14 Jun James Nottage retires after 50 years in Western museums
By Bryan Corbin, Storyteller magazine editor
The curator who led the Eiteljorg Museum’s curatorial and collections efforts for the past 17 years is an authentic son of the West. James Nottage grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, and remembers as a small child meeting a turn-of-the-last-century Old West train robber, long since paroled and a larger than life character. “He had these extraordinary stories about robbing trains and going to prison; and that motivated my young imagination,” James said.
That spark lit the fire of James’ love of the history and heritage of the West, which led ultimately to his 50-year career in museums. Since 2001, James has served as the Eiteljorg’s vice president and chief curatorial officer and as the Gund curator of Western art, history and culture. His management and creative vision led to important acquisitions such as the Helen Cox Kersting and Kenneth “Bud” Adams collections, and to exhibitions such as Guitars and Red/Black. He has authored and edited many Eiteljorg art publications and closely worked with artists, collectors, donors and scholars.
As he retires from the Eiteljorg in June, James said what has been most motivating throughout his career was the opportunity to work on major projects involving the expansion or creation of museums: at the Kansas Museum of History early on, at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles at its founding, and then at the Eiteljorg during its 2005 expansion that doubled the size of the museum.
“Being a curator is an opportunity to have some really important privileges,” James said, such as the responsibility to work with important objects and artworks and help people understand them. “It’s the kind of job where you have the opportunity to work with a range of people who can share your passions,” including artists, colleagues and also patrons who support the museum financially or with donations of art. “Of all the places that I’ve worked, the Eiteljorg is rather profoundly successful in relating to all sorts of people,” he said.
Early museum years
Knowing from a young age in Laramie that he would be a museum curator, James discovered the untapped scholarly potential of studying the West professionally. “As I went through early jobs, early college, it was clear that an emphasis on the study of America was always heavily weighted on the East Coast, and there is plenty of room to do things besides Pilgrims,” he said.
He served in state historical institutions in Wyoming and Kansas, earning two master’s degrees along the way. In 1985, James and his wife Mary Ellen were the first employees hired by the new Autry Museum — where he was vice president and founding chief curator, she the vice president of collections. The museum was founded by Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, movie and TV star and baseball team owner.
“He loved a good joke and a good meal and was very personable,” James said of Gene Autry in his later years. “The challenge if anything (was), it was difficult for some people — including myself — to separate this well-known and regarded personality from just being an everyday person. It was hard to have a restaurant meal (with him) and him not be interrupted all the time” by Autry’s fans.
Eiteljorg Museum exhibit The Reel West, with “Lone Ranger” costume items of Clayton Moore.
Through the Autry Museum, James got to know many well-known entertainers — not only Gene Autry, but Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger. “He was hugely personable and very kind. (Moore) always astounded me: I met him the first time and it would have been maybe a year later when I saw him again, and he greeted me by name and asked about my wife by name. He was an extraordinary individual in a lot of ways, so he kind of justified my childhood perceptions of the heroic Lone Ranger,” James recalled.
West in the Midwest
The opportunity for James to work on the Eiteljorg’s expansion drew the Nottages from L.A. to Indianapolis in 2001. Among the many exhibitions whose curation he led and managed, James cited Red/Black in 2011 that explored shared histories of Native Americans and African-Americans, focusing on their touching connections. “I think that’s the value of any museum. It’s not just that you might say, ‘We have a great painting or an object,’ but you can see for yourself and tell the public about how something connects with people’s real lives, whether it’s part of someone’s creativity, or an object that’s very telling about events in people’s lives.”
Retiring as chief curator, James will continue to consult on the Eiteljorg’s Western gallery reinstallation and on a future exhibit. His wife Mary Ellen is retired executive director of the Indiana Medical History Museum. A music buff and collector, James is learning to play steel guitar, and retirement might afford more time for music and to finish personal book projects. The Nottages plan to remain in the area and attend Eiteljorg events.
James said it’s been rewarding to see the Eiteljorg Museum mature and grow in terms of major acquisitions, educational programming, collections, publications and recognition among scholars and the general public. “There’s plenty of room for future growth. It’s a young institution with a good soul; it’s great to be a part of that.”
Top Image Caption:
James Nottage, vice president and chief curatorial officer and Gund curator of Western art, history and culture, is retiring after 17 years at the Eiteljorg, where he managed the museum’s curatorial and collections departments. He is seen here in the museum’s work area with the E.I. Couse painting, The Wedding. The 1924 oil painting was a gift to the museum courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg.
The James Nottage File:
• Eiteljorg Museum: Vice president and chief curatorial officer, Gund curator of Western art history and culture, 2001-2018
• Autry Museum of Western Heritage, vice president and founding chief curator, 1985-2001
• Kansas Museum of History, supervisory historian, assistant museum director, curator of exhibits, 1977-1985
• University of Wyoming Archives, archivist, 1976-1977
• Wyoming State Museum, assistant curator, 1969-1975
• Laramie Centennial Committee Museum, curator, 1968
• BA and MA in American history and American studies, University of Wyoming, 1972, 1976
• MA in history museum studies, Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University College at Oneonta, NY, 1975
• Author, editor, lecturer, consultant with a focus on art, history and cultures of the American West
Upcoming Events at the Eiteljorg Museum:
Thursday November 8
Special celebration in honor of James H. Nottage’s retirement.
Friday November 9
Preview of reopened Western galleries, for members.
For reservations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 317.275.1316.
For behind-the-scenes updates on the work of museum employees, read the Eiteljorg blog: https://eiteljorg.org/hello-goodbye-longtime-employees-will-be-missed-new-employees-welcomed/
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Storyteller magazine.