When James O’Rourke and Orland J. Rourke opened Rourke Art Museum on June 18, 1960, in the former Moorhead Federal Post Office building, the first exhibition to fill the gallery was “An Exhibition of Midwestern Artists.” The exhibit, now known as the Midwestern, has become a treasured annual tradition to celebrate the museum’s anniversary and regional artistic talent.
Over the years, the Midwestern has continued to grow and evolve with the addition of themes to “keep the exhibit fresh and drive interest for the artists and the patrons,” says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator at the Rourke.
The theme for the 60th annual exhibition that opened in June is “Zeitgeist,” which means “spirit of the age.”
“Now, as for what abiding spirit and what age, that leaves the door open for possibilities,” Rutter says.
Because the exhibit is an invitational, the Rourke sent out a call to 160 artists from across the Midwest who have previously worked with the museum, Rutter says. Ninety-five artists submitted 93 pieces, two of which are collaborations — along the Zeitgeist theme. A wide variety of pieces fill the two main floor galleries, the lobby and part of the upstairs gallery until Sept. 1.
The high volume of entries this year provided a fun challenge for jurors Amanda Heidt and Jessica Matson Fluto when choosing award winners at the exhibition preview in June. The jurors, both of whom are local artists and art educators, walked through the exhibit together and separately to mark down which pieces stood out to them according to their interpretation of “zeitgeist” as a “moment in time,” Heidt says.
Their lists contained many of the same names. “It was interesting because we both have taken on roles of teaching each other, so the way we think about art is relatively close,” says Heidt, adding that Fluto is her former professor.
The duo also did an artist-in-residency together with Hannaher’s Print Studio at Plains Art Museum in the past.
“We are both process-oriented artists, so being able to understand the theme helped us decide how to go about (choosing award winners),” she says.
Fluto chimes in that they looked at pieces “in terms of political concepts,” she says. “There are some pieces that are perhaps more politically driven, but that played into it,” she adds.
For example, first-place winner Anna Haglin’s piece is a menstrual cup set in bronze that reminded the jurors of ongoing debates on women’s rights to body autonomy.
Ben Rheault’s piece, which placed second, showcases a canvas painted black with the chilling phrase “thoughts and prayers” in slightly darker text. The poignant artwork is part of a series to address societal issues the artist finds concerning, he says.
“(The pieces in the series) are intentionally tongue-in-cheek, but they beg the viewer to question our current circumstances,” the Fargo artist says. “’Thoughts and prayers’ is all anyone says for so many tragedies, yet nothing is being done. I was speaking to that. Sadly, I think it is all too representative of where we are as a country at this time.”
Other works along the Zeitgeist theme are more whimsical or abstract, like third-place winner “Amass/Sort/Adhere/Sever I” that Minnesota-based artist John Charles Cox created with graphite, red pencil and a frosted, translucent plastic called duralar. The artist typically works with the human figure, but his piece in the Midwestern provides an abstract interpretation of social interactions among organisms, particularly how humans “interact with their networks across various social media platforms on micro and macro levels,” Cox says.
“Balancing the potential uncertainty of a whole versus the comfort of the individual to create a highly functioning group is fascinating to me,” he adds.
Heidt and Fluto also awarded Dwight Mickelson and Heidi Goldberg honorable mentions for their pieces “Redacted Savior” and “Enclosing Ourselves,” respectively.
Although the show is only up for three more weeks, Fluto hopes people make time to see the show and “keep an open mind,” she says.
Heidt hopes visitors honor “the tradition that comes into play” of the Midwestern and “truly understand the idea behind the theme,” she says. “Right now is the time that artists need to be making,” Heidt adds. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
What: 60th annual Midwestern Exhibition
Where: Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead
When: Regular museum hours (1-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday) until Sept. 1
Cost: Free and open to the public
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and appeared in print on Monday August 12, 2019.