We could all be a bit more like Peter Strong.
Peter lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, and his passion is in museums and cultural history. In the years he’s developed his craft, he’s worked closely with Native artists.
And do you know what he saw? Not only did Peter see incredible talent and potential and perseverance in the eyes of those community artists, he saw a need.
For access, inclusion, acceptance, appreciation, unity. And friendship.
And so Peter did what any of us have the capability of doing. He asked himself what he was good at and what he knew best, and then he found a way to meet those needs through his work.
“I don’t know how to fix anything, but I do know how to run a museum.”
And he called it Racing Magpie, a Native organization in Rapid City he began last year. It’s a contemporary Native art gallery with studio and classroom space for both Native and non-Native artists.
And it’s a good start to filling those needs. And then some.
“I don’t think Racing Magpie is the solution to whatever needs to be fixed here, but we are part of that puzzle,” Peter says. “I think we are a blank canvas for our artists to start coming together and putting together projects. It’s meant as a stage to amplify what our artists are doing in Rapid City.”
And his openness and vulnerability is meant to encourage you, too. How can you fill a need?
Peter inspires us to think on these things.
Peter has either been working in museums or studying art his whole life. After working at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, he moved to South Dakota in 2005 and began work at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge. He was the director of their Heritage Center and, during his eight years there, significantly helped to transition a cultural center from tourism-focused to community-centered by helping to catalog a collection of over 10,000 items.
“It was a big responsibility, but there was so much momentum,” Peter says. He also helped to implement interactive exhibits and educational planning with the teachers at Red Cloud.
In 2013, he took a job with First Peoples Fund, a national organization based in Rapid City that supports Native artists around the country through grants and entrepreneurial training.
But something was off.
“We were supporting these great projects around the country, but then I was looking out my window and watching Rapid City and saying, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this here?’ I knew the artists needed a space, and it just wasn’t happening.”
It was time. He left to start Racing Magpie and hasn’t stopped striving for regional artists since.
“I grew up in museums, and I love spaces, that’s where I feel most comfortable,” Peter says. “Having spaces where there is some structure, but inside those spaces, there is all this flexibility and potential to do hugely creative and unknown things.”
He needed Racing Magpie, but Rapid City needed it more.
Racing Magpie’s mission statement
When Peter and his wife, Mary, began the studio, they wanted it to be two things: A home for contemporary art, and a place for artists to unite with community.
“We wanted a contemporary Native art gallery that focused on the artists who were outside the box of ‘longhair feathers and sunsets,’ because there’s so much more in Native art going on outside that,” he says.
Peter says that Prairie Edge, a retail store and gallery also in downtown Rapid City, only specializes in 1880 Native work, bead and leatherwork, “focusing on what tourists think of when they think of Natives.
“And they do a great job, they’ve created a great market, and there are a lot of artists who make a good living there, but we know there is so much more going on outside that box, like graffiti, screen prints, photography, ledger art.”
And that’s the type of work you can see at Racing Magpie and in their online store.
The second mission for Racing Magpie seems closest to Peter’s heart.
“The day I moved to South Dakota and started talking to artists, almost every single one said, ‘We want a place we can come together and just talk art,’ ” Peter recalls. “They would meet one another at places like the Dahl Arts Center, and they would start talking about great ideas, but then they would leave and go back to making art in their basements.”
It’s not all due to lack of studio space.
“It’s the physicality of where we live, especially on Pine Ridge,” Peter says. “There is technology, but with visual and performing art, it’s such a visceral thing, you really need to be in the same room with people.
“It’s very limiting for creatives to not have those outlets and those places to share.”
Racing Magpie is that outlet.
“We didn’t have any artists move in till April, but now we’ve got 11 artists in the space, and it’s been awesome.”
It’s also a place to learn and grow. Peter offers memberships for artists that range from daylong to yearlong, but that time spent allows for interaction with other artists as well as curious shoppers passing by.
“Artists can pay $10 a day or $100 a month to just come in during business hours, set up here, work, be around other artists, have WiFi, drink coffee.”
There’s great resources, too.
“In our classroom, artists can frame their own work and save some money, but we also give back to the community and make sure people have the opportunity to learn from practicing artists about the things they are passionate about.”
He just wants these artists to get the exposure they deserve.
“We want this to be a place where people can come and interact with the artists and connect with a piece,” he says. “People want to hear a story, and some of these artists are so good at telling a story, especially Native artists. They deserve to explain the symbolism.
“So we create access to that.”
Peter is constantly listening and paying attention to his community, patiently building relationships and trust, all with an artist’s best interest in mind. And he’s thinking about family.
“I’ve got two boys, and my role is to be a good dad and do my best,” Peter says. “But it’s also recognizing that they are both Lakota boys. I’m trying to learn and pass on whatever I can to them.
“That takes partnership, long-term commitment, and educating yourself.”
And it takes a genuine heart.
Scholarship funds on the way
To welcome more artists inside Racing Magpie, Peter has partnered with the Black Hills Playhouse to begin scholarship funds for both young and emerging artists in Rapid City and in surrounding reservations.
“It’s about getting artists in this space who might not be able to afford a studio or be able to take a class,” Peter says. “And once they’re here for a year, imagine the opportunities they can have to work with successful artists and just have time to work, access to equipment they might not have had before. Then the next level is to present their work to the community.”
The fortuity within Racing Magpie is endless, but for now, Peter embraces the process.
“I feel like a lot of art organizations are really focused on the finished product,” he says. “There’s galleries, theaters, concert venues, but there just hasn’t been much for a space that focuses on process. And that’s what we need.
“Bring the community in! It’s dirty. Even our building is a work in progress, but it’s meant to be that way.”
Aren’t we, too? If we want to affect change, shouldn’t we allow for growth and embrace the journey like Peter?
He accepts the commitment, because he believes in his vision.
“Racing Magpie is a Native organization, and the way we think about things is more communal, because that’s who we are,” Peter says. “But at the same time, this is about our entire community in Rapid City, and that community is everybody. Everybody needs to be open. This is not a conversation about Indian art and then non-Indian art. It is about art.
“We are unique, but we are all in this together,” Peter says. “Let’s begin to learn from one another and build appreciation.”
Just like Peter.
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