The North Dakota Museum of Art's mission to make art accessible and memorable
When the main exhibit space at the North Dakota Museum of Art is transitioning to a new display set-up, Laurel Reuter doesn’t close the area under construction. That is not normal of most art centers, she says. The more you spend time with Reuter or walk amongst the many intricate and ever-evolving spaces of the museum, the more you realize she isn’t a normal art curator. Reuter, NDMOA’s director for more than 30 years, wants to ensure that if someone has traveled across town, or across the country to experience her building, they won’t miss out on the chance to see, touch or experience an element from one of her unique collections—even if it means walking around freshly painted walls or dusty construction materials.
Reuter is committed to connecting the multitude of installations, displays and artists she has curated to us. (Each year, NDMOA features ten to fifteen different exhibits). She’s built an entire career and life around her quest to find and bring us memorable art, the kind that illuminates different times in history or the nuances of a culture. Reuter is a literature major turned art expert. Growing up on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, she was fearful of the outside world, finding comfort in it only once she challenged herself to travel the world alone. Now, she’s earned accolades for her work—most of which has been guided by her travels. On the northern plains, she has learned the keys to creating a positive, well-attended exhibit. “We’ve found you can’t share art about art,” she says. “We need pieces that speak in visual terms, that say something clearly.”
If a visitor, donor or enthusiast wants to talk through a technical- or art-specific-lens, Reuter and her team are more than qualified and happy to do so. But, when it comes time to instruct visiting artists on how they should discuss their work during presentations, Reuter is strict. “We ask them to avoid art speak and just use plain language. People here are very intelligent.”
For every exhibit, Reuter deploys the same strategy. “We have to give people a way in to the art. They have to have a reason to connect,” she says. If the team can pinpoint the angle for connection that will entice them to a showing or exhibit, the museum’s design will take care of the rest.
“This space makes mediocre art look good and great art look amazing,” she says, adding that the design and layout of the space somehow makes the human body feel comfortable.
A former University of North Dakota gymnasium (Reuter’s office was once the men’s locker room), the NDMOA was redesigned by a New Mexico-based architect that in his prime was considered one of the best designers in the country. With her full-time staff of eight and several volunteers, the team operates two main exhibit spaces, four off-site storage facilities, a café known for its fine-dining-esque menu, an artist-in-residence house in rural North Dakota and a music in the garden series.
Although Reuter travels the world in search of the next best exhibit, she prides herself on staying in-tune with the greater North Dakota community scene. With museum attendance dropping across the country, Reuter must find ways to engage and attract more visitors. To do that, she believes social events, collaborations and a willingness to let others use the NDMOA space is crucial to helping form the connection between the art on the walls and the potential onlookers outside.
When she isn’t studying the textiles of a region to learn more about that region’s art, she is most likely filling out a grant form or conversing with potential donors about the merits and value of the NDMOA. For the past thirty years, the facility and its team has thrived, even if Reuter sometimes wonders how they have survived. Part of the museum’s success stems from the view international artists take on North Dakota. Most artists from outside the region describe this place as exotic and exquisite (artists on the coast, she says, think this place is at the end of the world). The NDMOA may not have the funds or clout to draw the biggest U.S. names in art, but Reuter’s sagacious ability to visualize and predict how art moves people has helped the facility land major international artists before or during their prime.
On most days, she feels cluttered with paintings, displays, photos and books of art. She is either thinking about the team’s storage offerings—all of which are at capacity—or a new exhibit that is under construction. The security of the museum always feels tenuous, she says, sitting and elaborating from her desk about the future of the museum before she smiles and says with pride and a clear tone that seems to illustrate exactly how she feels about the Museum’s long-term role, presence and possibilities in the region, “But we’ve never missed a payroll.” G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY