K.T. Roes was the executive director again in 1996 and the show was successful, but the board decided to make a change, and in 1997 hired Thea Marx, as the new executive director. A native of Kinnear, Wyoming, Marx was living in Cody, but working in Campbell County, exporting log homes from Canada to Japan. Marx had a background in marketing, and a passion for design and immediately put that fusion of skill and enthusiasm to work growing the conference by more than twenty exhibitors between 1997 and ’98. The style of the show also began to change. In the 1997 catalog, the basic beliefs of the Western Design Conference appeared, as listed:
- Western Design is a bona fide school of design.
- The role of education is to promote an appreciation of the school of western design.
- Quality craftsmanship is worthy of encouragement.
- Sharing of ideas, experiences and knowledge creates a synergy that is beneficial to Western Design.
- The client is an important partner in Western Design.
- An annual conference is important in fostering a sense of community among practitioners and enthusiasts of Western Design.
- The opportunity for sales is an essential element of the Western Design Conference.
- The Western Design Conference should be fun.
- The Western Design Conference recognizes the historic traditions of the Western design.
- Change is an important ingredient of the annual exhibition.
This small element helps demonstrate the conference’s move toward a more distinguished and professional show. The overall quality of the show became more refined from the exhibitors’ displays to the quality of the catalog – the show looked and was more polished by the late 90s, and the number of clients, designers, and guests had dramatically grown. By 1999, the conference had grown beyond a gathering place for craftsmen to a higher, more professional level. Awards were given through a blind jury process, seminars grew into an accredited education program, the volunteer-based staff was replaced with paid professionals, and in every way the show was growing in scale and legitimacy.
In addition to growing the conference in the number of participants and clients, Marx also helped push it to new heights by establishing the Western Design Institute. The Western Design Institute was created “to carry out the mission established by the conference at its inception. The Institute will provide architects, interior designers, collectors, and crafts people with gratifying educational opportunities.”3 9 Accredited through the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Interior Designers, the Western Design Institute was a significant development for the conference.4 0 Now, not only could designers come to see what the best western builders and designers were displaying, those who attended the world-class seminars could use those credits to further their education and their own accreditation.
Whether simply through antidotal information, the amount of transactions that took place, or the number of participants and guests coming to the conference, the late 1990s to early 2000s would be described as the show’s high-water mark.4 1 Multiple tragic and significant events in the following years, coupled with circumstances within and outside the show’s control, helped to cement these years as the best of the Western Design Conference.