RENO — The first major historical art survey of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra’s infamous Donner Pass takes an ambitious trip through two centuries, highlighting the roles of Native Americans and railroad barons and the tourists and scientists trying to halt the loss of clarity in the azure waters.
“Tahoe: A Visual History” opened Saturday at the Nevada Museum of Art, featuring more than 400 objects by 175 painters, photographers, architects, basket weavers and sculptors. Arranged chronologically for the most part, it combines culturally and historically significant creations with contemporary works.
“It’s a visual encyclopedia of the lake,” said William Fox, director of the Reno museum’s Center for Art + Environment.
The project’s been in the works for five years, said Ann M. Wolfe, the museum’s senior curator/deputy director.
“America’s most iconic landscapes, places like Yosemite, Niagara Falls, and Yellowstone, have been studied by art historians and scholars extensively, but as far as art history goes, this Tahoe-Donner region has been unrecognized,” Wolfe said.
“So much art has been made about this great historical narrative of the Sierra being this boundary to American progress in the 19th century — the trials of the Donner Party followed by the success of the Transcontinental Railroad as a symbol of progress,” she said. “But it’s never really been brought together.”
For the first time, all 15,000-square feet of the museum’s gallery space will be devoted to a single theme.
“To do it justice, it had to be the whole museum,” said Amanda Horn, communications director.
Through Jan. 10, the exhibit will showcase the works of Ansel Adams, Albert Bierstadt and Frank Lloyd Wright. But it begins with the largest collection of Washoe Indian baskets ever displayed in one place, many by Louisa Keyser, known as “Datsolalee.”
Next, visitors follow maps and journals of western explorers, including John C. Fremont and John Muir. The path tracks the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s and the ensuing logging and mining boom, the shift from timber to tourism and the rise of the resorts in the early 20th century before environmentalism emerged and scientists began to study Tahoe’s ecosystem.
A centerpiece is the 19th century paintings of Bierstadt, Edwin Deakin, Maynard Dixon and Lorenzo Latimer, much of it commissioned by rail barons. The section also touches on Chinese laborers, many who died while laying the rails.
The most treacherous stretch was just north of Tahoe at Donner Pass, which gets its name from a disastrous journey that left settlers stranded, resulted in dozens of death and prompted some to resort to cannibalism in the winter of 1846-47. It’s about 40 miles from Reno.
The exhibit references ideas that never materialized at Tahoe, including a plan to build a bridge in the 1960s across Emerald Bay and a resort designed by Wright in 1923. A 4x4 model of Wright’s “Summer Colony” is displayed.
The exhibit closes with works by sculptor Maya Lin, including pins arranged on the wall in an outline of the lake and its tributaries and glass bubbles on the floor. The size of each varies based on precipitation received that year. Each contains clear or cloudy water based on the clarity measured that year.
The region’s art has been neglected, Fox said, because Tahoe was developed largely as a “private playground” with estates built on the riches of mining and timber.
“The lake was caught up in this very powerful resource extraction,” Fox said. “It was privatized very early on. It never had a chance to become a national park, which normally is what you do with a scenic climax, like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier. You memorialize it.”
With all the beautiful imagery, Wolfe concedes some might critique the show as being “boosterish.”
“But there’s also some critical chapters in our history we are addressing,” she said, including the “history of Chinese railroad labor that has all but been forgotten.”