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The Silver Spotlight - June 2011 - National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

Q & A with Executive Director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Charles P. ”Chuck” Schroeder:


Q: Chuck, anyone who has visited the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum can easily understand the museum is a national treasure in itself. For folks that have not had the opportunity to visit, can you explain why the museum is something every American should experience?

A:  The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum tells an important story about America and Americans, the greatest symbols of liberty and independence on the face of the earth.  There is a reason people from around the globe see the image of the cowboy as the best representative of American character. It is important for people to be reminded of their heritage and inspired by the stories of men and women who demonstrated such remarkable vision, courage and perseverance in settling the American West. 


Q: What is the museum’s #1 purpose? Is it to educate, to preserve, to inspire…?

A: Our mission is “To preserve and interpret the heritage of the American West for the education and enrichment of our diverse audiences.” In other words, we work very hard to continually enhance our wonderful collections ranging from fine art to a broad range of material culture. But, we believe it is our overarching responsibility to use those collections to tell the story of America’s fascinating West. Everything we do leads to someone saying, “Oh, now I see!”


Q: You’ve amassed a fine career focused upon agribusiness at the executive and academic levels. In what ways did that experience lead you to serve as Executive Director of The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum?

A: The most important foundational experience was ranching for the first 30 years of my life in southwest Nebraska.  My degree is in Animal Science, and I very much expected to spend my life getting calves and foals in and out of cows and mares (a line I borrowed from one of the old hands at the ranch). My wife and I still breed American Quarter Horses, rope, raise young horses and otherwise enjoy the cowboy life. We left the ranch in 1983 to try and save the world, and I guess we’re still trying. My experiences in public service, higher education fund raising, and leading a national agricultural trade association provided some important lessons in management, development, and dealing with a wide variety of people. But, it was my basic belief in the eternal value of preserving and sharing the heritage of the American West that led me to Oklahoma City. At some point in everyone’s life, they need to focus on things that will live beyond them.  I have been very blessed to have the opportunity to do that here.   


Q: What roles do you perform that champion the mission and purpose of the museum?

A: My first responsibility is to see that the remarkable team of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum get to do what they do best with as few hindrances as possible.  They are pushed and pulled in many different directions, and do a great deal with often limited resources. Their talents and commitment inspire me every day, and I just try to help them be successful. Beyond that, since I was a teenager, I have felt driven to speak up for the people who live in rural America, producing our food supply and otherwise preserving the fundamental values that accrue naturally to people of the land. I think they get too little respect from other elements of society. So, in my role today, I surely appreciate the opportunity to write and speak about the life and culture of those people who, in my opinion, form America’s backbone. They have certainly shaped my view of the world, and have given me the opportunity to see a good bit of it over the last 60 years. I’m just paying back.   


Q: Is there anything unique or challenging in particular about preserving and curating artifacts from the American west?

A: You could get a more scientific answer from our curatorial staff, several of whom have spent decades working with this material. But, I think there are two main issues.  First, “Is it real?” If Jesse James and Wyatt Earp rode all the saddles and carried all the guns attributed to them, they could have outfitted Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. When we accept an item into our collection, whether a work of art or an historic piece of equipment, it is critically important that we have hard evidence of its origin. We are responsible for the public’s trust when we tell our stories.  Second, “How do we ensure this material will still be telling its story generations from now?” Much of what we collect is organic in nature, and subject to major deterioration over time. We cannot stop that entirely, but the science of our business has helped us learn how to significantly retard the decay process. People who come to visit our secure storage and processing vault are often amazed to see people handling saddles, chaps, bits and spurs with white gloves – not quite like the barn. But, we believe very deeply that your grandchildren’s grandchildren need to see and learn from these things, so we take preservation very seriously.


Q: There are over 100 contemporary western artists with multiple works who've been invited to the Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition, which will be opening this month. Did you have any duties with the selection of these unique artists or the types of work chosen for this enormous events?

A: My role is principally working with the committee of our board that makes those selections, and making sure our processes for that important function work smoothly. Our curatorial staff and volunteer board members work year round to ensure we have top quality artists and their best art for the Prix de West. This is our 38th anniversary of this signature event, and we’re very proud of both the artists and their work.   


Q: Will there be any artists represented at the show whose work you appreciate in particular? Are there any exhibits at the museum you continually find as a source of inspiration?

A: Frankly, I can’t think of an artist in the Prix de West whose work I DON’T admire greatly. They are exceptionally talented or they wouldn’t be invited. But, beyond their work, a great many of these artists are dear friends whose spirit reflected in the work of their hands touches me very deeply. Certainly, many of our great historic works like “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” and “ The End of the Trail,” “Comin’ Through the Rye” and others by Remington, CM Russell, the Taos Society artists, etc. are a constant source of inspiration.  I can’t imagine working in an environment where one could find more to feed one’s soul than this museum, at least if you have a little cowboy in you.   


Q: Has social media and the internet changed how the museum and show like this is marketed?

A: Certainly, the Internet has had a major impact.  We now offer an online catalog for all of our major sales, and our collectors have come to expect that.  They use it for previewing the show, seeing what items are still available for sale following the opening, following the work of their favorite artists and a variety of other collecting functions. They contact us for proxy bidding in this way, as well. Many participants also make their reservations online now and it has allowed us to streamline some of those processes.  We do make use of social media in building awareness of the Prix de West, among other museum activities. Like many institutions, we are still learning its potential for actually marketing major works of art. 


Q: As a volunteer you've worked in many capacities, including; Chairman of the Council for Agricultural Research, president of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development, and chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, among many others. Why have you chosen to donate so much of your time at the executive level?

A: I grew up in a family where providing volunteer leadership for causes in which you believed was simply an expectation. It was part of our dinner table conversation from my earliest recollections. Politics and religion, even as applied in the livestock business, were never off limits, so if you weren’t involved in something you cared passionately about, you were on the sidelines at dinnertime. I guess I never outgrew that. Serving these organizations has been a wonderful learning experience for me, as well as an opportunity to make friends all over the world. I enjoy people of passion, even when I disagree with them!


Q: How can our readers help in preserving our western heritage?

A: Easy! Become a member of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.  Visit our website at and you can find an opportunity that fits your interests and pocketbook. It’s important to know that our doors open every day only because people who share a passion for America’s Western Heritage step up and provide support.  


The museum will be holding its Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibit from June 10th – August 7th, 2011. For more info please visit