YAM’s new director, Jessica Kay Ruhle, is ready for the challenge | Arts & Theater

Yams are funny things. They are soft yet versatile. They are wonderful on their own, but even better in a dish, where they can shine and uplift everything around them.

Jessica Kay Ruhle, the new executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum, is seen here at the museum recently.


The Yellowstone Art Museum, usually called The YAM, is the same way. The largest and most prestigious institution of its kind in the area is a marvel in itself, but it gets better when the YAM is an important part of Billings’ arts community.

That’s a truth YAM’s new executive director, Jessica Kay Ruhle, knows. “I’m really into relationships,” she said, citing her desire to “really collaborate with artists, local organizations and a number of community partners” as one of her greatest strengths.

This community relationship has been a little strained lately. Ruhle’s predecessor, Bryan Knicely, resigned last July, after a storm of issues compounded by the lingering COVID pandemic. The Gazette reported in October 2021 that at least 40% of museum staff had left in the previous 10 months, including the director of education, curator, assistant curator and director of development.

People also read…

These problems led the YAM to lose or postpone at least two exhibitions by local artists. One of these artists was Jane Deschner. The Billings-based artist’s debut solo album, “Remember me.” was to premiere at YAM until COVID, and in particular the departure of the museum curator, derailed those plans.

Deschner found the new regime under Ruhle easy to manage. “She was awesome,” Deschner said of a recent encounter with Ruhle. “She spent two hours and we went through everything. She listened to all my concerns about issues [the YAM has] had.”

This opening of the dialogue is something important for Deschner. “[The YAM is] in very good hands,” she said. “I think everyone feels really encouraged.”

“Remember me.” will now open Sept. 11 and run through the fall and into 2023. “We’re really excited to put this back on the schedule,” Ruhle said.

New exhibits at the Yellowstone Art Museum

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1972 oil and magna on canvas “Still Life with Lobster” is one of the pieces on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum.


Knicely’s resignation led to a nationwide hunt for the new YAM director. Ruhle was hired in December and moved to Billings in January.

His museum experience is mainly in the field of education. She grew up in Florida, but moved to North Carolina for college. “I was really certain at university that I wanted to work in museums,” she recalls, “and I found museum education to be the space where works of art and visitors intersect. most.”

After a short stay in Washington, DC, she returned to North Carolina and worked for various institutions, including a children’s museum and a history museum. Ruhle eventually settled in the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“I felt really comfortable in contemporary art and in really visitor-oriented places,” she said. She spent 12 years there, serving as Associate Curator of Education and eventually Director of Education.

It was the YAM position that pulled her out of the swampy climates of the Southeast and Montana. “It really was a perfect opportunity,” she said. “When I came for my interview, I fell in love with Billings and the access to the outdoors.” She moved in with a two-year-old dog, and the two spent their “nights and weekends making the most of this area.”

In her spare time, she likes to roller skate. And while she has yet to hit an ice rink in Billings, she is thrilled to have ordered some new “wheels” that she can use for trail skating. Since moving to Montana, she’s discovered a new affinity for skiing, talking excitedly about finding a set of used skis.

New exhibits at the Yellowstone Art Museum

Kristen Cliffel’s 2012 ceramic and wood work “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time” is associated with the 1880 work of a Zuni artist, Frog Vessel. These pieces are part of a new collection at the Yellowstone Art Museum.


The move was a big change, but one that was helped by the charm of Montana. “People are so welcoming,” she said of her new state. “The South likes to think it’s mastered hospitality, but I just found Montana so delicious.”

The leap from education to executive director was also an ascent. Traditionally, museum directors are curators. But Ruhle doesn’t see her training as a hindrance and in fact thinks it’s one of her strengths as a director.

“When I think about being an educator,” she said, “I think about being really comfortable talking to people around artwork, or talking to diverse audiences and diverse groups who have relations with the museum. It’s a different skill set, and it’s a different way of working with people.

Ruhle wants to use this different way of working with people to expand YAM’s reach.

“Having strong educational offerings for adult visitors is really important,” she said. “It allows those of us who are excited about the museum to kind of expand our history knowledge or our art studio practice.”

Jessica Ruhle takes on the role of executive director at the Yellowstone Art Museum

Jessica Kay Ruhle, the new Executive Director of YAM, leads a tour of the “Companion Species” exhibition.


Ruhle lamented the cut in arts funding in schools, but noted that museums like the YAM can help fill that void. “Art can be a very important tool for having great conversations, thinking critically, and addressing issues that affect society at large,” she explained.

She also wants to reach out to Billings Universities, enhancing YAM’s partnerships with MSUB’s Northcutt Steel Gallery and Rocky Mountain College’s Ryniker-Morrison Gallery.

“The arts can really support and add another dimension to any subject taught,” she said, adding that she would like YAM to start “working with the sciences, and working with the history department and working with the English Department.”

This spirit of collaboration animates Ruhle. She would like the YAM to have musicians play in their galleries and have historians and scientists involved in discussions about how their disciplines intertwine with art.

The YAM has joined the Downtown Billings ArtWalk, planning to begin with the June 3 event. “It just makes sense in the world,” Ruhle said.

There have already been changes in Ruhle’s short time as a director. But the big problem facing YAM remains the same: staff.

“It’s absolutely amazing what this team has continued to do with a reduced staff,” she said, but “it’s a top priority to have a full work crew as quickly as possible.”

Under Ruhle’s leadership, the YAM was able to fill some of the major vacancies. Adam Beaves-Fisher is the new director of advancement and Carrie Goe-Nettleton has been hired as director of education, who is recruiting for other positions in that department, Ruhle said.

That leaves the curator as the big job still open, although Ruhle said they are currently “in the middle” of the interview process, with June 1 as a hopeful start date for the potential new hire.

Once YAM can move forward with a full management team, Ruhle promised “further hires to the rest of the team.”

The YAM will need all the help it can get, with a full show schedule running into 2022 and into next year.

Ongoing exhibitions at YAM include “Companion Species: We Are All Related,” a multi-artist, multidisciplinary installation that examines the larger relationship between humans and animals. Ruhle said she “loves having a show with so much diversity” because the exhibit features works from a variety of styles and eras.

New exhibits at the Yellowstone Art Museum

Adonna Khare’s 2014 carbon pencil sketch, “Rhinos,” is part of a new collection on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Khare’s sketch depicts a number of animals, encouraging viewers to re-examine their relationship with animals. Pierced and peeled rhino horns criticize their sale, which has decimated the animal’s population, putting many rhino species critically endangered.


There’s also “In Conversation,” which will be a rotating series that combines loaned works with those taken from the YAM’s permanent collection.

On April 1, the YAM opened an installation by Jesse Albrecht and Sean Chandler called “The Homecoming of Uncle Dirty and Jimmy Cardell”. It combines Albrecht’s pottery work with Chandler’s paintings to examine themes of ancestral trauma and the ripple effect of war.

Throughout the year, the museum will feature works by Robert Royhle and Michael Haykin, both artists from Montana.

The YAM is also back to a full summer lineup, with its Summer Art Academy taking place at Rocky Mountain College June 6-10 and various camps throughout the season.

It’s an exciting time for the YAM, but also a time that can feel uncomfortable after a few difficult years for the museum and for the art industry in general.

“It’s really important for cultural organizations to be transparent with their communities,” Ruhle said. “The conversations that many organizations have had over the past two years have been really pivotal for a community to understand how museums are run and how they operate as businesses.”

Deschner sees this as a potential pivot for YAM. “All of us as artists,” she said, “are very hopeful that he will rise again… [Ruhle’s] has a lot on its shoulders because this might be the last chance before people give up and say, “We give up.” But I think she has the personality, the integrity and the communication skills to succeed.

“All the conversations I’ve had recently have been people very excited about what’s on the horizon and very excited to get back to the galleries and see our upcoming exhibitions. I think we are on the right track. »

About Margaret L. Portillo

Check Also

Puerto Rico Museum’s Rarely Seen Artworks Featured in Chicago Exhibit

Few, if any, Puerto Rican artists are household names in the continental United States, and …