Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Sarah Burt

My friend Sarah Burt died on Tuesday April 7 after about 5 months struggling with pancreatic cancer. I’m glad I saw her in early March, when she was still feeling relatively good and we could have the endless conversations we, and all her friends, have always enjoyed with her. Sarah had a long career, first as a journalist, then as an art historian, but at the age of 62 she was just coming into her own as a scholar and curator and when I saw her in August, before she was diagnosed, I was really impressed with her accomplishments and her confidence about her work as a museum curator. She was always a brilliant scholar. You would tell Sarah about something that interested you that she had never heard of and the next time you saw her she could tell you everything about it. And she had ideas!  About artists, about exhibitions, about the way art works.

Sarah started graduate school at the University of Kansas in the Japanese art program, but about the time she completed the masters she realized that the Japanese language was going to be too much of a challenge and she switched to American art. As I recall, she worked on William Keith, and on the Swedenborgians, helped with American painting publications at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, then got a job in Santa Fe working for the Georgia O’Keefe Foundation, where she was assistant curator for an exhibition of O’Keefe’s book collection. After she was hired at the Joslyn in Omaha as the curator of Western Art she became extremely knowledgeable about Karl Bodmer and Maximilian’s expedition up the Missouri, and began to make scholarly and museum connections in that field. Finally, as curator of the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Plains, she immersed herself in Russell and his compatriots, as well as managing many details for the museum’s annual auction of contemporary and historical Western Art. At the Russell Museum she was still in the upward curve of her scholarly arc and had many more great projects in the works.
Sarah was a collector. She had collected American arts and crafts pottery in Kansas, then lost it in a divorce, but still had some of her European pottery. She had well-chosen Western landscapes; I was always impressed that she could pick out the best object in a group. And she loved to talk about objects and their history with dealers and curators, usually in great detail. Once when we went to the flea market in Santa Fe she deliberated and negotiated over a rug for hours, finally purchasing it.
Sarah loved movies and we loved to go to them when she was in Lawrence. She knew a great many movies of the 30s and 40s, as well as good contemporary ones. When I saw her in Great Falls, we watched “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and a couple of episodes of “House of Cards.” She loved good food and wine. While I would order the house white, she would choose the Puligny Montrachet or the Russian River chardonnay or something else much more exotic.
Probably most of all, she loved her dogs.  She had always wanted Border Collies and got the first ones about 17 years ago. First Sam and Maggie, brother and sister she acquired in Santa Fe and kept with her till they died at over 15 years old. They went everywhere with her and she had them trained to do all sort of amazing things, so that you almost thought they could talk (Of course they could speak, and whisper.). More recently she acquired Alice, the very smart, quick one, and Sylvester, who is beautiful and loving but perhaps a little intellectually challenged.
For the first two years I was in Kansas, Sarah and her husband were my only Lawrence friends, and we regularly went to movies, to Kansas City, and on trips together.– skiing in Wyoming and Montana,  hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.  After she moved to Santa Fe I often stayed with her there and she was a guest at my wedding in 2005. We have a huge email correspondence, detailing our activities for the past decade.
I visited Sarah in Great Falls in August, a couple of months before she was diagnosed, when she was feeling pretty good. We toured the Russell Museum, which is much larger than I had anticipated and much of which she had reinstalled very intelligently. Then we went to Glacier National Park, staying at the lodges Sarah most liked, eating the best meals we could get, and driving through the park, looking for mountain goats for Sarah and bears for me. We found the goats first and I took her picture with the goat in the distance. Then when we were almost through the park we came upon a crowd watching a mother and baby bear, so we both got our wishes fulfilled.

1 comment:

  1. I just learned of Sarah's death when checking the museum website to make sure she was still in Montana, so I could send her a card. After the initial shock of learning about her death, I, too, remember the talks we shared during walks in the mountains, in evenings over a glass of wine, or at a local coffeeshop. Although we never saw each other again after she moved from Nebraska to Montana, she was never very far in my mind. I do miss her.