Encountering Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming - National Museum of Wildlife Art

The most prominent museums in the world include national museums deeply embedded in the history of a culture, palaces preserving artifacts that belonged to kings and queens, and modern art museums with impressive structures designed by starchitects. The commonality unifying these cultural institutions is the medley of precious objects housed in them. One can find objects spanning from a pre-historic building tool to a contemporary art installation. What these museums also share is the advantage of attracting and catering to diverse audiences from all over the world, as they have something for every single taste and standpoint. For a more specialized museum, such as the National Museum of Wildlife Art, outreaching to the community, especially to international audiences, is a mighty endeavor. However, NMWA’s specialized collection is also a tremendous strength, as it offers nearly endless possibilities for interpretation and making connections.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. Courtesy of the NMWA The Peaceable Kingdom by
Edward Hicks. Courtesy of the NMWA

The National Museum of Wildlife Art, located in the Jackson Hole region of Wyoming, persistently explores ways to attract wider audiences as it focuses on the preservation of wildlife images. The museum’s permanent collection of over 5,000 catalogued items, dating from 2500 B.C. to the present, includes paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by over 100 distinguished artists ranging from early American Tribes through contemporary masters.  According to Adam Duncan Harris, Curator of Art and Research at NMWA, the museum’s focus is an advantage because such a focused collection allows museum curators to thoroughly study the artworks and to successfully present them to visitors and colleagues. Harris notes that “the history of wildlife art in the European and American tradition, one of the main strengths of [the museum’s] collection, is fairly well defined and [the curators] feel confident in [their] ability to present it in a comprehensible manner.” Not only does NMWA chronicle the richness of European and American wildlife artworks, the museum acknowledges the importance of strengthening its collection with permanent and temporary exhibitions that include innovative educational and scholarly programs to emphasize art appreciation, art history, natural science, creative writing, and American history.

It is the mission of the National Museum of Wildlife Art to enrich and inspire appreciation and knowledge of humanity’s relationship with nature. The museum also supports local artists who interpret wildlife art on a personal and spiritual level rather than as a reflection of natural history, such as Amy Ringholz’ “Dreamers Don’t Sleep,” which was showcased in 2012. Through the collection, display, interpretation and preservation of the highest quality North American wildlife art, the museum also supplements its collection with art found throughout the world. Some of the artworks found at NMWA represent a variety of movements in art history including Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, and Modernism. As a result, NMWA’s collection allows for the making of connections across various mediums and periods of art history. Harris recognizes this “ability to explore an amazing range of art from different cultures and times,” noting that “artists from all over the globe have tackled the enigmatic subject of humanity's relationship with nature and wildlife - from cave paintings to Andy Warhol.”

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On the other hand, the National Museum of Wildlife Art runs the risk of being labeled as a museum with a limited collection and purpose. Harris admits such misconceptions - “We sometimes struggle against preconceived notions of ‘wildlife art,’ but once people come inside the museum and see work by artists they've also seen in the Met, the Smithsonian, and the Louvre, those notions quickly drop to the wayside.”  The museum effectively addresses its collection’s specificity by branching out and acquiring works made by renowned artists to increase its credibility and mission. The museum is beginning to include wildlife art from around the world; recent acquisitions include works from Africa and New Zealand. NMWA is not only a leader in the collection and research of wildlife art, but also a strong example of an art institution that thinks ahead in its approach to interpreting and presenting its collection.
Nalini Elias is the Plinth contributor for the Western Region and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of San Francisco.