50th Anniversary Letter

A letter from Interim Director, Jodi Lundgren

Jodi Lundgren

May 31, 2020

RISING FROM what was a hillside cow pasture on a Brookings farm in the late 1800s is the sparkling new South Dakota Memorial Art Center.

Its white quartz exterior glistens in the sun like a beacon signaling the cultural ex­plosion that thundered across the Dakota prairies in the 1960s.

On Sunday afternoon, May 31, the center will be dedicated and opened to the public, culminating the hopes and dreams of interested Dakotans for over 20 years.

(“The South Dakota Memorial Art Center,” North Plains Today, May 1970, Vol.2, No.5)

Sunday, May 31, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the South Dakota Art Museum, the first day that the public streamed through the doors of the museum then known as the South Dakota Memorial Art Center. Fundraising for the museum was historic, the largest capital campaign pursued within the state to date. An estimated 50,000 individuals contributed to the efforts.

The historic capital campaign and contributions of tens of thousands of people is the bedrock of the museum, a testament to the relationships that the museum was founded on and to the public service it is dedicated to. The museum was built by community, built to serve and celebrate community, and is still today vital and vibrant because of the support and involvement of the communities and individuals it serves. The museum is also a testament to the Upper Plains spirit of the people of the state, and its highest virtues of dedication, determination, resourcefulness, innovation, aspiration, humility, and civic service.

The truth is that the work of the museum began long before it was built. It was seeded in the rich artistic traditions and cultural values of Oceti Sakowin communities, who have long been and remain integral partners to the museum in serving people through art. It was cultivated in the pioneering efforts of South Dakota State University’s first Art Professor, Ada Caldwell, who sparked a community interest in and appreciation of visual art across South Dakota in the early decades of the 20th century and encouraged a legendary artist named Harvey Dunn. It was galvanized in the South Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs, who dreamt of a center to house the state’s artistic treasures, and convinced the South Dakota State Legislature to charter a museum to “honor the creative nature of mankind and serve as an inspiration to the people of South Dakota.” It was animated by South Dakota State University President H.M. Briggs, who committed the university to making the dream a reality. And it was finally manifested through the focus of prominent local businessman Elmer Sexauer, who was enlisted by Briggs to carry the ball across the finish line and worked with singular dedication to secure the final funds necessary to build the museum.

Far too many people and communities to name helped to create the museum and also support and shape it over its 50-year history in existence. Many of these people and their efforts are embodied in the collection of the museum itself, alive in artworks and archives that preserve their names and give just a glimpse, a sense, of their appreciation of the museum, their dedication and importance. To study the works in the collection is to truly understand the history of this place, to experience inspiring values, to witness beautiful achievements, all crafted by outstanding individuals and communities who gave to art so art could give to all of us. We are taking time on the occasion of our 50th to review, reflect, and reveal the relationships and values embedded in the beautiful works in our collections. We will share as much of this as we can uncover through our exhibitions and programming this year.

We ask that everyone who has a story to share, about how the museum and the people and artworks connected to it have touched and impacted your lives, share those stories with us. Through this we hope to build our archives, deepen our appreciation, cultivate our collective understanding of the identity and importance of the museum, so that we are moored to an intimate knowledge of history that will help guide us in our decisions about the future.

The transformative, grounding, and elevating power of visual art to deepen and enrich ourselves and our communities is both the foundation of the museum and its focus today. Serving people and strengthening communities through all art has to offer is both our tradition and our aspiration. The South Dakota Art Museum is proud of all it has accomplished in its 50-year history, all of the efforts that built up to that first 50 years, and excited to bring so many more fruits of art to the people it serves in the next 50 years.