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John Lamb, Published June 18 2011

Lamb: Rourke’s Midwestern still ‘fantastic’

John Rowell is fitting right in as the interim director of the Rourke Art Museum and Gallery.

When asked about this year’s Midwestern Exhibition, which opens tonight with the preview, Rowell immediately called it, “Fantastic. The best one yet.”

Which is exactly what Rourke founder James O’Rourke said every year when asked about the invitational show, though he was likely to throw in a handful of other assured superlatives like “terrific,” “sensational,” or “fabulous.”

Rowell says all the right things, but can’t (and isn’t trying to) replace O’Rourke’s particularly confident delivery.

This will be the first Midwestern without the organization’s founder, who died in his home in early March.

Rowell said the board is working on a list of characteristics to look for in a full-time director, but hasn’t started a search.

Business has continued as usual at the Rourke, which often had an unusual way of doing business. Even the most menial tasks bordered on ritual and tradition was strictly observed.

The scheduled shows have gone on as planned, though staffers are playing a bigger role in executing exhibits and events.

As the signature annual event, the Midwestern marks the founding of the Rourke Art Gallery in 1950. Each year a theme is given to the roughly 100 artists invited to submit art. This year’s theme is, “What Would Dante Do?”

Instead of a cake at the anniversary event, strawberries are served with champagne. (Note – strawberries in champagne can cause an excessively bubbly reaction that may lead to you not getting served any more champagne.)

The day after the Midwestern, artists and patrons gather again at the Rourke Art Gallery for lunch and a tree-planting honoring a Rourke artist.

Until now it had been O’Rourke who chose the artist worthy of such an honor. The one rule was that the artist had to be living.

This year the organization breaks with tradition and dedicates a pear tree to the late founder. O’Rourke was particular about many things and how he selected pears was something between science and religion for him.

Before the tree planting, family and friends will gather at Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead for a 10:30 a.m. memorial service for O’Rourke.

While he will be celebrated all weekend by those who knew him best, chances are the memorials won’t end after Sunday’s events.

Without O’Rourke to pick the theme for next year’s Midwestern, this year’s juror, painter/illustrator Jonathan Twingley assigns next year’s subject.

Don’t be at all surprised if it’s an ode to O’Rourke, which I think all of those interested would consider, without fear of hyperbole, “the best one yet.”

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533