Future of Artist Harry Jackson’s Work Uncertain

Sep 13, 2013

Matt Jackson, surrounded by some of his father’s work and archives.

The fate of a major art collection hangs in the balance, as the estate of renowned Cody artist Harry Jackson looks for a benefactor. And unless a donor steps forward, Jackson’s life work will be piecemealed to pay the bills.

MICAH SCHWEIZER: The late Harry Jackson is best known for his Western art, like the sculpture of a hard-riding John Wayne that graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1969. He was born in Chicago, but Harry Jackson called Wyoming his spiritual birthplace. In 1938, when he was 14, he started working at the Pitchfork Ranch outside of Meeteetse. That’s where he learned cowboy songs later released on Smithsonian Folkways Records…

[MUSIC: Harry Jackson singing Round-up Cook]

SCHWEIZER: But that’s just one side of Harry Jackson, as Cody painter John Giarrizzo discovered during a six-month residency at the sprawling, warehouse-like Harry Jackson Studios.

JOHN GIARRIZZO: “We thought of him as somebody who created these beautiful bronze sculptures that were at the level of Frederick Remington. But then when you walk into that space, you’re confronted with the full spectrum of who Harry Jackson was as an artist.”

SCHWEIZER: There’s the Harry Jackson who was at the center of New York’s abstract expressionist scene, painting alongside Jackson Pollock. There’s the World War Two Marine veteran and combat sketch artist. He was a Hollywood radio actor. He sang at Carnegie Hall with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Now, a new biography is capturing Jackson’s colorful life.

HENRY ADAMS: “I’m Henry Adams and I’m professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.”

SCHWEIZER: Adams did research for his book at what he calls the Jackson trove in Cody.

ADAMS: “I find that I’m sort of overwhelmed by the extent of the material. So it’s an amazing record of a life that is really quite unusual, if not unique, to have all that stuff together in one place.”

SCHWEIZER: The place, a tan industrial-looking building, ringed by a chain link fence, hardly looks like a museum. The sign out front says “By appointment only,” and it’s certainly worth an appointment. There are five thousand drawings, four hundred paintings, and hundreds of sculptures…essentially Harry Jackson’s entire output, much of it on display in a gallery setting.

SCHWEIZER: Harry Jackson’s oldest son, Matt Jackson, oversees the estate.

MATT JACKSON: “We have a complete array of his life’s work. These are childhood drawings that his mother kept…”

SCHWEIZER: Plus, more than a hundred journals dating from 1945 to the artist’s death in 2011, his annotated library, letters, and other archival materials. But now it’s in jeopardy. To keep this sometimes overwhelming collection together, Matt Jackson needs to raise about five million dollars to pay the bills, care for the collection, and lay the foundation for a working institution. And while there are some hopeful signs, he says there are no firm financial commitments yet.

JACKSON: “It’s definitely a money question. And time is running out.”

SCHWEIZER: And by time is running out, Jackson means the estate will start selling pieces in October to stay afloat. And while many works have financial value, Jackson says they’re intrinsically more valuable in the context of the whole collection.

JACKSON: “You know, we’ll see where it goes. There’s a lot of excitement. You know, there’s just a bit of a funding gap.” [laughs]

SUSAN MOLDENHAUER: “I think situations like this are very complicated.”

SCHWEIZER: Susan Moldenhauer heads the University of Wyoming Art Museum.

MOLDENHAUER: “There’s the safety of the work, there’s the protection of the work. How do you sustain a collection? How do you have it support itself as a collection? And I think those are all questions that Matt is really struggling with right now.”

SCHWEIZER: Moldenhauer was part of a group of Wyoming cultural and arts organizations that met at the Harry Jackson Studios in August. The group drafted a statement affirming the value of the collection as a whole. Painter John Giarrizzo was also there. Here’s how he sums up the collection:

GIARRIZZO: “It redefines Wyoming and its art status culturally in the country and maybe globally. The fact that it is still together and that there’s a chance of it now dispersing seems like a travesty.”

SCHWEIZER: Meanwhile, Matt Jackson has traveling exhibits planned…but if he’s forced to start selling pieces, portions of the collection won’t be making a return trip to Cody. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Micah Schweizer.