MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer CODY, Wyo.
It started with a single sculpture a rifletoting, horse-riding bronze of Buffalo Bill Cody by New York ar t i s t -hei res s Ger t rude Vanderbilt Whitney. Now, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art located in Cody's namesake community just east of Yellowstone National Park is marking its first halfcentury with a sweeping reinstallation. The Whitney name stands as a reminder that it was made possible with Eastern largesse, the same behind New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "We used to kid about how to build a Western museum with Eastern money, but it was basically true," said former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, chairman of the gallery's parent institution, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. With the museum's funds now increasingly from Western donors, Simpson said, "that old slogan doesn't work anymore." True to the museum's roots, works by "cowboy artists" such as Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington are just steps away from one of the world's most comprehensive gun collections, the Cody Firearms Museum. Like the Colt six-shooters up the hall, the Whitney Gallery derives its reputation largely from iconic visions of a West frozen in time. The paintings and sculptures betray a nostalgia for a world now past, populated with pioneers and Indians and complicated by winter storms, stampeding cattle and aggressive bears. In crafting the reinstallation, curator Mindy Besaw tried to push the genre to new heights. She mixed and regrouped artists, styles and media to transform what had been a conventional artistic survey driven by chronology into a thematic story told in the colors and textures of the West. "You're never going to get a white canvas with a blue square on it and call it Western art," Besaw said. "But there's something about the West that's always going to be magical or powerful for people if you want to reminisce about a simpler time. It's wonderful out here, and there's something about the paintings that remind people of that." There are other Western art museums of distinction, most notably the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Gilcrease in Tulsa, Okla. But Texas and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma have in recent decades transmogrified into oil empires. The rest of the West has changed, too, with Colorado known for its ski resorts, Nevada its slot machines and Arizona its ret irement communit ies. California? Movie sets aside, its dusty stage coach routes and rural beginnings have given way to ribbons of highway and vainglorious urban excess. Back in Wyoming and the Whitney the West, as America once imagined it, lives on. A 1911 N.C. Wyeth painting of a pair of hunters facing off against a snarling bear closely mirrors a scene that played out just last month, when a man shot and killed a grizzly near Cody after it mauled him while he was scouting for elk.