I am in mourning today over the loss of a close friend and mentor, James O'Rourke. Jim has since 1960 been an icon of the art scene in the Fargo-Moorhead area since he founded the Rourke Art Gallery in that year. He also co-founded the Plains Art Museum and later expanded the Rourke to include the Rourke Art Museum. I met him in 1995 when as a freshman at Concordia College studying art and computer science I took an internship as a gallery technician.
That internship ended up lasting four years. In that time he had just acquired the old historic post office building in Moorhead, MN and much of my work with him involved turning that space into a functioning exhibition space. I have fond, yet bizarre, memories of moving Warhol and Lichtenstein paintings as well as countless sculptures and other valuables from either his house or his gallery to the new museum space on foot (the gallery, his house, and the museum are all within a few blocks of each other). It must have been quite the sight to passers by to see two guys parading these huge and extremely valuable works down residential streets.
Jim was one of my greatest mentors and became one of my closest friends. While I worked there he would take me out to lunch at least once a week. He would often meet with artists and other people important to the museum for lunch and he always made a point of inviting his gallery staff to come with. In part, I believe, this was to offer his interns a learning experience but it was always more than a simple business luncheon. Jim chose to make art his life and devote 100% to it. He made a conscious choice not to have a family of his own so in many ways, though somewhat unconventional, he treated his college interns as part of his family and most all of us, after graduating and moving on to pursue our careers would come back to visit. Every time in the past eleven years I had reason to go to Fargo-Moorhead I made an effort to stop by and visit as did so many others who became part of Jim's family.
Jim had a way of making art accessible to just about anyone. It did not matter if you were a rich doctor's wife, a C.E.O., a postal worker, a teacher, or a taxicab driver; the institution he established made everyone who could come together for the appreciation of fine art part of the social elite. And, perhaps this is his greatest legacy. He knew that art mattered and that it could have profound influence to better the lives of all, not just the wealthy.
After graduating from Concordia College in the summer of 1999 I moved to the Twin Cities and took a job at the Walker Art Center. Even though I graduated with a degree in art education I felt the place I would do the most good would be working in museums. What I found there, as well as in most other art museums around the country, was that even though there were concerted outreach efforts, the arts were largely inaccessible to most people. There existed within these organizations a sense of a closed-group where one had to be part of a certain social class with unwritten rules for entry to really take part. In contrast, at the Rourke all who shared appreciation were welcomed and valued members.
My relationship with Jim helped me to solidify a sense purpose in my life. You could hardly know the guy without having some of his passion for art and what art can do for the health of a person and a community rub off on you. That purpose lies at the heart of most everything I do. It is finding value in the unmeasurable, in valuing of aesthetics both outside and in, and not allowing our measurements become our measure of things. Jim's gallery and museum are unique. He would exhibit internationally known masters next to the work of college students; works worth tens of thousands of dollars next to works which sold for fifty bucks. And, in many cases he would say the fifty dollar painting was better. It was this sense of worth that allowed him to grow not one but three world class art museums within a city as small as Fargo-Moorhead. It was this sense of worth that brought such a diverse group of patrons to his museum time and again. It was this sense of worth, not the dollar, not a scoring rubric, not an achievement test, not a birthright that brought people together in that place. But, most of all it was love. Jim, we will miss you.
If you knew Jim, gallery staff are collecting stories in remembrance on the museum's Facebook Page.