Sunday, August 30, 2009


The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat
by Eugene Field

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t'other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn't there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)

The gingham dog went " Bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "Me-ow!"
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney place
Up with it hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I'm only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed,"Oh dear! What shall we do!"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw-
And oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don't fancy I exaggerate!
I got my news from the Chinese plate!)

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole the pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock, it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)

I reprint the entire poem in case there are young ‘uns who don’t know it. My Prot Irish grandfather used to quote it. It seems apt in a town (Great Falls) with an abundance of museums elbowing each other for shelf space among the precious objects. Many of us have been watching this for decades as the stakes grew higher and the reputation grew wider. Players have changed, sometimes through death and sometimes through a growing number of national players. If Norma Ashby ever writes the true story of these two “animals,” it will be a blockbuster. She took notes, I’m sure.

The most obvious bone of contention was between the local Ad Club and the increasingly national nature of the board and Auction attenders. Most local Montanans pay no attention to what goes on outside the state, so they may not have been aware that “Western art” has been growing into a gargantua, many dealers and endowed institutions in a sprawling network around the whole continent, all ambitious and mostly funded by millionaire aficionadoes of the West who identified with both the cowboys and the oil millionaires at the fulcrum of frontier. Each has ambitious administrators who are often very well paid, but there are far fewer actual art experts and curators specifically trained to address Western art. Most people judged art according to the price it would command (at auction maybe) and the prestige it conferred.

These are the people who wanted to rent the museum premises for cocktail parties and weddings. It was the art experts who cringed to see smoke and alcohol-fueled behavior near their precious collections. Think of the damage to the carpets! But it helped the endowment greatly. Until many aficionadoes began to age out of the picture. Now the market for Western art is shrinking.

The CMR Museum tried to solve the schism by forming two boards: one a local board of concerned and influential Montanans and the other a national board of big money folks. The Blackfeet tribe does the same thing: a board of elders and a board of actual council members. Let the elders speak their good words, just what everyone wants to hear, and then let the council members quietly meet, maybe through the windows of their pickups. When I was at seminary, the board of trustees of the seminary was supposed to include one student, which was intended to keep them from rioting or picketing. I was that student one year and I did my best to rock the boat. The students was expected to show how dignified and adult they were by representing everything in the kindest and most helpful tones. But I was forty and on the prod. I drew wild cartoons and declared a crisis.

That’s when I found out the truth about boards (and Congress and any other body of big shots). I had ruined my reputation and chances for a big time church by making trouble. (It didn’t really matter as I only wanted to return to Montana anyway.) It was revealed to me that there were only about four trustees (all older men with big churches) who quietly made all the decisions after everyone had gone home. Both the CMR Museum and the Ad Club are no different. That’s where the roots of the split really are. Norma Ashby knows, though she’s not one of them. Bob Scriver, on the Montana honorary board, tried to raise an alarm and was shut out. Many small people know.

There is another relevant literary tale, a novel by Mary Kay Zuravleff called “The Bowl Is Already Broken.” She used her knowledge of the Smithsonian to create this much-praised tale of museum politics that spirals around a priceless porcelain bowl, dropped and shattered. Though the story winds in and out of all sorts of worldly pressures, the end is philosophical: as soon as anything exists, it will end. That’s true for all objects, for humans, and for mountain ranges. Even the continents and even the planet. The timing and manner of the end might be unfortunate, but nothing is eternal except eternity.

In the fifty years since the auction was founded, partly as a convenient way to launder art acquired by hook or crook, it has been marbled with dubious practices as well as celebrated as a Great Falls triumph. But what is constantly overlooked is the growing-but-stretched bubble of Western art value that fuels auction profits and, beyond that, a world culture shift that asks “what IS a museum?” “What IS value?” Beginning with the early Pope’s cabinet of priceless treasures, all the way up to the Virginia rec room with a Russell over the fireplace, questions at this level have not been asked or answered.

Is there anything more at stake than a boy’s collection of treasures: pretty rocks, tin soldiers, and the collar off a pet dog that died long ago? It’s only a matter of time before the Chinese plate and the old Dutch clock begin to talk.


Lance Michael Foster said...

It's the old saying, "death begins at birth," right?

It's the elephant in the room. We believe we elect who we elect. And then behind the scenes, there is the REAL election. That's the illusion of citizen participation that keeps the revolution at bay and the staus quo chugging along.

I repeat: The illusion of participation.

It's sort of like how ranchers and businessmen gripe about people "on welfare" (even though "welfare" for the poor as we know it hasn't been around for years). They gripe about government. The same government that allows them to lease grazing and mineral rights at rates that were low in the 1890s...and still at 1890s prices! The well-off and the rich get all kinds of "welfare" (grants, tax breaks, etc.) from the government and "that's ok."

They don't seem to understand that taking care of the destitute and unfortunate is not only ethically and morally correct, it is a safety valve for those "who have." Welfare kept the poor apathetic. Welfare was a safety net not just for the poor, but for the middle class and for the rich.

Just get some mac and cheese with food stamps, pay the rent with vouchers, scrape up some beer money, talk about going back to school to get your GED (and magically, you too can become a CEO!) and poor people remain complaining but apathetic.

When people lose everything, the clock begins ticking, and history shows in China, Russia..and 1770s America...well, all bets are off. I have seen those bumper stickers that say "Eat the Rich"

I have grave concerns about all of it

Dona Stebbins said...

Mary, I believe you are absolutely correct in your analysis. Years of watching the interaction and waiting for the other shoe to drop, while the chasm between the two entities grew. It will be interesting to see what comes of this!

Paul Stephens said...

Here's a couple of my comments to the Tribune on their stories about the Russell/Ad Club breakup. Your account was much better than theirs, of course.

When I returned to GF to stay in the early 1980's, I alternated each year between joining the Russell Museum and Paris Gibson Square. It soon became apparent that the Square was the real art museum in GF, supported by the County, the School District (which owned the building in those days), and a host of local artists and volunteers. But they had to share the Square with the History Museum, and that proved to be a rocky road, indeed.
I never liked the "style" of the Russell management after the first expansion of the building in the late '70's. And the "western art" people were always trying to suppress or remove the contemporary art people at the Square. PGSMOA had, for many years, an "Art Equinox" show and auction. The Russell scheduled a Fall auction of "miniatures" at the same time to "compete" with it.
And we all know the sad story of how Liz Dear was fired and her Catalog Raisonne shipped off to Oklahoma.
This was Ginger Renner's doing. Why are they listening to her?


I'm no fan of the Ad Club or commercial advertising in general. They are making a fortune off of pharmaceutical advertising, as well as the misguided "Montana Meth Project" which spends millions of taxpayer dollars on "media buys" - a good deal for them, but not for us.
But the Russell Auction was a great success from almost every point of view. What needs to happen, now, is for control of the Russell Museum to come back to Great Falls. They have a 40-member Board, less than 10 of whom are real Montanans. People like Ginger Renner and some wealthy Texas and Oklahoma oil men have taken it over. And that, I'm sure, explains the choice for the new Director. He's not interested in what Montanans or the local business community thinks. It's his "brand," and he's going to protect it! From whom? Charlie Russell's friends and neighbors?
Let's choose a new Board for the Russell, and exclude anyone who doesn't primarily live in Montana, with ties to the Russell tradition.