University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols said she considers the school’s involvement with the artist who was first commissioned to create a Kenny Sailors statue concluded, but the artist’s wife says the family is far from finished.
“I do know that the artist in Wyoming has been paid,” Nichols said in an interview at the Star-Tribune last week, “and we tried to make it as right as we possibly can, given that it’s a difficult situation, a bit awkward at this point in time.”
Sandee Gunter’s husband, Rudy, was announced as the sculptor of the Sailors statue in January 2014. The university eventually settled on another artist, after Rudy Gunter had started working on his piece. The family is now trying to find a place for his completed work.
Sandee Gunter said she hadn’t heard from anyone at the university in the weeks since the Star-Tribune published an article detailing the saga.
“Did I expect any more from them? No,” she said. “They’ve proven the caliber of people they are.”
In January 2014, the university’s athletic department announced that Gunter, a Green River-based artist and former basketball coach, had been selected to make the statue of Sailors, a former UW basketball star who is credited with inventing the jump shot. Gunter was introduced at halftime of a Wyoming men’s basketball game as the artist.
But the athletic department erred in its announcement, officials have said. The university has a policy — in place following another art-related scandal — that requires sculptures and other work must be approved through an art committee. Gunter — who was unaware that such a process even existed, his family said — did not go through it prior to being announced.
That much is agreed upon. What happened over the proceeding years remains strongly contested. Tom Burman, the athletic director, has said that he told the Gunters that there had to be a competitive bidding process, and later, that Rudy Gunter’s statue would not be used. In September 2015, the university selected an Oregon-based artist to create the work.
The Gunters, meanwhile, maintain that they knew nothing about the bidding process. Nor did they know that another artist had been selected, they say. Gunter, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and has largely lost the use of his hands since he began working on the Sailors piece, finished his statue, likely his final work.
Last month, the Oregon artist’s statue was unveiled in the Arena-Auditorium. Gunter’s statue, meanwhile, is in storage at a foundry in Lander.
In an interview at the Star-Tribune last week, Nichols said her understanding is that Gunter was not kept in the dark about what was happening.
“It was my understanding that communication was pretty clear, that they had gone with a different artist, and if that didn’t happen, that’s really unfortunate,” she said.
Gunter was paid a total of $100,000 from Bruce Pivic, a Rock Springs-based UW donor who had recommended Gunter in the first place. The Gunter family estimates that he made less than $10,000 for two years worth of work.
Through private donations, the university paid the Oregon artist $250,000 for his statue.
Sandee Gunter, who was in Salt Lake City with Rudy for medical treatment, said the family is still exploring legal options.
“We’re going over all kinds of things with them,” she said of the family’s talks with lawyers. She added that any decisions will likely be made after the holidays. “It’ll be pursued. Right now, it’s just getting the ducks in a row. The timeline’s in place, you know. But my big thing, and I think Bruce Pivic’s, is to get it to where Rudy can see it unveiled before he dies.”
She added that much of the drama that’s unfolded could have been avoided had anyone at the university called and apologized to the family. She said she expected to hear from someone after the Star-Tribune published an article about the statue saga and was “disheartened” that no one reached out.
The family has heard from Rudy Gunter’s former players and students, she said, and from people out of state.
Nichols said the university has changed its policy about pieces of art on campus. Previously, the final approval would go through the president, with consultation from the president of the board of trustees. Now, she said, any work has to be approved by both the trustees and the president.
“I think, you know, you learn through mistakes, but as (the trustees) saw this happen, they strengthened their policy in terms of what they expect to approve,” Nichols said, “and public art is one of the things they put in now.”