WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: From Unpaid Intern to CEO of Buffalo Bill Center of the West 

Rebecca West has risen through the museum’s ranks but hasn’t forgotten her past

Rebecca West is the executive director and CEO of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She oversees five museums, an annual budget of about $15 million and at times nearly 200 full- and part-time employees. (Courtesy photo from Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

By K.L. McQuaid

Special to the Wyoming Truth

As a girl, Rebecca West focused on art and riding horses in her native Pittsburgh. Summer vacations were spent near Sheridan, at Eatons’ Ranch, one of the oldest working dude ranches in the U.S., where she loved riding, fishing and  cabin life.

She’d cry every time she had to go home, even though home was where West could tap her inner artist.

“I always knew I wanted to study art and be around it,” said West, 54. “My mom was an artist, I was an artistic kid, and Pittsburgh had a lot of museums and artists. It just felt right.”

Armed with an art history degree from Dartmouth College, West decided to join friends in Bend, Oregon. After her father taught her how to change a flat tire, she packed up her Chevy S10 Blazer and set out solo, without a job or firm plans, and spent the next three years working for a temp agency and at an accounting firm.

All along, though, West yearned to be part of the art world. She volunteered for galleries in Bend and sent letters to museums in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere. One of them landed on the desk of Peter Hassrick, the influential curator of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody.

Hassrick offered West a job as an unpaid intern. West jumped at the chance, and in October 1994, she moved to Cody, where the weather was cold and the wind whipped at her resolve.

But as time went on, West fell in love with Cody’s natural beauty and its museums. She met her husband at Cassie’s Steakhouse outside downtown.

Six months into her employ, the museum gave her a paying job. West worked as a secretary, poured wine at museum functions and filed paperwork for the accounting department.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning the museum business from the ground up,” she recalled.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is comprised of five separate museums and a research library spanning some 300,000 square feet of exhibit and other space. Founded in 1927 in downtown Cody, the center today has 67 full-time employees and an annual budget approaching $15 million. (Photo by Spencer Smith, courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

Climbing and juggling

In 1998, West was named the curatorial assistant for the Plains Indian museum, one of five museums that comprise the Buffalo Bill Center, together with the McCracken Research Library.

In addition to the Plains Indian museum, which features the art, history and traditions of Indigenous people, the center also includes a Buffalo Bill Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum and the Whitney Western Art Museum. In all, the center – a Smithsonian Institution affiliate that traces its creation to 1927 – contains 300,000 square feet of exhibit and other space.

Several years into that job, West’s supervisor urged her to earn a master’s degree to position her for career advancement. It became a tough time for West. She was working full time, raising a daughter and taking classes at the University of Oklahoma. In the midst of her course work, West gave birth to her second child, a son, and juggled the physical and emotional toll of her father’s terminal pancreatic cancer.

Eventually, the stress eased and West earned her degree, writing a thesis on Native American art. The hard work paid off: In 2014, she was tapped to be the curator of the Plains Indian museum .

“I saw it as a massive opportunity and a challenging one, but I knew I had to do it,” West said.

Four years later, the center’s leadership made her the director of a division, as well.  The new responsibilities gave West a chance to learn the administrative side of the museum business.

In April 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, West became the Buffalo Bill Center’s executive director and CEO. She oversees 67 full-time employees, along with 120 seasonal workers, and manages an annual budget between $12 million and $15 million. As of 2022, the center had $123 million in net assets.

Steven Cranfill, a Buffalo Bill Center trustee, called West the “perfect fit” for the CEO role.

“She knows the museums so well, she loves the community and the state and has a good grasp of both, which is an important aspect of that job,” said Cranfill, noting West’s knowledge of the center’s artwork, collections and internal operations. “The staff is fully supportive of her, as is the board of trustees. She has a great leadership style and she’s not afraid to approach any issue.”

‘A rare, great role model’

While West has risen through the ranks, she hasn’t forgotten her past.

“I’m a huge advocate, especially for women, for those who want to further their education,” West said. “Working full time while trying to be a mom is really hard; I’ve been there. But it’s worth it if you can just get through it.”

Hunter Old Elk, the current assistant curator at the Plains Indian museum, has benefited from West’s guidance. West encouraged her to go back to school, and Old Elk is slated to complete her master’s degree in cultural heritage management from Johns Hopkins University in March.

“She’s been patient and encouraged me, and I’ll always be indebted to her for that,” said Old Elk, a member of the Crow Nation who met West in 2016 when she interned at the Buffalo Bill Center. “And, it’s always impressed me that she started at the center as an intern, too.”

Yancy Bonner, who has known West since the 1990s, isn’t surprised that West leads the center and supports women’s advancement.

“Becca is down to earth and very level-headed,” said Bonner. “But she’s also a rare, great role model for girls and young women. She connects with a wide swath of the community, and that’s all because of her personality, who she is.”

West said the hardest part of running the center is balancing the desire to preserve and present cultural attractions with the financial constraints of operating a modern museum.

“There’s a push-pull there at times,” said West, who relaxes by fly-fishing, skiing and trail running. “Often I look at it like it’s fitting puzzle pieces together.”

Looking forward, West plans to enhance the center’s primary tenets of maintaining financial soundness: attracting new audiences, building community trust, welcoming diverse perspectives and expanding on the Western knowledge gleaned over nearly a century.

West also plans to work on the state’s celebration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. Gov. Mark Gordon recently appointed her to a committee to lead Wyoming’s efforts.

“I’ve a lot of ideas to share, and I can’t wait to learn from other members,” West said. “Wyoming is fiercely independent but very patriotic, too. I’m looking forward to making new friends.”

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