Berger, Emmel receive lifetime achievement award

Esther Noe
By Esther Noe
Arts South Dakota and the South Dakota Arts Council celebrated the 26th biennial Governor’s Awards in the Arts Feb. 15 at Drifters Bar & Grille in Fort Pierre. 
According to the press release, “The biennial awards presentation honors the achievements of South Dakota’s fine artists and arts leaders. Award winners are selected from nominations submitted in the five categories reflecting the work of professional artists and arts educators and the support of individuals, businesses and organizations that encompass South Dakota’s arts community.”
This year the recipient of the Outstanding Support of the Arts by an Organization or Business award was Warrior’s Work & Ben West Gallery, owned by Randy Berger and Janna Emmel of Hill City. 
Per the rules, “Nominees in this lifetime achievement category should be an organization, business or corporation that has demonstrated leadership in supporting and encouraging the arts through time, talent and funding or by funding and presenting projects by South Dakota artists for public education and enjoyment.”
Berger and Emmel were secretly nominated by a group of friends, many of whom later traveled to the award ceremony to celebrate with them. 
Although they were familiar with the event and had previously helped nominate Jon Crane, being awarded themselves never crossed their minds. 
“It was a total surprise,” said Emmel. 
Originally, when the news was revealed in December, Berger and Emmel thought they were just having lunch with a friend. They were surprised by how much pizza she brought, but then more friends, clients and artists kept coming into the gallery. 
Berger recalled thinking, “This is really getting odd because we’re closed.”
That is when they heard the news. 
Berger’s interest in the art world began in Hill City when he started camping at Sheridan Lake with his folks at 2 years old. 
“I’ve always been running around Hill City,” said Berger. 
While running around, Berger spotted a sign on the side of a Main Street building that said, “See artists painting.” Berger called them soup painters because the artists would use soup cans full of paint and big brushes to paint on their easels. He would stand where his gallery is now and watch them. 
Berger has always been a carpenter and he moved to California to find year-round work which was hard to come by at the time. 
“We landed in Laguna Beach on the coast in Southern California which is really a great little art town,” said Emmel. “It was a great example of what art as a business and art as an economy can really be.”
Then, “27 years ago Randy came up with the idea of making leather framing,” said Emmel. “That started us down the path of the art world.”
When they returned to the Hills, Emmel said, “We felt like Hill City would be a great place to have an art gallery.” 
Their gallery began in the back room of what is now Granite Sports. Later they moved across the street into what is now the Twisted Pine Wine & Beer Tasting Room. Finally, they built the building where their gallery is currently located on Main Street.
“We started out as a Native American art gallery, Warrior’s Work, and then when we moved to the new building and had a much bigger space, we decided we both really love contemporary art. So we added the Ben West Gallery,” said Emmel. 
Emmel also recalled asking, “What could we do to help make this more of an art town?”
To start, Berger and Emmel helped reignite the Hill City Arts Council at a time when the schools were talking about removing their art programs. Emmel was president for nine years, and Randy has been involved for around 25 years. 
They raised money for public art like the bison in Spirit of the Hills Park, which was in the gallery as a giant clay for two years while they raised the funds. They also helped bring the horse outside of Jewel of the West to town, which Emmel said is called “the most photographed horse in America.”
“We’ve been involved in a lot of things in this town,” said Berger. 
Emmel agreed, saying, “There’s always been this great group of people in our community who shared a vision for Hill City and worked really hard to bring arts to the community. There were a lot of us working on it over the years.”
For as Emmel believes, “You can never have too much art in a town.”
It was thus fitting that the Governor’s Awards in the Arts took place on Art Advocacy Day. 
“The arts are hugely important to some of the economies in South Dakota,” said Emmel. “Randy and I are all about trying to find ways so that artists can actually make a living at what they do.”
“We’re trying to tell people that art is a viable thing,” said Berger. 
When they first started, someone told Berger and Emmel that locals would never buy their artwork. 
“In those early years there was definitely fighting the status quo where art was not seen as viable,” said Emmel. 
Nevertheless, Emmel said during the hard years, it was the support of the locals that kept them running, and at their 25th anniversary party there was standing room only. 
Their award for Outstanding Support of the Arts by an Organization or Business was handcrafted by South Dakota Artist Laureate Dale Lamphere, who designed the Dignity sculpture. 
However, Emmel said, “We certainly didn’t do it for the awards all these years. We love our community. We love Hill City. We felt like all these years that when you’re living in a small town, you can bring your talents to it and you can really make a difference. That’s what we were trying to do, and that’s where the reward is really.”
“It’s been a great journey,” said Berger.­­­­

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