oasis on a wind-swept prairie of a state where folks don’t expect to find artwork similar to what they’d see at the country’s most outstanding museums. Then they get here.
“I hear all the time from people who come from other parts of the world and who routinely go to museums in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, all of the big cities,” says Susan Moldenhauer, the museum’s director and chief curator since 2002. “They come here and say, ‘This museum could be anywhere.’”
Less than 20 years ago, remarkably, most people— even in Laramie—didn’t know UW had its own art museum, let alone where to find it. Secluded in the basement of the Fine Arts Center, with many of its collections crammed inside a room that got smaller by the day, the UW Art Museum had little exhibition space, less visibility and but a sliver of the impact it does today.
It was 1991, and Moldenhauer, the art museum’s newest employee, needed to pull some works on paper from the collections room. She knew where to find them; she just wasn’t sure how to get to them. The lack of museum-quality storage space didn’t only complicate what should have been simple tasks but, five years earlier, cost UW its full accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM).
Moldenhauer recalls her struggle inside the collections room. “They were in flat files, the way they should have been stored, but the flat files were in a place that you couldn’t get to unless you pulled out the painting storage racks. Nothing was very accessible.”
She shakes her head and says, “And, of course, the more art we added, the less space we had, and things began spilling out into other places. That’s not a good thing for a museum.”
Things were soon to change. That year, UW broke ground on the museum’s new building in the Centennial Complex, an architecturally stimulating facility that would not only provide adequate means of preservation and nine exhibition galleries but raise the museum’s profile in Wyoming and across the United States.
“It gave the museum legitimacy. It was kind of a stepchild before that in the basement of the Fine Arts Center,” says Ann Simpson, a longtime supporter of the arts in Wyoming for whom the museum’s Artmobile is named.
The UW Art Museum moved across Willett Drive in 1993 to its current home, a cone-shaped building that, even today, remains among the most recognizable designs of internationally acclaimed architect Antoine Predock. Four years later, UW was accredited once again by the AAM.
Twenty-one years after James Boyle, then the university’s art department head, and James T. Forrest, an art history professor, opened the museum, UW finally had a space worthy of statewide, regional and national attention.
But the building itself couldn’t fulfill the museum’s mission of education through art. That was up to the people working inside.
After she became director, Moldenhauer hired Wendy Bredehoft, who, as curator of education, crafted a program to ensure that children learn but also have fun when they visit the museum. They were later joined by Nicole Crawford, the curator of collections, and Heather Bender, the master teacher who works hands-on with teachers and students.
The foursome, together, has accomplished a mission some 40 years in the making. The art museum has successfully grown its educational program beyond the Artmobile and the Touring Exhibition Service, both of which began in 1982, and, each day, welcomes multiple classes, ranging from preschool to college. There are also after-school and summer classes to increase young people’s exposure to art.
“When I was young, we’d do a museum tour and we’d get off the bus and run around for 30 or 45 minutes and then get back on the bus. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t really learn anything,” Moldenhauer says. “Here, we work with the teachers before the students come, find out where they are in their curriculum and what their goals are for their visit, and then we tailor the visit to meet those goals.
“Then, back in the classroom, the teachers can do follow-up activities based on what the students did here. It really becomes a deep learning activity that not only helps students learn about art and how to look at art but also helps teachers address their benchmark needs.”
To strengthen the museum’s outreach, Moldenhauer says there are plans to convert the unused restaurant and kitchen area in the building’s basement into a classroom and art studio.
The only existing studio for children, on the main level, was “built to accommodate 12 fourth-grade students. But we often have classes of 40 in here,” says Moldenhauer.
In addition to its vast offerings for children, UW’s art museum hosts a weeklong Teacher Institute in the summer to aid the professional development of Wyoming teachers and recently launched a Faculty Teaching Institute designed to enable UW faculty across disciplines to integrate art into their teachings.
“Everything we do here focuses on education for people of all ages, through classes for students, the public art talks, the gallery tours and other activities,” Bredehoft says. “This is very much a place that’s about deep looking and deep learning to help people make connections to the world around them.”
Unlike many museums, which some times display permanent collections for decades, UW provides a new learning experience every few months.
“Here, we change every gallery at least three times a year, with the exception of our permanent collection space that we rotate every two years,” Moldenhauer says.
It’s also the only way UW can show off the incredible diversity of its collection, which includes works on paper, paintings, drawings, sculptures, crafts and decorative arts. In addition to strengths in American, European and Haitian art, the UW museum also boasts rare pieces from Native American, Japanese and Persian collections.
Two of the museum’s most recent additions are among its finest.
UW was one of just two places in the Cowboy State chosen to receive 150 original photos by Andy Warhol, considered by many as one of the leading figures in America’s visual arts movement.
Also, UW’s museum was the only one in the state selected by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to receive 50 works from New York collectors Dorothy and Herb Vogel, an acquisition Moldenhauer says “beautifully fills a void in our modern art collection.”
Then there are the art museum’s world-class exhibitions, such as Etsuko Ichikawa’s 2010 installation inspired by a waterfall in her native Japan. “I was stunned to see such a contemporary exhibit,” says Sayler, who will install her own contemporary work, Interstitial, this spring in the museum’s lobby. “I’d expect to see something like that in Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago. But not here, not smack dab in the middle of Wyoming!”
Yes, Wyoming. Whether folks can believe it or not.
“We’re sort of like this unknown cultural gem out on the plains,” Bredehoft says. “We hear it all the time from our visitors, ‘Oh, my gosh, we had absolutely no idea!’”