THE NATIONAL Museum of Wildlife Art -- a low-slung, reddish flagstone building hugging a hillside along the highway north of this ski town -- was designed to fit in with its surroundings. The 51,000-square-foot museum succeeded better than expected.
"The museum was built to blend into the hillside," says James C. McNutt, the institution's president. "It was built so well that no one sees it. They just go sailing by." The building was designed by Denver-based architect Curtis Fentress.
To draw attention to itself, the museum commissioned sculptor Bart Walter to create a visual signpost: five bronze elk gamboling over a cliff, the largest a bull tilting back its head to raise a great rack of antlers to the sky. The work was installed last year, just in time for the facility's 20th anniversary. "We're trying to reach out to make people aware of the work and the museum," McNutt says. The museum is something of a proud anomaly in the art world: a rare institution devoted to the (mostly) realistic portrayal of wildlife. Although its 4,000-piece collection includes works by artists ranging from Durer to Warhol, the richest holdings are by painters and sculptors you normally won't find in prestigious fine-art temples: Bob Kuhn, Robert Bateman, Carl Rungius.
"There's tension between first- and second-class art and who says what art is," McNutt says. "Representational art is getting back into the mainstream in ways it hasn't been for a while. But there are still quite a few museums that won't hang this kind of work, that don't care about it."
Walter agrees. Although he's had five solo shows at institutions that don't normally display wildlife sculpture, Walter says such mainstream recognition is elusive for most artists who devote themselves to the genre.
"There's an unfortunate chasm between wildlife art and what's perceived as fine art," says Walter, who lives in Maryland but frequently studies his subjects in the wild. "Historically, as in any genre, there's good art and bad art and a good deal of what the public has seen of wildlife art has been weak. The National Wildlife Museum is working to rectify that."
At the same time, the museum is trying to nudge the boundaries of what people come to the museum expecting to see. Yes, there are big cat sculptures by Antoine-Louis Barye and bird paintings by John J. Audubon; but there's also a show opening next month devoted to Picasso's animal illustrations. The exhibit is called "Modernism Meets Natural History" (June 7 through Oct. 19), a chance to see 31 etchings that the artist created in 1941 for a special edition of the Comte de Buffon's classic "L'historie Naturelle."
"We're expanding the notion of what's important in wildlife art," McNutt says. "We don't want to be a local museum. People from all over the world come here."
In many ways Jackson Hole is an ideal place for such a museum. The majestic Grand Teton National Park is just up the road, Yellowstone National Park a little farther. It's easy to spot moose munching away along the banks of the Snake River. Bald eagles soar through the sky.
McNutt's office overlooks the National Elk Refuge across the highway. A down jacket hangs next to a suit coat on the back of a door. "This location is one of the few places in North America where you'll see wildlife running around," McNutt says. "That's what people come here for." Picking up a pair of binoculars, McNutt points out a coyote roaming on a hillock above the vast herd of elk.
The museum started out in downtown Jackson in 1987, when Bill and Joffa Kerr opened a gallery to display their collection of wildlife art, which then numbered 250 paintings. In 1994 the museum moved to its present home. Last year, 80,000 visitors stopped by.
"The mission is to focus on humanity's relationship with wildlife, and the relationship between art and wildlife," McNutt says. "There's a great story to tell."
Man has been drawing wildlife since people first carved hunting scenes into the sides of caves. But traditionally artists specializing in wildlife often did little more than paint rather banal pictures of big game -- hunting porn. "It was often viewed as good wildlife art if the animal is portrayed accurately, not because it's great art," says Walter.
The museum aspires to raise the bar. One of its most popular works, for example, is Bateman's acrylic painting of a buffalo, its mountainous bulk emerging out of the mists, its noble head turned toward the viewer -- a fine work whatever its subject. And the museum recently acquired a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe called "Antelope," which shows the profile of a pronghorn skull against a pale desert sky.
"It occurred to me pretty quickly," McNutt says, "that there's three big groups we can talk to: people who love art, wildlife and museums. Some are all three. And we're finding a lot of them. Part of it is getting people to see the connections. That's the fascinating part of it."
ARETROSPECTIVE of Walter's work, which runs though June 22, is a case in point. The bronze sculptures are heavily impastoed (reminiscent of Degas' horse sculptures) yet naturalistically rendered, whether it's a chimp hugging its body while staring at the viewer like a philosopher contemplating the meaning of life, or a family of apes striding across a clearing.
"Working directly from life is very integral to my method," Walter says. "In the last decade I've spent a year of my life in Africa, most of the time spent in the bush living in tents, rising before dawn to sketch wildlife. The hardest thing is looking at the magnificence of what's in front of me and what I'm attempting to create with my hands. The results only hint at the magnificence of what I see."