- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) - Dick Leet was there at the beginning.

He remembers the days when the MacNider Art Museum, which is observing its 50th anniversary, had more bathrooms than art exhibits, more dreams than accomplishments.

But it had people with vision and a community willing to support it, said Leet, the museum’s first director, who held the position for 36 years.

Leet, who will be 80 in September and has been retired for 15 years, said the museum has never wavered from its original mission: to provide life-enriching experiences through the arts.

It’s a philosophy he developed 50 years ago when he was a young art teacher in Oelwein.

“My major objective was not to turn students into artists but into people who appreciated the arts,” said Leet.

“Arts are avenues for people to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Whether they become a mechanic, a nurse or whatever, their life will be richer. The same thing applies to a museum.”

His eyes twinkled as he continued, “and the real beauty of it is that it belongs to all of us. It’s free. We all share in the treasure - if we take advantage of it.”

Leet, a native of Waterloo, was teaching art classes in Oelwein when got the job in Mason City, the Globe Gazette (http://bit.ly/294ElzQ ) reports. “I wanted to be a painter,” he said. “But it’s hard to make a living at it. It’s like playing basketball - a lot of people might enjoy it but only a small percentage make it to the NBA.”

So Leet got a job as a teacher after graduating from the old Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa). He taught during the day and painted at night.

He was among a group in Oelwein who started an art association which had a meeting room and gallery in the basement of City Hall.

A friend Leet met through the art association tipped him off that Mason City was starting a museum and needed a director. At about the same time, another friend offered him a job. Then a third offer came.

He had to make a choice and decided to pursue the opportunity in Mason City. He interviewed for the job and was hired.

“Mason City had a rich culture in the arts - music, literature, architecture; one thing they didn’t have was a museum,” he said.

Leet said the MacNider family had purchased a private home where the museum is today for $35,000 and donated the property to the city with the stipulation it be used to start a museum.

Leet recalls that when he first came to Mason City in the winter of 1965, when the museum was just getting set up, there was no heat in the building. “I got a heck of a cold,” he said.

Today, Leet, an accomplished painter in his own right, points with admiration to the first painting the museum acquired, The Clay Wagon, an abstract work by New York artist Arthur Dove, which is still displayed on the first floor of the museum.

“I thought the art we purchased should have a theme, a common thread, something that would connect all of them,” said Leet. “The theme we chose was American art. If someone had offered me a van Gogh, I probably would have turned it down and my board would have thought I was crazy,” he said with a laugh.

In the early days, with the help of staff, volunteers and benefactors, a structure was developed and the museum began to grow. It was and still is funded by the city with a board of directors appointed by the City Council.

During Leet’s tenure, permanent exhibits were added with some memorable features including the Security Guard, a life-size, life-like sculpture of a police officer that more than one visitor has mistaken for the real thing over the years; a collection of puppets donated by Mason City native and nationally known puppeteer Bil Baird; and, of course, paintings.

What started in a single dwelling experienced four building expansions during Leet’s 36 years but he shies away from taking credit for the museum’s success.

“Through the years, the museum has had great support from the Mason City community and other communities,” said Leet.

“As a leader, you get more than your share of credit and more of your share of blame. I understand that. But it’s the city officials, staff members, volunteers and the community as a whole that have made it what it is. I am just glad to have been a part of it.”

___

Information from: Globe Gazette, http://www.globegazette.com/

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