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North Dakota native returns to establish Western art gallery

Posted on 4/1/2013

By Lauren Donovan, The Bismarck Tribune

WASHBURN, N.D. - Alvera Bergquist has love of North Dakota and love of art running through her veins.

Where the two meet in her heart is in a gallery at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn.

There, she has invested a considerable portion of her net worth to see to it that one of the region's foremost centers for Plains Indian and expedition interpretation has a substantial helping of art to tell the story.

Bergquist's first gift in 1996 helped fund the gallery that's been named for her and is being expanded in a new wing.

In the years since, she has made numerous donations that today amount to nearly $500,000 for construction of the gallery and the purchase of prints, originals and bronzes that will vault the interpretive center into a world-class repository of distinctive western pieces.

It is that art collection that could eventually set the Washburn interpretive center apart from all others, said David Borlaug, executive director.

"She's made all the difference in the world," Borlaug said.

A delivery truck pulled up to the interpretive center several days ago and the driver carried in crates holding Bergquist's latest gifts.

Inside were two paintings by western artist Michael Haynes, one of William Clark and one of Meriwether Lewis that were replicated as iconic images of the explorers during the 2004-06 bicentennial of the expedition.

The images traveled across the country those years on the side of a National Park Service semi trailer. The distinctive trailer contained a traveling exhibit that was set up in towns and cities from coast to coast.

The originals were purchased by Peyton "Bud" Clark, the great-great-great-grandson of the explorer, as part of his personal collection.

Clark wanted to sell them and called Borlaug. Borlaug wanted to buy them, so he called Bergquist, who had by now established a substantial art fund for the interpretive center.

"She said, ‘Yes,'" Borlaug said, and the $20,000 deal was made.

Bergquist made the trip to Washburn from Bismarck to take a look at the paintings for the first time.

After having a long and thoughtful look, the paintings obviously pleased her artistically and historically. But they pleased her mostly for the significant way they add to the collection.

"It's not just about the building. What the building owns is what's really important," Bergquist said.

Bergquist is a native daughter of homesteaders on both sides of the family. She graduated from Underwood High School and Jamestown College and then set out for a life of teaching in California and primarily in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I taught for 39 years, mostly third-graders, and I loved it," she said.

Her family had an art collection in the home, nothing particularly valuable, but all of it memorable and impressionable for the way it made her see beyond the prairie town she lived in.

In Scottsdale, she frequented galleries and studios, collecting a few pieces of her own, and becoming immersed in the world of contemporary art.

She believes everyone should be or take the time to be exposed to visual arts.

"We need to change the way we look at the things, because we're always looking at things that are the same," she said. "You enjoy art because of the exposure to it over and over again. You have to work at it."

She returned to North Dakota in 2007, worried that she would lose her connection to art.

Then she met Borlaug and made a new connection to western art and the history of Lewis and Clark.

She said she's enjoyed making sizeable contributions for the gallery and its contents and at the same time learning to appreciate western art. She's added to the experience by taking a driving tour of western art museums across the Great Plains in recent summers.

As for parting with money she's accumulated herself through careful living, "It's much easier to part with a large number than for something on the menu," she said.

Because of her generosity, the gallery now has a contemporary edition of Karl Bodmer's paintings from his time among the Plains Indians at nearby Fort Clark in 1833-34, as well as George Catlin's personal 1844 prints from an expedition there during the same time period. It also has other original works by Haynes and sculpture by John Coleman.

This is a legacy that Bergquist can enjoy in her own lifetime and visitors can enjoy for years to come.

The pleasure is all hers, she says. "This is wonderful," she said.

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