It all started when Mary Durham and a few volunteers opened a small museum on the corner of Park and A streets. Durham’s vision was to bring art to Casper that people otherwise would have to travel to see, her son, Wil Durham recalled recently.
That gallery, originally housed in a few rooms, is now the Nicolaysen Art Museum. Fifty years later, the regional museum showcases a wide range of pieces from local artists and names in art history books alike.
“I think my mom would be proud of what it’s turned into,” Durham said.
She wouldn’t take credit though, he added. It’s always been a group of people inspiring support from the community that’s built and kept the museum going.
The Nicolaysen Art Museum will celebrate its 50th anniversary next week with two evenings of art. On Sept. 7, the museum will host the Gold Dust Bash Art Party with art activities, performances and heavy hors d'oeuvres, as well as an art sale of pieces under $250. The following evening, the museum will host its annual Golden Gala.
The fundraisers are part of an ongoing effort to keep the doors open another 50 years, Nicolaysen Art Museum consulting director Ann Ruble said. The museum won her over when she arrived in Casper about seven years ago, she said.
“I knew a community that could sustain an art museum is one where I want to raise my family,” Ruble said. “It speaks volumes about the community that we can sustain a museum of this quality.”
Building a dream
Mary Durham opened the original nonprofit museum in 1967, named Gallery A after the street on which the small house stood. Two volunteers helped install shows and run the museum.
As a teen, one of Wil's jobs was to pick up artwork shipped from museums around the country, including from notable institutions like the Smithsonian, he said.
His mother was persuasive and outspoken and knew how to inspire others to see her dream, he said.
“I just think my mom was a big believer in education. She was a big believer in people broadening their horizons,” Wil said.
The museum expanded in 1972 into a former bus station building and renamed itself the Central Wyoming Art Museum. But five years later, the museum struggled with mortgage payments. Local rancher Gerald Nicolaysen wrote a check for more than $50,000 – about $200,000 in today’s economy – to pay the debt and keep the doors open, Ruble said. The museum has been known as the Nicolaysen since.
Nicolaysen's son, Jon, served a term on the board starting in about 1980, after his father’s death. During his term, the leadership faced a hard question about what the museum should be.
“At the time, we all talked and the board decided that we ought to make something of this or shut it down,” Jon said.
Soon after, the museum hired its first professional director, James Boatner, and his first show featuring local art collections was a hit, Jon said.
The museum continues to expand on the cultural options Casper offers, he said.
“My love has always been Western art, but it turned out to be contemporary art, which is a great thing, too,” Jon said. “So they’ve had lots of different shows in different media that are interesting to a broad spectrum of people.”
The museum grew during the 1980s under director J.M. Neil and Mary Lou Morrison, who directed the new Children’s Center, now known as the Discovery Center. In 1984, the museum hosted a particularly notable show featuring Western master Charles Russell, according to documents provided by the museum.
The leaders next sought a larger space and approached the local officials about 1-cent funds for a new building. Around the same time, George Bryce joined the board to persuade the community to support a new building.
“It was too small to really make it something somebody wanted to give money to, so we either had to get bigger or shutter it down,” Bryce recalled last week. “I guess the biggest reason was a lot of people had worked their butts off to get it to the point where it was, and it seemed like getting other people to agree with the dream made more sense than closing the doors.”
Funds for a Nicolaysen building landed 17th on the list of 16 priorities for 1-cent funding from taxes in 1987. But sales tax blossomed with the opening of the new Eastridge Mall and enough money was available for all of the projects, including the Nic. The city then bought the old Casper Lumber building, originally built in 1924 for the town’s first electric company, for the museum.
Bryce organized a feasibility study that showed plenty of financial support for the project, he said. Then the price of oil dropped from $44 a gallon to $7.
Most of the major donors planning six-figure gifts backed out, Bryce said.
It took three years instead of the expected six months, but Nic leaders managed to raise the required funds for an endowment to maintain the building without additional tax funding. With the endowment secured, they were able to move into their current space.
The building opened in May of 1990 with an impressive Tiffany glass exhibition, Bryce said. The renovated 25,000-square-foot building brought more gallery space, permanent collection storage, a kitchen and a gift shop. The main lobby was named Bryce Hall in honor of his efforts.
The secret to any successful organization is a board of directors willing to put in the time, Bryce said.
“It was pretty much teaching the people what a solid art community can do for a town like Casper,” he said. “And when you see what’s happening in the town of Casper in the past 30 years, it’s been an important part of it.”
The new building wasn’t the end of financial difficulties, said Bruce Richardson, another former president of the board. The Nic has seen its share of conflict on matters including acquisitions, what types of art to display and the roles of its board and directors, he said. But those substantive disagreements are a sign of vitality in the arts and people who care about them, he said.
During the 1990s, the board set out to establish the museum as a community gathering place and Casper as an arts town, Richardson said.
“At that time, when we were having trouble paying the electric bill, this seemed wildly ambitious,” he said.
But its clear today that the Nic is a hub in an arts community, he said.
“The fact that the museum even exists right now is a major tribute to the city,” he said.
The community members who have contributed to the museum's success are evident in the names bestowed upon the museum's galleries, signs and halls. Patrons, volunteers and supporters have donated funds, art collections and their time, consulting director Ruble said.
“It all comes down to individuals,” Ruble said. “If you look at any major art institution around the world, it’s a dedicated group of individuals that makes a museum in any community go.”
Another milestone was accreditation from the American Association of Museums, which the board and director Holly Turner accomplished in 2009. Accredited museums must pass high standards for collections care, exhibition and interpretation, according to information from the Nic. The accreditation process took about three or four years, and boosted the Nic’s success and professionalism, Turner said.
“I always believed that the Nic is at the heart of the arts in Wyoming but also in Casper,” said Turner, now chair of the Wyoming Arts Council. “When you have a vibrant arts community the quality of life and the quality of your community goes up.”
The museum today houses more than 10,000 artworks in its permanent collection. Among them is the largest collection in the world of works famous Wyoming artist Conrad Schwiering, known most for his paintings of the Tetons.
The collection also includes Picasso, Matisse and Lautrec lithograph prints, as well as a signed Dali print with an original sketch by the artist.
Notable artist’s works in the collection also includes Carl Link, Robert McGinnis, Thomas Moran and celebrated Wyoming contemporary artist Harry Jackson. The museum's history is rich with stories, like one that says Jackson decided to show a friend his exhibition after a night on the town and shot off the lock of the museum's second home to get inside, Ruble said.
The museum continues to grow the collection and exhibitions, Ruble said. Am upcoming redesign of the collections storage area will allow the museum to acquire more works and properly store them, she said. Upcoming improvements funding through 1-cent taxes also include windows with UV protection, which will allow for visits from more high-end traveling exhibitions as well as the ability to showcase more items from the permanent collection.
Wil Durham, the founder's son, believes his mother would be pleased not just with the Nicolaysen Art Museum she founded but the growth of the arts throughout Casper, he said.
“It’s come a long way from a little house on A Street,” he said.