Grand Forks Herald
NDMOA DIRECTOR TALKS HER EXPERIENCE WITH THE ARTS
By Jasmine Maki
Friday, September 6, 2013
She’s traveled all over the world, showing exhibitions on almost every continent, working with artists from many different cultures, writing artists’ biographies and exploring the arts.
Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, became fascinated with art when she was a little girl, but she never planned to make it her life’s work.
After completing her undergraduate English degree at UND, Reuter began working toward a master’s degree in American literature. Ken Brandt, the head of the Student Union at the time, asked if she would like to keep a space open for small art exhibitions. Reuter accepted the offer and worked for minimum wage.
While working in the gallery, she began deeply immersing herself in the arts. She said she would intensely study a different aspect of art every couple of months, but it usually dealt with how a person sees and what seeing art is. Through her work at the gallery, she developed a better understanding of the craft and the industry.
“One day, I appointed myself director and nobody cared,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly a job anyone wanted.”
‘If it scared me, I did it’
After becoming the director of the small University Art Galleries, Reuter began spending all of her money on travel.
She had developed a lot of fear after a experiencing an early childhood trauma, and she felt she had fooled around too much in college that her education had suffered.
“I decided that I had to do something about the fear, and I had to do something about my lack of education, and so I began to travel all over the world by myself,” she said. “And if it scared me, I did it.”
She said she began studying textiles and used that as her way into different countries.
“When you learn textiles, you can learn the history, the culture, the people,” she said. “There’s so much of a country’s very essence in their textiles. I got such a great education that way.”
Ten years later, Reuter was touring exhibitions in Asia and the Far East. The first show she toured through all of Asia introduced contemporary American fiber artists into countries that had long traditions of textile histories.
In 1989, Reuter moved the gallery, which had been designated the North Dakota Museum of Art, to its present location, a transformed women’s gymnasium at 261 Centennial Drive, Grand Forks. Striving to be the best, small museum.
Moving the museum to its own location was important in establishing its identity within the community.
“I decided that I was going to make the best, small museum between Grand Forks and the Pacific,” she said. “Then, I went and looked at those museums, and I thought, well, that’s not much competition.”
So, Reuter set a new goal to be the best, small museum in America.
“I didn’t know that that would be impossible because we didn’t have access to collections nor the money to invest in collections,” she said.
She may have missed her mark, but Reuter said she’s always judged herself against her own work instead of other outside markers or critics. With the new building, Reuter realized she needed to start showing more important exhibitions but didn’t have the money to do so.
“Money was always an issue, and I never dreamed that it would still be an issue,” she said. “Every time I want to do something, I have to find the money.”
Although it was difficult finding funding for new exhibitions, Reuter never gave up. She said she believes you can always find new avenues, you just have to be open to new solutions.
Despite financial challenges, Reuter said from the beginning she’s always strived to have the best quality museum possible.
“One of my goals was always if a student spent four years and came to all of our exhibitions, maybe a few special events, they would leave the university with a pretty sophisticated understanding of the arts,” she said.
Reuter sees herself as a second generation pioneer who has helped establish the art community in North Dakota.
“When we started in the arts here, there was almost nothing here,” she said. “And, in the course of my lifetime here, I’ve seen the arts flourish, and they’re everywhere now.”
Reuter said young people now expect art in their lives, but that wasn’t the case when she was younger.
An early introduction to art
Reuter remembers a woman by the name of Berth Cutting from Boston coming to her school when she was a young girl.
“She would arrive with a trunk and out of the trunk would come the most amazing things,” she said. “Ballet slippers, tutus and a record player and pastels. And, she was very beautiful to my young eyes.”
Reuter said the woman introduced her to the beauty of art and had a tremendous impact on her life.
“She brought magic with her and exposed us to that magic,” she said.
Reuter also recalled the moment where she first felt an understanding of the arts. An elder neighbor took her to see the Vienna Boys Choir, and she was in awe of the young boys’ talent. She said she couldn’t believe boys her age could sing so beautifully.
“And then one of the boys kicked the set, and the set came tumbling down, and they turned into little boys who were laughing and giggling and carrying on,” she said. “Then, the director came out, and he snapped them back in order … and they became angels again. And, then, I understood what the arts were.”
Reuter said she would look for art anywhere she could find it. She believes the arts bring a deeper understanding to the human experience and provide for a richer life.
“Someone said, ‘You learn facts from the Internet, you take wisdom from literature,’ and I think that’s true of the visual arts,” she said.
Most powerful exhibition
Reuter said the museum does exhibitions for many different reasons.
Some exhibitions are to expose people to local artists. Some are for the sheer beauty of the art. Some are for intellectual questioning. And, some are for political movements and history.
One of the most influential and powerful exhibitions Reuter has worked on was “The Disappeared,” an exhibition which addressed the violent, political situation in South America, where as many as 30,000 people were killed.
“I think the most important opening I’ve had was when the show opened in Guatemala,” Reuter said. “It was the first time the subject had been made public in a country where thousands and thousands and thousands of people were killed.”
The exhibition opened in a beautiful building, and more than 900 people of all backgrounds attended.
“It was very quiet. It wasn’t a party,” she said. “That will be the most important exhibition.”
The exhibition received a lot of international press and the New York Times said it was the most potent show of contemporary political art.
“‘The Disappeared’ was important to this institution because it was reviewed all over the place, and it was known nationally and internationally,” she said. “And what that does is start to establish a reputation, so you can begin to do other exhibitions, and it helps bringing money in.”
Reuter said when she first started at the gallery, she couldn’t invite big national artists because they wouldn’t show here. Now, she can bring in important national exhibitions like James Rosenquist’s, which will show through Nov. 11.
“The current exhibitions are pretty stellar,” she said. “I think we’re at the top of our game.”
Maki covers Arts & Entertainment and Life & Style for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572, ext. 1122; or firstname.lastname@example.org.