By Marilyn Hagerty
As a child, Laurel Reuter fell in love with art. As founding
director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, she vowed to make
it the finest small museum in the world. For 30 years she has
been on a mission to present contemporary art and collect a visual
history of this region — such as the iron crosses the Germans
from Russia brought to this country. Right now, she is in the
early stages of arranging for an exhibit of Icelandic art that
was nurtured by settlers in Canada and northeastern North Dakota.
“While some in our nation look on North Dakota as the end
of the earth,” she says, “international artists are
finding their way here.”
To make sure they know their way, Reuter travels the world in
quest of art to display on the campus of the University of North
Dakota. She has seen the Museum develop into a key center where
musical events and unique exhibits annually engage 35,000 to 50,000
visitors and patrons.
Reuter had one of her finest hours in the fall of 1989 when the
North Dakota Museum of Art moved from a portion of the third floor
of UND’s Memorial Union to its own large brick building.
One thousand came to view the opening painting show by Peter Dean
and the exhibit by Barton Benes.
She faced her biggest challenge when flood waters rolled over
the entire city in 1997. How, she wondered, could she keep the
By making the museum a hub to salvage artistic endeavors in a
city buried in sludge, Reuter was able to preserve the center
as a haven for the arts. North Dakota’s Museum of Art was
the subject of articles in the New York Times and was featured
in two segments on CBS News Sunday Morning. And, during the months
following the Flood of 1997, a history of emotions during the
tragedy was preserved in words and photographs in four books that
flowed from the North Dakota Museum of Art.
In the past seven years, the North Dakota Museum of Art has become
established as a center that continually stages significant events,
such as the appearance of the Chinese ambassador on his 2003 visit
to Grand Forks.
retrospect, Reuter says it was inevitable the North Dakota Museum
of Art ceased being a department of UND and in 1996 became a nonprofit
corporation with its own volunteer board of directors and a separate
foundation board. The museum has been designated as North Dakota’s
official art museum by the state legislature, but it receives
While the museum blossomed as a place where UND students as well
as children of the region can view art at no admission cost, Reuter
says being independent is harder than she had ever dreamed. The
challenge is the unending need to raise funds to meet the museum’s
$1 million annual budget. While UND provides the building and
certain maintenance services, there is no direct financial support.
Reuter started working at the UND Art Galleries in the Memorial
Union in the early 1970s when she was finishing her master’s
degree in English. In 1985, the galleries became the Museum of
Art and remained in the same location until 1989.
Fifteen years ago with funds left by the late Laura Christianson,
the gracious old brick building that had been a women’s
gymnasium since 1907 was renovated as a museum by Harvey Hoshour,
a modernistic architect from Albuquerque. Under his guidance,
a museum was created that is spacious, comfortable, and extremely
fluent. Hoshour’s design uses windows with skylights to
beautifully incorporate light. It allows viewers to experience
art in a natural environment.
While the North Dakota Museum of Art features contemporary art,
it brings in historical exhibitions that have a relationship to
the population of the region. For instance, Reuter says the Library
of Congress display on the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Mapping
of America will be at the Museum in November and December.
Contemporary art is easy for people to understand, Reuter explains.
Audiences relate to the art of their own time, and as they do
so they become more knowledgeable and move back into history.
Her own creativity as curator and writer for exhibitions and events
Still, she says ideas come from her staff and from her board.
“I try to be open minded. You cannot build a museum by yourself.”
Reuter is generally credited for building the North Dakota Museum
of Art into a gem. She works with help of donors, grants, board
members, and a host of volunteers who seek to keep art alive on
the Northern Plains. Reuter herself has a parallel career as a
writer as well as curator-director of the museum. On her travels
and in her garden, thoughts come for her essays and critiques.
She recently published a book, Whole Cloth, and is working on
a sequel, Threads. The books reflect her interest in the use of
fiber as an artistic medium.
Freelancer Marilyn Hagerty writes frequently for Dimensions.
Her work appears regularly in the Grand Forks Herald.