The dramatic scenery and mythological history of the West would be enough to inspire any artist, and for centuries they have done just that. From paintings and drawings to dramas and musicals, works of art in all media reflect our national love affair with the old frontier.
When your group travels into the Northwest, you’ll find a rugged region that abounds in art. Art museums throughout the area showcase the work of homegrown artists as well as international arts leaders. And there are even some unlikely places to find great theater and dramatic productions.
Museum of Nebraska Art
As the name implies, the Museum of Nebraska Art showcases works that pertain to the state in one way or another.
“The museum’s collection focuses on art and artists that have some connection to Nebraska,” said museum director Audrey Kauders. “In most cases, the artists were born, lived or trained at some point of their lives in the state of Nebraska. In some cases, the artwork itself depicts Nebraska culture or environment.”
Those artists include some well-known names, such as Ramsey Peale, Karl Bodmer, Robert Henri and George Catlin. Many of these artists created works depicting what they saw or remembered from their time in Nebraska, and the museum’s collection features their works in painting, glass, fiber, wood and ceramic.
The museum is also noteworthy for the building in which it resides.
“We’re housed in a building that was built in 1911 as the Kearney post office,” Kauders said. “It’s a Renaissance-revival building, and some of the decorative elements on the outside of the building reflect that.”
When millionaire entrepreneur Harold Shafer returned to his native North Dakota in 1965, he took up residence in the small, undeveloped town of Medora and began restoring a historic hotel and other nearby properties. It was this civic-minded attitude that got him into the theater business.
“There was an amphitheater set into the Badlands that had gone into severe debt,” said Annette Shilling, marketing and public relations director for the Medora Musical. “So he purchased that and decided to put on a show about the history of the area, which included Theodore Roosevelt and Marquis de Mores. He always wanted to include patriotism and gospel music and our cowboy heritage.”
|The Medora Musical always includes patriotic songs. Courtesy Medora Musical
Today, the Medora Musical attracts more than 100,000 visitors every summer to an entertainment spectacle that includes comedians, acrobats, singers, horses and fireworks. Every year, the show is rewritten and recast with professional actors auditioned around the country.
Groups can make a whole day of their visit to Medora with other activities.
“The musical is in the evening, but we have other things, like a pitchfork steak fondue,” Shilling said. “We cook steaks on a pitchfork in a huge vat of oil. It’s a really authentic Western experience.”
Boise Art Museum
Art aficionados can find work by artists from the Northwest, as well as a wealth of modern ceramic sculpture, at the Boise Art Museum.
“Our American collection is primarily Northwestern artists,” said museum curator Sandy Harthorn. “We have major works by Debbie Butterfield and Viola Frey. We also have over 300 ceramic works from the 20th century onward, many of them by nationally and internationally known artists.”
The museum’s collection of about 2,300 works is organized in a variety of changing exhibitions every year, which highlight different themes in the artwork. Travel exhibitions also come through from time to time, such as an exhibition this fall of the famous quilts from Gees Bend.
The museum is located in Boise’s Julia Davis Park, alongside the Boise River, and features an outdoor sculpture garden. The garden and surrounding park are the grounds for the museum’s largest annual event, Art in the Park, held every September. The event features work by more than 270 artists, plus more than 30 food vendors, jazz music and other entertainment.
Alpine Theatre Project
The small town of Whitefish is perhaps best known as a winter ski resort area and as a summer gateway to nearby Glacier National Park. Summertime visitors can also take advantage of their time in town to catch a performance by the Alpine Theatre Project.
|Nick Spear and Timothy Williams appeared in the Alpine Theatre Project’s production of “Stones in His Pockets.” Courtesy Alpine Theatre Project
The theater company was founded by Luke Walrath and Betsi Morrison, a couple who performed for years in hit shows on Broadway in New York. After moving to Montana, the two met with other theater and film professionals and began to put together plays and musicals that would appeal to both Whitefish residents and visiting tourists.
“Whitefish is a combination of worldly sophistication and down-homeyness,” Walrath said. “There’s a vibe that really attracts a creative crowd. It’s an arts-savvy place.”
The company draws on its founders’ professional experience to put on Broadway-caliber performances complete with actors and back-of-house technicians from New York. Each summer season includes two musicals and a drama performed in a local middle-school auditorium that has been outfitted for state-of-the-art stage productions.
National Museum of Wildlife Art
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Between the twin wonders of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, visitors to Jackson Hole can see paintings, sculptures and other works inspired by animals from around the country at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
“The museum focuses primarily on North American wildlife art,” said Zeenie Sholz, the museum’s director of marketing. “We have the largest collection of work by the great Carl Rungius, who is arguably the first American wildlife artist. We have art in all media, ranging from stone to bronze, glass, watercolor, acrylic and oil.”
|The Museum of Wildlife Art is set in the foothills of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains. Courtesy Museum of Wildlife Art
The museum’s collection includes some 5,000 cataloged works, all of which depict animals in their natural environments. And while wildlife of the Northwest is heavily featured, visitors will also find creatures such as elephants, squids, moose and bears.
Many groups combine a visit to the museum with an excursion into the contiguous elk refuge.
“There’s a real relationship between the facility’s location and what is contained in our walls,” Scholz said. “The most iconic outdoor sculpture that we have is of five elk, and it sits directly across the highway from the National Elk Refuge.”