Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum explores the future of Western art with Prix de West

click to enlarge Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum explores the future of Western art with Prix de West
photographer - Bob Smith
Painting by George Hallmark, size: 30" x 36" year: 2016

Today, the West looks little like it did when it was “won,” but Western art continues galloping forward, chronicling the evolution of the region and its culture. The full range of entries in the 45th annual Prix de West at National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd St., proves that Western art is not monolithic — it contains multitudes, much like the West itself.

Prix de West, which opened June 9 and continues through Aug. 6, is one of the most influential and prestigious Western art shows and sales in the nation, with 97 artists showing their work at the juried event. The show includes Western art seminars, demonstrations by participating artists, a live auction, a sale, book signings, a trunk sale and the unveiling of the artwork selected for annual Prix de West awards in eight categories.

Top honors

A new award presented this year was the Wilson Hurley Memorial Award, named for the revered Tulsa-born landscape artist, who died in 2008. Hurley was known for his dramatic, large-scale paintings of Western landscapes and weather phenomena. His five triptychs known as Windows to the West are displayed in the museum’s Sam Noble Special Events Center.

Colorado artist Len Chmiel earned the inaugural honor this year for his 25-by-38-inch oil painting “Transparent Water Colors,” which sold for $24,000. He also was awarded a $3,000 award sponsored by Bob and Margaret Mills.

The prestigious Prix de West Purchase Award is the single artwork selected by the museum for inclusion in its holdings. Susan Patterson, the museum’s curator of special exhibits, said the award helps extend the facility’s scope in terms of highlighting the evolution of Western art in the 21st century.

T. Allen Lawson of Sheridan, Wyoming, earned the 2017 Prix de West Purchase Award with “The Nursery Tree,” his 35-by-32-inch oil on panel painting, which sold for $48,000. He also received a $5,000 award and the Prix de West medallion.

click to enlarge Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum explores the future of Western art with Prix de West
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided
“American Icon” by Sandy Scott

Determining excellence

“We have a Prix de West committee that listens to the curatorial staff and judges the show,” Patterson said. “Our goal is to broaden our museum’s collection, and they look at many factors before making a decision about a piece we’re going to purchase.”

Those factors include not only the excellence of the works under consideration, but how those particular works can augment the museum’s current holdings.

“We ask, ‘Does it add to the diversity of the collection?’” she said. “We don’t want to have 10 pieces by the same artist in a 45-year period. It comes down to 10 or 12 people sitting around a table and trying to come to a consensus in terms of what piece would be best for the museum collection.”
Patterson said that consensus-building process can involve a great deal of deliberation.

“Sometimes, the piece selected doesn’t fall under that you might say is pretty, but it might be a forward-thinking artist who has depicted the American West in a way that we never thought of considering,” she said. “It is beyond a pretty picture. We want something that, 100 years from now, when someone comes to this museum and visits, they’re going to see a collection that a lot of thought was given to through the Prix de West exhibition.”

While the purchase award has long been a component of Prix de West, the spirit with which it is awarded is part and parcel of recent forward movement at the museum regarding scope and philosophy. Recent exhibits, including John R. Hamilton’s photographic retrospective Hollywood and the American West and 2016’s Power and Prestige: Headdresses of the American Plains, pushed the museum’s repertoire in new directions that help make history tangible and expand the definition of Western art. Patterson said continually adding to its collection through the Prix de West purchase award helps maintain the museum’s status as a living document of the West.

Collector opportunities

By design, Prix de West is an opportunity for aficionados to add to their collections, but it is not exclusively for active collectors, Patterson said.

“Even if purchasing art is maybe not on your list of what you see yourself doing, it’s really a wonderful opportunity to view today’s art created by the top Western artists in our country,” she said. “I think it can broaden a visitor’s view in terms of how each of these artists sees the American West, whether they see a historic West or a contemporary West.”

Visit for an online catalog of the more than 300 Prix de West works for sale.

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