MOORHEAD — Like many longtime Rourke Art Gallery + Museum patrons, Dan Jones has some fond memories of the annual "Midwestern Invitational Exhibit of Fine Art."

"I remember in the old gallery, eating strawberries and drinking Champagne on the porch because the house was packed and too damn hot," Jones says.

Strawberries and Champagne are a staple of "Midwestern" celebrations and warm gallery spaces, a byproduct of the 200-some that typically attend the event.

The Rourke won’t be serving Champagne and strawberries this year, and crowds won’t be a problem when the "Midwestern" opens on Thursday, June 18, because the Rourke, 521 Main Ave., won’t be open. The Moorhead art icon, like so many others, has been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

While the building will officially reopen Friday, June 19, the organization is keeping the tradition of a "Midwestern" celebration on June 18th.

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Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith's photo, "Memories From a Midwest Domicile: The Adventures of Olivia and Hazel," is part of this year's "Midwestern." Special to The Forum
Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith's photo, "Memories From a Midwest Domicile: The Adventures of Olivia and Hazel," is part of this year's "Midwestern." Special to The Forum

With COVID-19 still a very real threat, organizers knew inviting hundreds to the museum wasn’t feasible — but inviting that many or more to an online celebration was not only possible, but responsible, though a very different experience.

"It’s definitely strange," says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator. "The 'Midwesterns' have been evolving over the years, and this is definitely a more pronounced pivot."

The show is hung in the museum, but will go up on the Rourke’s website at 5 p.m. Thursday, with links to buy the art.

In the past, the "Midwestern" galleries could be crowded and, as Jones noted, quite stuffy, often making it hard to really take in the art. The online galleries should make viewing the art easier, though the socializing is a big part of the "Midwestern" experience.

"It’s like a class reunion for artists," Jones says.

Jessica Matson-Fluto's oil and bronze on canvas piece, "Storge," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum
Jessica Matson-Fluto's oil and bronze on canvas piece, "Storge," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum

This year is particularly notable as the Rourke celebrates its 60th anniversary.

As someone who has shown at the invitational over the last 30 years, Jones was asked for a suggested theme for this year’s show.

"I never liked the idea of themed 'Midwesterns,' so Jonathan asked what I would be pick and I said that I like self-portraits, so something like, 'In Your Own Skin.'" Jones recalls. "More than ever, people should take a look at themselves. It ended up being very timely."

Jones’ selections for award-winners will be announced at 7:15 p.m. Thursday via video on the Rourke’s site, www.therourke.org. He’ll have more than 70 pieces of art to consider from artists who have been involved in the "Midwestern" for years as well as newer names — and even from some who are no longer living. Charles Thysell submitted a piece just before dying in April of cancer.

An oil painting by the late Charles Thysell, "In Her Own Skin," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum
An oil painting by the late Charles Thysell, "In Her Own Skin," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum

"It’s terribly sad Charlie can’t be with us. I guess he will be with us remotely, but not as close as we might like," Rutter says.

The awards are usually announced at a post-show dinner, but this year's participants are invited to order from a set menu at Rustica Eatery & Tavern, 315 Main Ave., pick up their meal at a set time between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. and then tune in for the festivities.

The fun comes to a close starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with a broadcast set by Hartford Street Brass.

In addition to the 61st "Midwestern" being online this year, a companion show will look at the exhibit and ensuing festivities through the years, thanks in large part to photos by Todd Hunter Strand.

Laura Youngbird's mixed media monotype, "One Size," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum
Laura Youngbird's mixed media monotype, "One Size," is part of this year's Rourke "Midwestern." Special to The Forum

While the Rourke has been closed for the past three months, staff have been busy on various projects. The galleries are repainted and work is progressing on a reading room on the second floor which will allow patrons and students to study artists that influence and reflect the collection. Staff has also been working with Moorhead Community Access TV to create an oral history of arts in the area, with videos eventually available on the Rourke’s YouTube channel and at the museum.

The building will open back up to the public on Friday, but to maintain social distancing and other safe practices, guests must make an appointment and also wear a mask.

Brett Lysne's screenprint and colored pencil piece, "Safety Shift," is part of this year's "Midwestern." Special to The Forum
Brett Lysne's screenprint and colored pencil piece, "Safety Shift," is part of this year's "Midwestern." Special to The Forum

Rutter says much of that plans for future shows are in a wait-and-watch mode, though he’s looking into an outdoor art show with works pasted to the walls of the sculpture garden starting at the end of June. He’s also working on a founder's day celebration on July 20, celebrating the birthday of the museum’s late namesake and driving force, James O’Rourke.

Fall shows look to feature Ben Rheault, John Charles Cox and DeborahMae Broad as well as a sale of work by Robert A. Nelson, one of the first artists to have a show at the Rourke.

"It’s been gratifying seeing art through digital platforms, but a strong reminder of how important direct engagement with the physical work is," Rutter says. "We’re eager to welcome familiar faces back to the building."