AMERICA'S SHRINE FOR WILDLIFE ART
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WILDLIFE ART, THE ONLY OF ITS KIND IN THE WORLD, GREW OUT OF BILL AND JOFFA KERR'S DESIRE TO SHARE THE RICHES OF AN UNPRECEDENTED COLLECTION, AND THEIR UNYIELDING BELIEF IN THE POWER OF NATURE
BY TODD WILKINSON
A WILLOWY GENTLE GIANT, AT SIX FOOT SEVEN, TOWERS OVER THE CROWD AS HE AND JOFFA, HIS WIFE OF 53 YEARS, MIX WITH INTERNATIONAL ART PATRONS AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WILDLIFE ART'S WESTERN VISIONS EXHIBITION HELD EVERY SEPTEMBER.
One gets the impression that William G. Kerr would gladly shrink himself down to Lilliputian dimensions, if it would ensure the imagery on the walls and the repose of a still-evolving dream around him were the first things summoning the visitor's eye.
Nearly a quarter century ago, Kerr set out on a stroll here in downtown Jackson, Wyoming. Rounding the signature elk antler archways adorning the quaint village square, he stopped discreetly in front of an old office space.
Pondering it, he was uncertain where the journey was leading, yet he followed a genetic gut instinct that told him others, too, shared his passion.
It would be that office, modestly in the beginning, where the Kerr's trove of paintings and sculpture first went on public display. At the time, it was a corpus that few denizens of the Tetons knew the couple had, but then again, most inhabitants of the affluent lifestyle community had little inkling of who Bill and Joffa Kerr were, considering their inconspicuous nature.
"I think about what it was like during those years when Bill and Joffa first arrived in Jackson Hole," says Susan Simpson-Gallagher, daughter of former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson of Cody, Wyoming who was raised in an art-loving clan. "The Kerrs have always been intensely private people and very low key. It has made them seem more mysterious than they actually are. They would rather be introduced to you by their first names and leave it at that. But what you supposed to do: Go around the West with the name 'Kerr' and pretend you're not?"
As the son of a legendary oil wildcatter who went on to become a powerful western governor and then prowl prominently as "the lion of the United States Senate," Bill Kerr grew up a scion of the Kerr-McGee energy empire his father founded. He spent much of his impressionable youth in Washington, D.C. with a front row seat to U.S. history and a bookish appreciation for art.
Echoing the oratory skills that served his Southern Baptist father well in pushing through landmark federal legislation and stumping to elect U.S. presidents like FDR and JFK, Bill paraphrases the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12, Verse 48: "When much has been given a man, much will be required of him. More will be asked of a man to whom more has been entrusted."
"If you write a story, it cannot be about us," Kerr insists one afternoon, his friendly demeanor turning stern. "This wild adventure which continues to this day has never been about us. It has always been about the art. Joffa and I have been blessed to have great art in our lives and we wanted to find some way of sharing it with the people in this community."
This, in a way, is a genesis story about how America's National Museum of Wildlife Art (NMWA)—the only one of its kind in the world, and an institution which in 2008 was legally recognized with the formal title by president of the United States George W. Bush and Congress—came into being.
A year before that designation, however, two other milestones and a personal footnote converged for Kerr: Oklahoma feted its first century of statehood; the NMWA celebrated two decades of existence; and the tall gangly art connoisseur, who counts himself among the Sooner State's proudest native sons, turned seventy.
Although Kerr has been quietly backing away into an emeritus role with the institution he co-founded, it is with the satisfaction of watching it become a center not only for art relating to nature in all its forms (painting, sculpture, photography, cinematography, and literature), but in a way it’s a shrine.
An optical treasure by itself, the National Museum of Wildlife Art occupies a slope of land north of Jackson in a custom-made, temperature-controlled, cliff-dwelling edifice that has won praise for its architectural design. Influenced in its aspect by the ruins of Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, it looks out upon the National Elk Refuge and off in the distance rises the "Sleeping Indian" silhouette on Jackson Peak.
Most notable is what the structure showcases. Inside and adorning an outdoor sculpture garden are priceless original paintings, monumental bronzes and even an aboriginal totem pole created by many of the most important artists who ever lived, going back four millennia. As a critic once remarked, it is, for its own genre that has struggled for acceptance, as important as the Louvre or National Gallery.
Given Jackson Hole's location on the back doorstep to Yellowstone (the first national park in the world); the birthplace of Grand Teton National Park (created with the help of tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr); the Elk Refuge; the Teton mountains; the Snake River; the abundance of wildlife; and the valley's magnetic allure to prominent conservationists such as Olaus, Margaret and Adolph Murie, as well as seminal grizzly bear researchers John and Frank Craighead, among others, the Kerrs saw it fitting to have the museum planted in fertile terrain foundational to the identity of the conservation movement.
Along with originals by Bierstadt, Catlin, Bodmer, Russell, Remington, Audubon, Wyeth, Kuhnert, Liljefors, and Catesby are portrayals of wildlife by Rodin, Picasso, Rembrandt, Thorburn, Huntington, O'Keefe, and Warhol. The core of the 5,000 cataloged items in the collection is devoted to traditional and contemporary Realism. A centerpiece is a massing of works by Carl Rungius (1869-1959) and the late Bob Kuhn (1920-2007), considered North America's finest painters of big game species.
Among the living artists represented in the collection are Robert Bateman, David Shepherd, Ken Bunn, Kent Ullberg, Tucker Smith, Ken Carlson, Jonathan Kenworthy, and Sherry Salari-Sander, among numerous others. There's also the re-assembled studio of artist John Clymer (1907-1989), who studied under Harold von Schmidt (a colleague of N.C. Wyeth's) and spent the last decades of his life in nearby Teton Village. Clymer had been an internationally recognized illustrator, based in Connecticut, who produced more cover paintings for The Saturday Evening Post than anyone except Norman Rockwell.
Pieces from the NMWA collection have hung on loan and as part of traveling exhibitions in the country's best-known fine art pantheons. Moreover, U.S. presidents including Bill Clinton and the late Ronald Reagan have graced the NMWA's corridors as visitors.
"The founders and board of the museum have built, remarkably, in just twenty years' time, a major cultural institution for Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West based on a singular stated passion for wildlife," says noted art historian Peter Hassrick, the recently retired curator of Western art at the Denver Art Museum and longtime director at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. Hassrick adds: "Animals have such an important—and sometimes overlooked—tradition in American and European art. More than just having a symbolic role in our society, their ongoing treatment in art has profound contemporary relevance."
Let it be noted for the record that yes, indeed, "wildlife art" in general is dismissed as inferior by some, and has received bruising treatment in such high-profile forums as The New York Times. But attitudes are changing. Arguably, and paradoxically, no genre in the post-modern age is more cutting edge and reflective of the condition of the planet that supports more than six billion humans.
"What's interesting about wildlife art today is that it ties into so many topics that are on the tip of everyone's tongues, from the possible extinction of polar bears to melting glaciers," says Adam Duncan Harris, NMWA curator. "Our art, while not overtly political, is right in the middle of the discussions people are having. There is nothing passé about it." Indeed, Bill Kerr is the first to say partisanship must take a blind eye to artists who are responding with personal visual celebrations of the environment no differently than when Thomas Moran's art works convinced Congress to set aside Yellowstone in 1872.
And it's true that any story about the NMWA is not, per se, about the Kerrs, but neither can any story that speaks of the museum's origins, not note the arc that brought it to Wyoming and sprang from a private collection that grew large.
When friends hear the tale of Bill and Joffa Kerr's courting, they universally chuckle. The couple met in the basement of a sorority house at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s. Kerr and his fraternity brothers were there, in Bill's words, "scouting the local talent." He was instantly star struck, he admits, when Joffa started dancing on a table as a preview performance for an upcoming campus-wide variety show.
The Kerrs' children often refer to their mother as "the social hummingbird," who constantly takes delight in introducing people who might never meet. "Bill and Joffa form an incredible balance of what makes a good couple," Simpson-Gallagher says. "They are both witty and smart, respectful of one another, and in love, but they move through a room in very different ways. I go back to two words to describe them: Authentic and genuine."
Today, Simpson-Gallagher, trained in art history, owns the Simpson-Gallagher Fine Art Gallery in Cody, Wyoming but in the late 1980s she was hired by the Kerrs as the NMWA's first curator. She felt an immediate bond with Kerr, she says, for she, too, had gone off to the nation's capital from the West when her father was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Kerr's father, Robert S. Kerr, was a titan for the times and would undoubtedly be intrigued by the challenges facing the country presently. He was said to possess enough self-deprecating charisma to be "able to charm the rings off a raccoon's tail and leave the animal laughing about it."
"Bill's father was old-fashioned about a lot of things, including his values and friendships," Joffa says. "He was religious, but he was a warrior. He believed in loyalty. You didn't cross him or he would cut you down at the knees. One the other hand, he was known for his kindness and generosity. If you were a person who needed help, he would take care of you."
During the crucial days of the Great Depression and the second world war, when President Franklin Roosevelt was ailing and national cohesion was necessary, it was Kerr who was called upon to deliver a fiery keynote at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, nominating Roosevelt for an unprecedented fourth term and enlisting Harry Truman as his running mate. Young Bill listened to the speech while sitting on the lap of his mother, Grayce.
When Kerr was a young child in Oklahoma, he had an extraordinary nanny, by design. The man who cared for him had been a trustee from the state prison at McAlester, an inmate named Coy Brown whom his father had brought out to the governor's mansion on a special assignment after taking a personal interest in the man's case.
Brown, it must be noted, killed a man with his bare fists when he was seventeen years old and subsequently was sentenced to life in prison. Governor Kerr had recognized the potential for good in Brown and believed in the power of redemption. Kerr reasoned that if a chance were to be offered, and taken, he would allow Brown to prove himself with his own family. Brown did gain the trust of the Kerrs and by the age of twenty-seven he had received a pardon from the governor and assisted Grayce in taking care of Bill and his three siblings. Not only did Coy Brown turn his life around, he became a contributing member of the community and rose to the position of bishop in his church, Bill says.
More than anything, Kerr says his father was a champion of common folk. He went to Washington on a mission, having been deeply affected by the suffering he saw during the Dust Bowl years. The man from tiny Ada, Oklahoma vowed to use his influence to give his state a modern transportation infrastructure, hydro projects to move goods to market, universities, and jobs that came with military bases. He made good on his vows and used his seniority with the federal budget appropriations process to steer billions into the Sooner State.
All the while, he befriended, and tangled with many of the most influential politicians during the 20th century from oilmen and Will Rogers to elected officials. "When we went to Washington, it was, as you might image for a boy, the treat of a lifetime," Kerr says, "meeting people like real-life Congressmen, and senators, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, President Truman, Vice President Barkley. I knew another side of them. One of dad's relaxations was playing cards. His games at the house included his friends and he let me kibbutz until bedtime."
On one afternoon when the honorable Senator Kerr hosted a barbecue at a local D.C. country club, Bill remembers President Truman arriving in the company of Texas senator Lyndon Johnson and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Johnson and Rayburn were dear friends of Kerrs; one, of course, destined to become president and the other has a senate office complex named after him on Capitol Hill.
Rayburn once said of Bob Kerr's refusal to be hornswoggled by interference when he attempted to advance legislation that Kerr believed "he could charge hell with a bucket of water and put the fire out."
And yet, though a pious man where his religious faith was concerned, Bill's father found the time to teach Sunday school every week for most of his life. The rest of the days he subscribed to a personal tenet that politics was not a game for sissies, but rather occasionally a blood sport where gladiators from given regions of the country were sent to battle for their constituents. Performing well demanded alliances and playing hardball in ways that could be ruthless. A self-styled conservative Democrat, Kerr would be considered today a staunch centrist, Bill says.
Bob Kerr's own Horatio Alger rise through the oil patch, by piecing drilling deals together is the stuff of legend. He went from being the son of settlers who came to Oklahoma when it was a territory to an individual who watched jets pass over the skies and served as chairman of the Senate Space Committee that established the foundation for astronauts walking on the moon.
Once, the late Ronald Reagan famously laid down what he dubbed "the 11th Commandment": "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill Will About Another Republican."
Kerr's commandment taught to Bill was a little different: "Thou Shalt Not Stand With The Great Against The Powerless."
What does this have to do with an art museum?
Truth be told, some of the finest art museums in America have been built on the proceeds of fortunes in the oil business and the desire of families who made them to give back to society.
A devout believer in the American Dream, having himself descended from humble pioneer sharecroppers, Bob Kerr reserved a special place in his heart for kids who enjoyed cultural treasures like anyone else but were often denied access. "He was born and raised in the powerless class," Bill says of his dad. "It wasn't an abstraction for him. He never forgot where he came from."
In turn, Bob and Grayce Kerr instilled in their boy the need for humility and thankfulness and to reach out to others who possessed the same hunger for aesthetic beauty. "Bill has a thing about having compassion for other people that goes well beyond what most us feel," Joffa Kerr says. "He got that from his father. When they lived in Washington, Bill grew up being around lovely things because, while his father was on Capitol Hill, his mother started an antique and decorating shop. Both of his parents were drawn toward their passions."
Each carried with them a reverence for the wonders of the world.
Decades before collecting historically- significant wildlife art became fashionable, Bill and Joffa Kerr were buying simply to decorate their own living room walls. They were especially astute, however, in their ability to find and acquire a significant number of masterworks, including a mother lode of Rungiuses before prices soared into the stratosphere.
When the Kerrs talk about the NMWA, it starts invariably with a preamble about other people: locals in Jackson Hole who were stunned by the enormity of the Kerr's personal art collection and wanted to have a place worthy of housing it. Bill mentions early supporters like the late Mary Hansen Mead, Marion Buchenroth, Richard "Dick" and Maggie Scarlett, Earl Sams Lightner, Tom and Eliza Chrystie, Robert Esperti, Anne Hodges Morgan, Bob McCloy and educator Sam Klassen.
Members of that inner circle recall a catalyst that became a call to action for founding a museum. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody had made overtures about opening up a satellite exhibition space in Jackson to display works from its renowned collection of western art. While the Buffalo Bill's plans for an invasion were flattering, even Dick Scarlett, a banker, and his wife from Cody believed that Jackson Hole deserved to have its own fine art museum. The Scarletts, who settled in Jackson Hole in 1981, were familiar with pieces from the Kerr's collection, having viewed some of the Rungius paintings when they were shown at a museum in Denver. Their hope for a homegrown institution was bolstered by Lightner, a former Texas contractor and avid outdoorsman who has a keen appreciation for fine art. Lightner's aunt had collected paintings by Bob Kuhn and Englishman David Shepherd when they showed their works at the Game Coin sportsmen's conventions in Dallas.
As fate would have it, the Kerrs were attending a fundraiser for the Grand Teton Music Festival when LIghtner walked up to Bill and Joffa and introduced himself: "Hi, I'm Sam Lightner. I know that you're originally from Oklahoma. Well, I'm from Texas. Through the grapevine, I've heard that you and your wife might be entertaining the idea of opening a place to display your art collection. I'd like to be the first person to donate $100,000 to make it happen."
Within fifteen seconds of them meeting, the Kerrs and Lightner lit the fire for local community stakeholdership driven by a common passion. "It's a true story and it's classic Sam Lightner," Kerr says, adding. "Boy, if you think those guys raised in the Rio Grande Valley can't shoot doves, you're setting yourself up to the humbled." LIghtner, he adds, put a bead on creating a museum for the ages and has never, not to this day, lost sight of the target.
A third and similarly auspicious event brought yet another influential community member—Tom Chrystie, a New York executive who owned a second home in Jackson Hole—into the fold. Chrystie remembers driving up to Spring Creek Ranch one day and seeing the Kerrs wandering around in the sagebrush at the top of East Gros Ventre Butte where land was for sale. He asked the couple if they were lost and they explained they were in search of a possible museum site. Chrystie was intrigued.
"I asked them what kind of art was in their collection, and they said it was paintings of North American wildlife," Chrystie recalls. "I told them I thought the community would enthusiastically embrace the museum if the focus of the art remained on wildlife and wasn't diluted."
It was a prescient and brilliant insight and Chrystie committed himself to help built a world-class museum that, foremost, would reach out to expose children to art. Fully one of every seven museum visitors is a grade school child and some have gone on to pursue careers in art, science, and conservation. "Chrystie is a Vulcan," Kerr says with a laugh. "He sees and hears more than all of the rest of us. He's like Mr. Spock. He is so visionary in seeing what's possible, but sometimes you don't realize in the moment that he's so far out front—and that you just aren't facile enough to navigate to the point where he's already at."
Momentum rapidly coalesced and it lead to the successful launch of a multi-million dollar capital campaign to build the present museum while the collection was displayed first in downtown Jackson. Maggie Scarlett even enlisted support in promoting the museum from her close college friend who happens to be Lynne Cheney, who served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and, of course, is married to former Vice President and avid flyfisherman Dick Cheney. The Cheneys have a home in Jackson.
The board of directors at the museum, under the direction of president James C. McNutt, represents a range of people with different professional backgrounds and affinities, proving that the cause transcends politics.
Any National Public Radio listener has heard the Robert S. and Grayce B. Kerr Foundation mentioned as program underwriters. What you may not know is that the foundation, which supports community-based arts in all its forms, is based in Jackson Hole and co-administered by Bill Kerr in memory of his parents who loved western art.
Great art, Bill and Joffa suggest, needs to verbal or written translation. That renderings of wildlife as subject matter are accessible is not a limitation, but an egalitarian confirmation of the human connection to other creatures.
The Kerrs' appreciation for wildlife art has been part of an evolution that started with their love affair for the outdoors. To some, the movie On Golden Pond may seem a cinematic fiction, but for Kerr, the kind of feelings aroused by it are still unwaveringly real. The Kerr family had its own special retreat on a lake.
Going back to the 1930s, Robert S. Kerr made an annual ritual of taking a month off and enjoying summers with his clan at Pelican Lake in Minnesota. On the shores of Pelican, the outside world didn’t matter, even though Bob Kerr was amid his rise to being one of the most powerful political figures in America.
Bill thinks back to the family's favorite pastime: fishing. "I had my dad, and my older brothers—whom I also worshipped—captive in the boat with me. They weren't going anywhere. I had them all to myself."
Seldom was there talk of the elder's work. Bob Kerr approached fishing as a metaphor for his sons taking stock of important things in life, and the memory of those lessons for Bill have only assumed more emotional magnitude as he has aged. Every morning brought another opportunity to land the mythical monster northern pike purported to lurk in the waters.
"Dad would say, 'Boys, you will eventually figure out that fishing is not about catching fish. It's about being out here.'"
The first visit Bill Kerr made to Pelican Lake he was in his mother's womb and he didn't miss a summer there until he was in his mid-thirties. "Retrospectively, those were the happiest times of my young life," he says. "When I pass on, I want my ashes spread in Pelican Lake."
Such idyllic memories, however, are also tinged with heartache. Within months of Bill's graduation from law school, his father, on New Year's Day 1963, died suddenly of a heart attack. It commenced a tumultuous soul-searching period in Oklahoma politics and for Bill Kerr.
Three years later, his mother passed away. "My life up until then had been spent pretty much in fairyland, with successful parents and two older brothers and a sister," he says. "I was just kind of skipping along through life. And then I had to grow up. I had a wife, four kids, my siblings were going off doing their own thing, and man, it gets lonely real fast. You find yourself in the struggle to figure out who the hell you are. I hadn't had the lash of necessity to focus my thinking, but I was feeling it then."
Kerr started a thriving career in consumer finance and investment management in Oklahoma City. He and Joffa brought their own brood to the lake. Then one summer in the 1970s, their fifteen-year-old son, David, died after battling a lifelong, incurable disease. A sacred retreat that had been a refuge now represented, after David's passing, a current of memories too formidable to keep swimming against.
Bill and Joffa decided they needed to breathe oxygen in another venue. As it turned out, Jackson Hole brought a different fateful horizon. Kerr had been serving on the board of the national Cowboy Hall of Fame (which hosts the annual Prix de West Invitational), and the directors took a retreat to the Tetons.
"During that trip, Bill hiked and hiked and hiked," Joffa says. "He returned to Oklahoma with a desire to spend more time in Jackson."
The couple bought property on the west side of the Snake River. Joffa also took up sculpting at the suggestion of artist Sherry Sander, who remarked that Joffa showed promise as a three dimensional artisan.
Wherever they go, art goes with them. Accompanying Bill over the course of his career has been a touchstone—painter Philip R. Goodwin's A Break At Dawn. Kerr bought it from wildlife artist Les Kouba in Minnesota decades ago and it is a touchstone for the need to stay grounded.
"You can be wound up on a problem or a situation that is professional or personal in nature, but into a good painting you can kind of retreat," Bill says, telling a story that speaks to his conviction that art museums have the power to change lives. "I've retreated into this Goodwin painting so many times. It's been my therapist off and on for forty years."
Simpson-Gallagher has been at Bill Kerr's side when he was showing her a new acquisition. As he explained why he loved it, she says, he would sometimes turn quiet and tears would stream from his eyes without him uttering a single word.
"It's such a gift to experience someone who is so emotionally open as to be deeply moved by beauty," she says. "Bill and Joffa are simply trying to remind us that beauty is everywhere, if we look for it. They know the realities of hardships in life and in the world, but they continue to leave themselves open to being inspired."
As a gallery owner, she adds, "I've heard artists say that if they couldn't paint, they wouldn't want to live. A lot of them, I'm convinced, say it for dramatic effect, but for the Kerrs, the connection between art and their souls is real."
Simpson-Gallagher notes: "Sure, they could still have a decent life without art in it, but would it be lived as fully? Absolutely not. That Bill Kerr had an opportunity and a means to do anything he wanted in this life, but he chose to share art as an expression of his love for people—how great is that?"
Thus, we come full circle and Kerr's invocation of the Gospel according to Luke. Sculptor Ken Bunn says his association with the Kerrs as patrons parallels the profound gains the wildlife art genre has made in overcoming resistance from critics in ivory towers. "Bill and Joffa always were quiet movers and shakers," he adds. "You look at the art business and all you hear from some is self-boasting to draw attention to themselves for how they landed this piece or that as a trophy. But Bill and Joffa just moved in a way so that one never had an idea of the extent and breadth of the collection they had assembled."
The late Bob Kuhn said in an interview shortly before he died that the Kerrs, the museum curators, directors and board of directors have set a high standard that disarms critics expecting to find kitsch.
"The Kerrs were prophetic in their interest in wildlife art and their support for animals artists when few others were," says Swedish-American sculptor Ken Ullberg, whose animal monuments grace a dozen major cities. "The major contemporary issue of our time is the environment. Art speaks to our common concern about nature."
When Bill Kerr isn't gazing into a wildlife painting or sheen of bronze and catching the reflection of humanity, he still escapes in his dreams to Pelican Lake. Amid the sounds of loon song, he revisits the long ago spell of his own Neverland that he wishes every person could know.
"I think about we Americans who grew up in the last half of the twentieth century, which may prove to be the most peaceful time in the history of the world," he says. "What I would give to have a Larson wooden boat and Johnson ten-horse motor to put on one of those lakes and just rolling around for awhile."
For most of our species that today live in urban areas, an escape to a museum featuring pristine landscapes and wildlife in scenes of solitude may be the closest they'll ever come to seeing the real thing. For Kerr, if the museum does anything, he hopes it gives visitors a reason to care about their role as stewards. In 1994, when the NMWA moved into its new digs, he delivered remarks at the ribbon cutting. "May it long serve those who come to its place in search of the wild, the natural, the forgotten, and the serene," he said.
Poetic words Kerr's father would have been proud to deliver himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Instead, they embody Bill and Joffa Kerr's quiet aim to illuminate the spirit of the great outdoors within us all.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art's website at: www.wildlifeart.org