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Jim Falck endowment to help NDSU art students pursue dreams

Published October 2015

Jim Falck led a simple life. He lived without an air conditioner or clothes dryer. He kept his checkbook in his breadbox and his bonds mingled with tablecloths and napkins. He also lived a wildly productive life that made it possible to establish one of the largest endowments in North Dakota State University’s history.

NDSU’s Department of Visual Arts received an endowment and artwork totaling $3.6 million. Falck, who died in 2013 at age 84, understood that art scholarships are not as commonplace as some other academic disciplines, especially during times of economic downturn. He wanted to ensure that future artists would have the support to pursue their dreams. His gift also will allow for program development, faculty development and international programs that will elevate the department.

Falck wanted to major in art at NDSU, but opted to pursue a career in architecture as an Air Force ROTC scholarship recipient. He fit in art classes as his schedule allowed and graduated in 1953. He then completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force as a commissioned officer.

His architectural career began in Denver with moves to Houston, Flagstaff, Arizona and Phoenix. Falck returned to Denver to work with one of the region’s most prestigious architects. Even with this success, he could not abandon his original desire, and sought out painting and drawing classes offered through community education. His work was noticed and exhibitions followed in the Denver Art Museum, the Dallas Fine Arts Museum as well as galleries in Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Niece Mary Anne Swiontek of Fargo recalls visits from her uncle to the family farm where he grew up near Buchanan, North Dakota. “He would come home in a fancy Triumph sports car, roaring down the gravel roads. His nieces and nephews followed him like puppies,” she said.

His next step took him to Boston in 1966 to work in the lead office of Walter Gropius, one of the pioneering masters of 20th century architecture and founder of the Bauhaus School.

Falck decided to seek even greater creative expression and branched off into landscape architecture. The farm boy from Buchanan served as Boston’s chief landscape architect for the Metropolitan Park System from 1971 to 1988. In his spare time, he and his friends rehabilitated parks in poorer areas.

Before retiring, Falck purchased a large, old New England house in Beverly on Massachusetts’ North Shore, where he created vibrant flower gardens and hosted dinner parties for friends.  

While Falck was a humble man, he was no wallflower. His laugh was loud, his opinions strong, his favorite color, red. “He was not a man who could be contained,” Swiontek said.

Falck finally earned his art degree at the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly in 1991. He possessed the energy of a younger man and students were drawn to him. His willingness to share his knowledge and help others endeared him to his cohorts.

And the next two decades he focused on his two loves, modern art and travel. He studied in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Mexico and produced hundreds of paintings.

“Jim’s color is both descriptive and playful, capturing the light and ambiance from specific locations he travelled. He allows himself the freedom of a child to capture his ideas and concepts. Hints of Picasso, Matisse and Diebenkorn in his work are evidence he studied the masters,” said NDSU art professor Kimble Bromley.

In fall 2013, Falck was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Swiontek went to be with him. He asked his niece to help him set up an endowment. Falck hated dealing with finances and was surprised to discover the value of his assets.

He had always loved North Dakota and his best memories were at NDSU.

“My uncle did not know what he had to give, but he wanted to give all he had, so that NDSU art students could follow their chosen path — a path he felt he could not choose,” Swiontek said.

She and her husband, Steve, who is the NDSU Development Foundation Chair, worked closely with the NDSU Development Foundation to help him fulfill his vision.

Falck was able to give richly to others because his needs for himself were simple. He wore blue jeans and a shirt, often splattered with paint. His windowless cement-block basement equipped with spotlights served as his studio. Falck preferred his bicycle to his car. And when he travelled to Europe, he took one small suitcase.

This gift of art and endowment is the culmination of years of support Falck has provided to NDSU’s Department of Visual Arts. Since the 1990s, he had given funds in addition to his vast collection of art books to the department’s library, which bears his name. Inspired by studying art abroad, Falck established an annual scholarship in 2000 to provide one art student an opportunity to study in Italy.

“I truly admired him. I don’t think there was anything left undone. He was one of those people lucky enough to recognize what he wanted to do and he did it all, or as much as he was able to pack in,” his niece said.

And so the man who did not major in art at NDSU will leave a legacy to enable art students to pursue their dreams.

A retrospective exhibit of Falck’s art will run through November 18 at the NDSU Memorial Union Gallery.

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Vice President for University Relations
North Dakota State University
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