The death of Rena Rosequist not only sent shock waves through the Taos art community but its Democratic Party supporters as well. She passed away while in hospice on Monday (Sept. 16) at the home of her son Nicholas Oppenheimer in Taos; she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.
Her other son, Dan Oppenheimer, posted this on social media that day, "My Dear Mother Rena passed away this afternoon after 88 years on the planet. She was able to laugh and enjoy good friends and good food and bad politicians and questionable movies until very near the end. I miss her and will always love her."
Rosequist's passing came the day before Taos County lost another important figure in local politics.
It was reported longtime Democratic lawmaker Carlos Cisneros died from a heart attack on Tuesday (Sept. 17). The Taos County Democratic Party issued a statement on Cisneros Wednesday morning (Sept. 18), which also mentioned Rosequist. "This week we lost two important members of our local Democratic party community. We were shocked and saddened to hear about Senator Carlos Cisneros passing away suddenly. … We are also saddened at the passing of Rena Rosequist -- gallerist, activist, community leader and remarkable woman of Taos. She was a committed supporter of the Democratic Party and eager participant in the political process. She, too, will be greatly missed."
In 1962, Rosequist, with her second husband, Ivan Rosequist, opened the Mission Gallery at 138 Kit Carson Road in a building that was once home to Taos Society of Artists co-founder Joseph Henry Sharp.
"It's like, living in Taos: You never know how you got here," Rosequist said for a 2012 story in Tempo magazine that took note of her venue's 50th anniversary, the oldest at that time of any gallery in Taos. "Nobody in Taos seems to know how they got here. I certainly don't know how I came to have a 50th anniversary. I keep wondering, can that be right? 1962? Yes, that's 50 years. And it actually was in June so it's sliding into 51 years now."
Over that time, Rosequist built a reputation on identifying and displaying quality works of art by some of the best-known painters and sculptors who lived and worked in Taos. Much of the works she has shown were by Taos Modernists such as Emil Bisttram, Andrew Dasburg, Earl Stroh and many more. Among those she supported and worked closely with was Dr. Dean A. Porter, former director of the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame and a nationally known scholar and author who has devoted much of his career to scholarship relating to the Taos Society of Artists.
"Today, I learned of Rena Rosequist's death," Porter said in a Tuesday (Sept. 17) email. "Frankly, I didn't know what to do except share my experiences with you that I enjoyed with Rena over the years. I met Rena and her husband, Ivan, in December of 1974, my first trip to Taos. From that time on, we maintained a close relationship. She was my inspiration as a writer, and, of course, as an artist. Without Rena, I would have never known Taos.
"I know Rena will be missed by anyone who knew her," Porter continued. "For me, I will have to live with an awful void, but with the happiest of memories."
Tempo magazine asked Rosequist once what sort of advice she had for someone considering getting into the local art business. Jokingly, at first, she replied, "I would ask them what has brought them to such a sorry point in their life? And, then I would just ask them a few sensible questions like: Have you ever been in business before? Have you ever been in the art business before? What makes you want to do this? Start with simple things. You need walls, you need lights, you don't need expensive furniture to begin. You don't need to spend your first $30,000 on outfitting your place. You just need to get started hanging art on walls or sticking it on pedestals so people can get a good look at it. That's what I would tell them. Start easy and ... have a good business plan. It doesn't include spending all your money on the appearance. It's gotta be in the nuts and bolts of having a gallery."
In 2017, the Couse Foundation of Taos and Rosequist announced that the foundation had agreed to acquire from Rosequist the building owned by her that housed the Mission Gallery and an attached rental space. Then, in May 2018 the foundation announced that the Lunder Foundation of Portland, Maine, was providing a grant of $600,000 in support of the Taos Society of Artists archive and research center that will be located in the Mission Gallery building at 138 Kit Carson Road.
Before moving to Taos, Rosequist studied art and art history at the University of North Carolina and later at Black Mountain College, in Asheville, North Carolina.
One of Dan Oppenheimer's fondest memories of his mother was her singing ability, which few other than family and a few friends knew about. "As young children, she loved to sing Billie Holiday songs or old folks songs [to us]. I don't think she ever did that in public."
He characterized her as a "very independent woman" who also made sure her sons were cared for in their schooling. "Political issues were also very important to her and the art business was, in her own way, considered a sacred calling."
As for her influence as a local political leader, Dan Oppenheimer said she liked to downplay that sort of thing, "but she encouraged people to get out and do it themselves."
Rosequist was born in 1931 and raised in Hickory, North Carolina.
She studied art history at the Woman's College of University of North Carolina. "There she met a forward-thinking art professor who presented a show, which included a newly recognized artist by the name of Jackson Pollock. The show caused quite a stir among the faculty and Rena personally experienced a pivotal moment in the modern art movement."
Rosequist graduated with dual degrees in political science and English, which she brought to bear as part of her continued and vocal interest in local and national politics. She gained a measure of this political perspective during her studies at Black Mountain College, a progressive school that some labeled as radical leftist but which left its mark as a hotbed of up-and-coming artists, writers and thinkers.
Rosequist also joint the board of directors of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, in 1999. She served as board president from 2008-15, and retired in July of this year.
She is survived by her brother George Furlong, sons Nicholas (Christina King) and Dan Oppenheimer (Patricia Oppenheimer), grandsons Benjamin Oppenheimer and Loren Oppenheimer, and two great grandchildren. She is predeceased by her first husband, Joel Oppenheimer, second husband, Ivan Rosequist, and brother James Furlong.
At Rena Rosequist's request there will be no funeral service. The family is planning a memorial gathering next spring or summer to be announced at a later date.
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