Monday, July 09, 2007


As you may have noticed, I’ve become interested in the Arts Journal blog called “FlyOver Country” ( and have been growling at Joe Nickell, who is in Missoula and therefore doesn’t realize there is anyone on the eastern side of the Rockies and thinks there is no other arts blogger in the state, totally overlooking “The Eye of the Beholder,” arts blog for the Great Falls Tribune. ( In my opinion she has the most elegant logo in the newspaper of any I’ve seen, though it’s not the same as her banner. Maybe I don’t know what’s going on in other places either (like Missoula), but I have a half-century history with GF.

The comment I’ve reprinted below is not a response to a post by Joe Nickell, but rather by his fellow blogger, Jennifer Smith, inviting a report on the scene where the reader is. This is my report to her.


Montana is said to be a town with a main street 500 miles long. Another version of the same thing is that the arts here are a mile wide and about a quarter-of-an-inch deep. In short, in order to get enough critical mass to talk about the arts here, one must just about necessarily talk about the whole state at once.

Yet, the paradox is that visual art is very much Balkanized. The two university towns have their own little circles, the three or four mini-cities (Great Falls, Kalispell, Billings, Butte) and the two valley refuges of wealth and culture (Livingston and Hamilton), each have their own idea of what good art might be, their own icons, and their own aspirations.

What I know best is the sector called "Art of the American West," meaning "art that sorta reminds you of Charlie Russell." In a thinly populated state like this one, it is less represented by the few galleries and museums than it is by auctions (the one in Great Falls on Charlie's birthday in March or the Western Art Rendezvous in Helena in August) and magazines, especially "Southwest Art" and "Art of the West." Because Western art is often taken to be a record of history in the West (Remington and others came to notice by suppling art to go in newspapers before there were photographs) the Montana Historical Society magazine also serves, though at one time it came to notice that it had sunk to "pandering" to certain speculators and since has had a policy forbidding living artists. (This policy is not enforced in their museum.)

A strange ambivalent symbiosis connects Western art collectors in other more "high-rolling" places back east or in the Southwest and people who live in Montana. Partly the situation is that the collectors live in population centers where they make enough money to buy a little prestige-enhancement and the artists at least pretend to live in-country where the subject matter actually exists and the cost of living is a little lower.

But in Helena just a few blocks away from the Historical Society is the Holter Museum, contemporary, frisky, and willing to venture ideas about the future. They accept Native American art, but not "Cowboy" art. They are also much friendlier to contemporary writing and such phenomena as ceramics.

Across the state in Livingston is a genuine Renaissance man, Russell Chatham, son of a noted California impressionist. He has run a fine bistro, a publishing house, a gallery, a fine arts press, and so on -- while befriending the wild movie types who have bought ranches around there. He paints landscape in a romantic, atmospheric, yearning way that finances all his other interests and makes book covers so fabulous that I'm sure they've contributed to the success of Jim Harrison's novels. Missoula knows him as a man who attends the Montana Festival of the Book as a publisher. His art? Eh.

There is a Montana Arts Council, whose executive grew up on a grain farm outside Great Falls and who once worked for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, and whose president (also female) is a Blackfeet Indian. They spend a lot of time thinking about money and hardly glance at "cowboy art." The past president (male) is an "art lawyer" who constantly tries to coach both artists and community about common sense business practices. Art law in the state is very weak, which encourages buccaneers.

I've been here, off and on, since 1961, and am still surprised by what turns up or turns around.

End of comment.

I’m going to take this discussion to my other blog, to clear the way for backed-up posts I want to make here, so you might want to migrate with the subject. I get incensed when people who purport to know all about “what’s on the ground” when they don’t, but one can hardly blame them if no one fills them in, especially when so much of what goes on in a place like Montana started to happen before they were born. It’s a circle -- they ignore us, so we ignore them. When it comes time to raise money -- ouch.

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