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Norman Geske, the first director of the Sheldon Museum of Art, died Saturday morning, one month short of his 99th birthday.

Geske, a Sioux City, Iowa, native, was named director of the University of Nebraska art galleries in 1956 and helped create the Sheldon in 1963, moving the institution from the crowded corridors of Morrill Hall into the showcase home he helped envision. Five years later, he was named curator of the American pavilion at the Venice, Italy, Biennale, a worldwide art fair where his figurative art selections brought new attention to the style.

Geske also worked to create the Interstate 80 Bicentennial Sculpture Project, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (originally called the Sheldon Film Theater). Geske also became a leading researcher of Ralph Albert Blakelock, a romanticist painter from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dealers often referred to Geske to authenticate alleged Blakelock works.

Many of his major projects — particularly the eight sculptures along I-80 from Ashland to Sidney -- faced some opposition from those who didn't believe the abstract works represented Nebraska.

"Nothing Norman did was ever without controversy," said Laurie Richards, a Lincoln filmmaker who worked for more than three years to write, film, direct and produce a tribute to Geske entitied “My Friend Norman: The Man from Aberdeen,” which was released in 2006.

After leaving the Sheldon, Geske joined his wife, Jane, in starting bookstores Niobrara Books and later Estuary Bookstore, which specialized in 20th century literature, Nebraska writing and Irish literature.

Norman and Jane Geske also enjoyed traveling throughout Europe — Norman had love affairs with Paris and Ireland. Starting in 1989 and throughout the early 1990s, the couple even led a few European tours, exploring culture and art.

Geske’s passion for art was never about the monetary investment, though many of his selections for Sheldon have gone up considerably in value.

He loved many kinds of art, but more than that, he loved bringing it to the people of Nebraska, he told the Journal Star in a 1974 interview.

“(My responsibility is) to the novice coming into the gallery who doesn’t know the difference between a painting and a manhole cover,” he said.

Richards, the filmmaker, first met Geske when she was a UNL student, when she landed a work-study position at the Sheldon.

“That experience and Norman brought me into the artistic culture of the state — a culture that he helped develop and change,” Richards said. “His influence goes well beyond Nebraska, too. He was really a mover and a shaker in the art world.”

Richards described Geske as her "inspiration" — the reason she pursued the arts. Like many of his Sheldon friends and co-workers, Richards accompanied Geske on one of his trips to Paris. 

"To see Paris through Norman’s eyes was remarkable," she said.

Geske had been in hospice care at Tabitha Health Care for a few months, Richards said. On Wednesday, his "family" of fellow artists and art enthusiasts gathered around his bed and had an early birthday party for him.

His friends made a toast to Geske, a longtime fan of Irish whiskey. He slept through the first hour of the celebration, and then he opened his eyes. The nurses helped him get dressed and moved him to a chair in the corner of the room.

“He woke up, looked at all of us, and rallied,” Richards said. “So we partied with him for another hour.”

Just thinking of that last conversation makes Dan Ladely choke up. As he sat in his basement, listening to the radio broadcast of Saturday's football game, the director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center remembered his longtime employer, friend and mentor.

“He just had this huge personality,” Ladely said. “He embraced everyone. It was like he just had his arms around those he loved all of the time.”

Geske hired Ladely in 1973 to be a part of the university’s film program, which he helped start in 1965. Ladely had planned to be a photojournalist, but Geske’s offer and mentoring changed his plan and helped him find his passion.

“He was so important in my life and he made such a huge cultural difference in the whole state,” Ladely said. “We gathered around, and in that moment, he joined us for a celebration of his life.”

On Thursday night, the crew made another toast, this time with another one of Geske’s favorite mixes: a Negroni, an Italian original with gin and Campari.

The friends raised their glasses again to the man whom they called the “father of Nebraska art.”

“Our hearts are heavy but we are better people for knowing that man,” Richards said. “The state is better because of his artistic vision.”

Ladely agreed. “His contribution to the culture to our state is insurmountable,” he said. “Nobody will do more than he did.”

​Reach the writer at 402-473-2655 or mklecker@journalstar.com.

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