For nearly three decades, Susan Moldenhauer watched — and helped guide — the University of Wyoming Art Museum as it grew from a cramped lower-level exhibition space to take up 50,000 square feet in UW’s Centennial Complex.
As the museum expanded, so did its collections, its academic engagement and its educational outreach. After leading the museum for 26 years through this expansion, Moldenhauer retired in November.
“I’m so proud of this museum and the fact that it’s here in Wyoming,” she said. “The opportunity to work there for most of my career has been extraordinary.”
The UW Art Museum once occupied what is now the dance studio in the lower level of the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts. Moldenhauer began at the museum as a curator of programs in 1991.
“At that time, they had a design for the Centennial Complex and they had broken ground,” she said. “So, the new building had been funded and planned and started. I came in at the point where we were looking at closing the old museum and moving into that new facility, which we did in September of 1993.”
Moving from two galleries to nine was no easy feat, especially for a museum with few collections and one small endowment paying out a few hundred dollars a year. Moldenhauer said she and the museum staff worked to fill the space until about 2000.
“Really, the first decade almost in that building we were, from an institutional perspective, adjusting to the expansion from the smaller space that we had into the larger space,” she said. “We had a lot of adjustments to figure out, both physically and financially, on how to make the museum function in that beautiful, big space. And it took us about eight years to figure that out.”
The museum hosted more exhibitions and became a more focused institution during those years, Moldenhauer said.
“By around 2000, I would say we had a really, good solid exhibition program in place, and that continues today,” she said. “There are three prongs to that program — contemporary art, art from other times and cultures and art of the American West.”
Around this time, Moldenhauer became interim director of the museum, eventually becoming full-time director in 2002. The need for endowments to support the museum became a focus for her.
“I think we had one endowment that supported acquisitions and it provided less than $400 — it was really small,” she said. “So, we really focused on that endowment campaign from 2000-2005. … At the end of that five-year period, we started to have enough funds that we could actually be proactive in acquiring objects for the collection, in addition to whatever donations were coming in, which continued throughout that time.”
The museum also found itself responding to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Moldenhauer said, which hurt the museum’s ability to engage with K-12 students.
“Like many museums did, we saw attendance of K-12 students and faculty drop dramatically because it was no longer included in the benchmarking of what students were to learn,” she said. “So, we re-evaluated our program and started working with teachers so they could understand how to use the museum.”
Academic and educational outreach would remain important themes through Moldenhauer’s tenure as director. The museum set aside classroom space for students and actively encouraged instructors at all levels to incorporate museum visits into their lesson plans.
“It’s been evolving over time from a really small academic museum to a much more diverse and vibrant and — I hope — engaging place for faculty, students and the community to come in and enjoy and use,” she said.
Moldenhauer was motivated to focus on public art when the museum closed in 2008 for renovations.
“I was hearing a lot of interest in getting public art into Laramie and onto campus,” she said. “Nobody knew how to do it and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do an exhibition.’ I worked with the president’s office and with a committee of folks on campus and an adjacent committee of folks off campus.”
This resulted in 18 works of public art being installed on campus within a five-month span. The works remained standing for three years.
“When that came down, all of a sudden, there was this void of public art again,” Moldenhauer said. “So, in the process of doing that, I started working off campus with a group called the Laramie Beautification Committee, and that’s a group of people who are really interested in making Laramie more welcoming to tourists and the potential for new businesses and new companies to come here.”
Moldenhauer has since continued to bring together the UW Art Museum and the Laramie community through various projects and collaborations, including Touchstone Laramie, the Laramie Mural Project and the Laramie Public Art Coalition.
“(Moldenhauer’s) role in the community art scene in Laramie is vital,” said Meg Thompson of the Wyoming Art Party. “She’s been involved in — or directly responsible for starting — almost every one of these projects. She’s spent a lot of time volunteering and working toward creating opportunities for artists in Laramie and across the state and opportunities for our community to engage with art more.”
Thompson has participated in both the mural project and Touchstone Laramie and works as coordinator for the public art coalition. She said Moldenhauer does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that makes these projects possible.
Laramie Main Street Alliance Executive Director Trey Sherwood agreed, having first worked with Moldenhauer in 2011 to establish the Laramie Mural Project.
“Susan’s always been very savvy about making sure that the work at the UW Art Museum is accessible to really the entire state,” Sherwood said. “And so, when this opportunity to collaborate on the Laramie Mural Project came up ... she embraced it and carried a lot of the heavy lifting to get the Laramie Mural Project off the ground.”
She added Moldenhauer was equally adept at working with local artists at any level and bringing preeminent, world-class artists to the museum.
“She just has this way of bridging anything, from the street artists working independently outside of the rules to professional artists working internationally, and (is) able to create a dialogue and an introduction between those two audiences,” Sherwood said.
Moldenhauer continues to work with the Laramie Public Art Coalition, which aims to involve the community in the decision-making while expanding public art beyond murals and beyond downtown.
An anonymous $2.27 million gift — the largest ever received by the museum — established the Susan B. Moldenhauer FUNd for Contemporary Art, the university announced in May.
“A gift like that, to this museum, is substantial,” Moldenhauer said. “And it really, I think, set the foundation for a new director to come in and really take this museum and push it in all the ways that we’ve been piloting academic engagement and producing contemporary art programs and increasing our collection.”
Gov. Matt Mead also recognized Moldenhauer for her accomplishments when she became one of four recipients of the 2017 Governor’s Arts Awards.
And those who work with her call her a defender of the arts, stepping up for controversial or challenging pieces, but also not shying away from respectful, constructive confrontation or disagreement with friends in the art world.
“She defends artistic integrity … and freedom of expression and understands the artistic process, which can be messy and long and difficult,” Thompson said.
Having spent a career surrounded by the art of others — and fighting to find time to create her own — Moldenhauer said she is starting a new chapter of her life.
“My focus now is my own photography,” she said. “So, I’ve kind of flipped my schedule from 99 percent museum and public art and 1 percent photography to the reverse.”
Moldenhauer will stay involved in public art projects, she said.