Kerr, the Man Behind Jackson Hole’s National Museum of Wildlife Art
As discussed in the article below, “Art portraying wild animals of the American West had been created since artists trailed early explorers and exploiters into the region. But there was something about the subjects being animals that made it less than serious in the wider world of art. The work was seen by many as cute or common, not fine art but illustration, something that appealed not to connoisseurs but to their kids.”
A family of Oklahoma oilmen changed that.
William G. Kerr, founder of the world-famous National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, died July 4 in Oklahoma City. He was 85.
Kerr and his wife, Joffa, who died in June 2022 at the age of 87, live in Wilson, Wyoming, since 1982.
Together, the Kerrs launched the NMWA, using their substantial personal collection as the foundation for the gallery’s inventory.
Kerr’s love of art began in 1962 when his wife gifted him a modest Les Kouba painting of a panfish to celebrate his graduation from law school. It sparked a lifelong dedication for collecting and sharing with the world his passion for the power of art.
Two years later, Kerr bought “Wanderers Above Timberline” by German-American artist Carl Rungius. At the time, Kerr commented on how affordable a Rungius work was then.
Kerr’s appreciation of Rungius, in part, helped launch a public renaissance in the work of the legend now widely considered the greatest painter of North American big game.
“We have lost more than just a museum founder, but a true visionary in the art world,” said NMWA Director Steve Seamons.
Kerr was chair emeritus and one of the founding trustees of the NMWA along with his wife.
The original museum opened in 1987 in a 5,000-square-foot rented space in downtown Jackson featuring the bulk of the Kerrs’ impressive personal collection.
In 1994, the museum was relocated to a 51,000-square-foot “castle” fashioned after the ruins of Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It featured an Idaho quartzite façade and was unlike anything in Jackson Hole at the time.
“May it long serve those who come to this place in search of the wild, the natural, the forgotten, and the serene,” Kerr said at the time.
Later, celebrating the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2012, Kerr said, “Nature is as fragile as it is fierce. Our institution holds and cares for some of humankind’s most thoughtful and spirited portrayals of the natural world as we have known it. That is a legacy we have the opportunity to embellish and preserve.”
Seamons said Kerr’s impact on what the founder always referred to as a “community museum” is immeasurable.
“Kerr leaves an indelible legacy behind through the thoughtfully curated pieces within the museum’s collection, the relationships he built with staff and trustees, and the artists he inspired through his patronage,” Seamons said. “This museum is a testament [the Kerr’s] vision, philanthropy, and enduring impact on the art world.”
Bill Kerr was one of four children born to Robert S. Kerr, famed Oklahoma businessman and politician who formed a petroleum company before serving as Oklahoma’s 12th governor and eventually as a three-term U.S. senator.
Like his father, Bill Kerr was a giant of a man. Literally. Kerr stood 6-foot-7, and looked and sounded every bit like his idol Abe Lincoln.
Sue Simpson Gallagher, the museum’s first curator and longtime board member, also knows a thing or two about tall men. Her father happens to be former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (also 6-7) of Wyoming.
“When Bill Kerr talked about how art is essential in everyone’s life and that beauty should be shared, everyone got so excited and took ownership of the new museum. It started out as a community museum and it still is. There is nothing elitist about it,” Simpson Gallagher said. “That was Bill and Joffa Kerr’s goal. Because of the Kerrs’ involvement in the art world, we had great shows right from the beginning.”
Kerr is survived by his daughters, Kavar and Mara; god-daughter, Karla Keller; grandchildren, Ayla, Graycen and Whitney Mashburn; and great-granddaughters, Tyler Grayce, Caroline Blake and Aubrey Kate Mashburn.
In lieu of flowers the family requests memorial gifts be made to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, P.O. Box 6825, Jackson, WY 83002.
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