Museum of Western Art sees cowboy ride into the sunset

The American cowboy, 'King of the Plains,' as depicted on an early 1900s postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

The American cowboy, ‘King of the Plains,’ as depicted on an early 1900s postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

KERRVILLE, Texas (AP) – Cowboys still stand tall at the Museum of Western Art here, but the influence of that frontier icon has diminished, both in its galleries and in the modern world outside.

Since the museum’s affiliation ended a decade ago with the Cowboy Artists of America for whom it was designed and dedicated in 1983, landscapes and still lifes have supplemented the cowboys, Indians and mountain men in its art mix.

The national group left, in part, over losing exclusivity there for its works. It resulted in a sharp drop in patronage, by more than two-thirds.

Adding to erosion of the museum’s base of support was the subsequent departure of several board members to launch the yet-to-open Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio.

The museum’s financial status is “challenging,” said Bob Schmerbeck, chairman of the Kerrville museum’s board, which has endured criticism of its management even while exploring potential partnership and underwriting deals.

“It’s like a lot of other nonprofits in this kind of economy – we have tightened our belts,” he said, declining to share any budget details except to say, “We are current on all of our obligations.”

To reduce costs, several staff positions are vacant, including those of curator and director. Its latest available tax filing, for 2009, lists annual revenue of $549,129, expenses of $660,889 and net assets of $5.6 million.

“There were an awful lot of people who donated to the museum because of its affiliation with the cowboy artists,” said Hunt painter Roy Lee Ward, whose works hang in the Kerrville museum. “The donors owned cowboy art themselves, so it behooved them to support the museum to help promote cowboy artists.”

Some benefits have accrued from losing the all-male artist group, said Charles Torti, who was on the museum board for several years after the split.

“That opened it up … to include western landscapes and women artists,” said Torti, who blames demographics, a poor economy and media influences for the museum’s struggles.

“They have a wonderful, valuable art collection, but when you look at the bigger picture of who is interested in western art, the pool of people who come there are kind of a mix of baby boomers or older,” he said. “There’s less of us each day.”

Not counting the many student field trips, Schmerbeck said about 12,000 people each year visit the museum on Texas 173, designed by Texas architect O’Neil Ford and built on 10 acres of donated land. That’s down from 50,000 in the 1980s, he said.

Besides running the museum, the board maintains a 3,000-volume research library on western history and helps with an annual art academy.

Schreiner University, a longtime partner, has assumed a larger role in instructing the 62 high schoolers selected each year for the free four-week summer program from among winning artists at livestock shows and rodeos in San Antonio and Houston.

The academy provides “a fantastic educational opportunity,” said Bruce Greene, president of the Cowboy Artists of America board, who was an instructor there for years before being admitted to the artists group.

He said the Kerrville museum was never properly endowed and relations with the artists’ group soured as it displayed more work from other sources.

“We’ve got the most accomplished artists in the country and they’re not ready to go back to showing frame-to-frame with their students,” Greene said.

Griff Carnes, the museum’s founding director, last year was among those who approached the museum board on behalf of an unnamed wealthy benefactor who, they said, would donate $3 million in exchange for control of the board and other considerations.

The board declined, Schmerbeck said, because “there was just a lot of trepidation and concern that the museum wouldn’t be functioning as it was intended.”

Carnes’ partner, John Iman, called new blood on the board critical to the facility’s survival.

“The museum is a treasure that used to attract five-star exhibits. They’ve turned it into a local arts center,” Iman said. “They have little to no vision on how to get the museum back the way it used to be.”

Paula Horner, the museum’s curator from 2007-09, said board members lack the mindset needed to promote and safeguard a valuable community asset.

“The lack of understanding of the responsibilities of a museum to its community, and to act in a fiscally responsible and open manner, in my experience, is unprecedented,” she said.

“The cowboy museum has a place in our history because it was the only museum built to showcase the work of a specific group of artists and also because the cowboy is an American institution,” she said.

Details haven’t been released, but Schreiner University President Tim Summerlin recently discussed broadening relations with the museum, whose board is slated to discuss the issue Nov. 15.

Calling the museum a community treasure, Summerlin said, “It’s no secret that years ago there was a considerable amount of out-of-town money that went into the museum and now goes elsewhere.”

He was referring to the contentious 2003 museum board split in which some left to pursue creation of a $30 million western art museum in a higher-profile setting in San Antonio.

Renovation is complete of the former Hertzberg Circus Museum building at the corner of Market and Presa streets, said Steven M. Karr, executive director of the Briscoe Western Art Museum.

But it won’t open until October, he said, noting, “We’re working on building the collection.”

The Kerrville museum’s struggles are being followed by area artisan groups, including the Hill Country Arts Foundation.

“Donations are down to all of the arts and nonprofits, due to the economy,” said Brenda Harrison of the Ingram-based foundation, an arts and theater group. “I hope that the Museum of Western Art does well and becomes more robust because that helps all of us.”

For Torti, whose childhood hero was singing cowboy Gene Autry, a new appreciation of the old west is the only thing likely to bring a rebound in museum patronage.

“The western mystique has faded for the younger generation. They don’t see cowboys in the media much any more, so they’re not going to be excited about them,” he said. “But what a cowboy stands for, which is integrity, lives on.”


Information from: San Antonio Express-News,

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-11-08-12 1348GMT


The American cowboy, 'King of the Plains,' as depicted on an early 1900s postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

The American cowboy, ‘King of the Plains,’ as depicted on an early 1900s postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.