With some 7,000 works to consider, Mindy Besaw has trouble picking a favorite at the Whitney Western Art Museum, one of five museums housed within the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. “It depends on the day,” says the museum’s former curator. “I think I’m having a Moran kind of day.”.
Thomas Moran is here. So is George Catlin, not to mention Albert Bierstadt, Rosa Bonheur, William R. Leigh, Alfred Jacob Miller, Alexander Phimister Proctor, Joseph Henry Sharp and, of course, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. But the Whitney doesn’t limit itself to historical art. You’ll also find contemporary works by Thom Ross, Harry Jackson, T.D. Kelsey, Bill Schenck and others hanging right alongside the historical.
For example, art (and history) buffs can peruse Custer’s Last Stand, the 6-by-9-foot epic painting Edgar S. Paxson completed in 1899 after 20 years of research. Then they can contemplate The Battle of Greasy Grass, a roughly 6-by-11-foot oil-on-linen completed in 1996 by Allan Mardon. Mardon spent a year researching the battle and just as long rendering the 24-hour period from 3 p.m. June 25 to 3 p.m. June 26, 1876.
Earlier this year, after Besaw accepted a curatorial position at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., Karen McWhorter became the Whitney’s new Margaret and Dick Scarlett Curator of Western American Art. She has just as much trouble picking favorites. “I have several,” McWhorter admits, “including Frederic Remington’s The War Bridle, W.H. “Buck” Dunton’s Timberline and the center’s collection of Thomas Moran chromolithographs of the Yellowstone area.”Of course, visitors have their own favorites. “They are drawn to the Whitney for its rich, specialized collection of Western American art,” McWhorter says. “A walk through the Whitney introduces visitors to the broad spectrum of creative output inspired by the American West. With artwork dating from the 19th century to today, the museum celebrates the longstanding and flourishing tradition of art making in our region.”
Exhibits are generally grouped by subject, including wildlife, landscapes, Indians, historic events and—as this William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody country—heroes and legends. In fact, the museum traces its origins to the 1924 dedication of heiress-artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s monumental sculpture Buffalo Bill—The Scout, which depicts a mounted Cody. Whitney largely funded the cost of the memorial, while her son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, was a key founder of the museum, which opened in 1959 as the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.
Studio collections are among the Whitney’s prized possessions. The museum has reconstructed Remington’s and Proctor’s studios, and the year the museum opened, it moved Sharp’s original cabin here from the Crow reservation, fitting it out with the furniture and personal items of the father of the Taos (N.M.) Society of Artists. Outside, sculpture gardens showcase works by R.V. Greeves, James Earle Fraser, Bob Scriver and other notable artists.
The newest exhibit is “Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley” (June 6–August 29), which features all aspects of this important but practically forgotten painter of American Indians. “A major goal of this exhibition and the accompanying publication is to underscore Stanley’s position as one of the most important American painters of the West, its inhabitants and landscapes in the 19th century,” McWhorter explains, “and to attest to Stanley’s critical contributions to popular conceptions about the American West in his time.”
Organized by the Center of the West and curated by Besaw and Peter H. Hassrick, the exhibit will move to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and the Tacoma (Washington) Art Museum after its Whitney run.
What are McWhorter’s goals for the Whitney?
“Continuing to build and refine the collection,” she says, “so that it represents the work of the most important western American artists, past and present.
“Engaging in innovative research,” she adds. “The Whitney has a long been a trailblazer in field of Western American art history. I hope to organize exhibitions and produce publications that add significantly to the body of knowledge around our region’s artistic heritage.”
McWhorter’s final goal is the most expansive. “Cultivating a sense of community around the collection. On ground and online, I want to continue to reach out to and include the largest, most diverse audience possible. I hope our museum and our programs, exhibitions and publications can be starting points for conversations about the American West.” WW
Johnny D. Boggs, a special contributor to Wild West, writes award-winning fiction and nonfiction from Santa Fe, also home to many art galleries. Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Wild West.