Friday, September 25, 2009


A good theory is simple enough to apply in a lot of places, so let’s try the aggregator/curator idea (collecting things together, versus analyzing what they are) on a current vexed situation in Great Falls. For many decades the Great Falls Ad Club has sponsored an auction to benefit the CM Russell Museum. Now they have parted company. Originally there was ONE auction on ONE night. It was mostly local. The Russell Museum was small, quietly managed (too quietly, some might say, since a certain amount of mutual back-scratching went on), and though the SW cowboy art scene was heating up, not much attention had been paid to the northern prairie. The Ad Club had been raffling off a high end automobile for their benefit project. So it was all simple -- one celled. Horizontal. One small event in the lives of Montana folks.

Over time the museum itself has swollen into a huge building that gobbles money, the auction has become a year-round industry, and other auctions have joined the first, for various reasons, with none of their money going to the Russell Museum. The event is now vertical, an aggregate of Western art -- some of it, like the customers, coming from back East. From the beginning dealers have auctioned works that weren’t moving from their galleries, and now the many rooms that wrap around the actual auction are filled with dealers as well as artists. Recently, the original wheeler-dealers are aging out and even dying -- after all, this end of the movement began in the Sixties -- but there are plenty of replacements and they are far smoother, more hip, and not so local.

If one looks at Western art vertically, not as part of horizontal Montana life, it is much expanded across the continent. Major institutions and dealers have learned how to manage “the auction” as an event of aggregation and as a price-curator. Now websites like are aggregators of auctions. Catalogues are aggregators of content useful for dealers and collectors, who curate at various levels of education and straightforwardness. Western art has grown powerful enough to support slick magazines and to engage some serious scholarship. But it also pulls along with it a bit of the horizontal: guns, uniforms, Indian artifacts, military paraphernalia, cowboy gear, overlapping a bit with popular history of the West, which sustains a parallel network of aficionados.

Over the years tensions developed between the local horizontal, which claims this category as part of their own history, daily life, friends and neighbors, and those who see it in the vertical, part of a “brand,” a sales and scholarship category responding to theory somewhat but far more controlled by profit. The vertical commercial interests were committed to cloaking, because some of the profit came from playing poker with art. it helped to have uninformed enthusiasts around. The artists themselves ended up on both sides. Some of them were not Westerners. Some of them were not great artists. Not many were like Charlie Russell.

Local Westerners tend to judge art on the basis of what they know of real life. Is that good horse anatomy? Would a person throw a rope that way? Would griz act like that? Is that the right period of rifle? But the academic art curators, who deal with many kinds of art, think in terms of skilled brush strokes, color values, composition and the like. They posit major art movements and look for dates of birth and death, who the teachers were, what other artists traveled with them, and so on. All this “privileged” book learning increases expert importance and their ability to earn money by using their knowledge. So they value the vertical. The dealers, who are operating as middle men between the two approaches, just want to convert both local lore and specialized erudition into cash.

In the beginning, back in the Sixties, when Van Kirke Nelson was experimenting with auctions by working with Father Schoenburg, whose museum of Indian art (MONAC) in Spokane finally failed, and when these auctioneers were going around asking artists to donate art for the good of the cause, Ace Powell and Bob Scriver were always trying to figure out what people valued when they bought art. Their naive ideas were things like how many colors were used, how many figures were in the painting, whether it was action or just a still-life, whether it was painted on stretched canvas or canvasboard. Originality figured large in their minds, but it was hard to know how not to be so original that one left the cowboy category. These days the talk is a whole lot more fancy.

There is a layer of thought that goes up and up from the horizontal, through the vertical “brand” of cowboy art. It is theoretical, philosophical, dominated by academics. They publish books, though the movement still doesn’t support books with no pictures. There is another layer that goes down and down from the horizontal, about how to make deals in cowboy art, not written out since some of it is not just down but also dirty. Horse trading stuff. Buyer beware. Is this a Russell or a Seltzer with the signature sheared off?

On the up and up is the issue of status. If a millionaire (esp. the Western shirt-sleeves type based on mineral development or industrial development) wants to show he’s not just some uneducated bozo who can be patronized, he might want to have some pretty nice art in his game room. And to him, Western art is likely to hit the spot. Rough-hewn manly stuff, but respected by the experts. That sort of buyer is likely to need a gallery or advisor just to find out where things are. He's used to hiring experts.

Recently Western art as a marker of status and discrimination has gotten tricky. The PETA crowd doesn’t want to see dirty old cowpokes roping a poor innocent wolf just for the fun of it. They don’t like rodeo, either. Or branding. Must everything be so violent?? So sales action has shifted from cowboys, hunting, and so on over to the idealization of animals in the wild. Suddenly Remington and Russell were joined by Rungius, even though the latter painted moose and mountain sheep so well because he regularly shot himself a model and strung it up too look at. Which is also what Audubon did. At this point the art begins to leave reality and soon there are Rainbow Grizzlies.

As the RR and R available oeuvre has thinned down, scenery came into vogue, esp. the early mystical aggrandizement of American “cathedrals,” illuminating the connection between patriotism and Christianity. Add a fourth R, “Republican.” Now the center of Western art, which has flooded (Dick Flooded, you might say, if you knew that dedicated entrepreneur) the Southwest, shifts slightly to the American South and East. They’re the ones who have had the money, honey, for the last eight years.

All of these countervailing forces, but primarily the one between the horizontal locals who have little notion of what the continental scene and values might be and the vertical experts who chase a narrow goal in a way that includes a certain amount of flim-flam, make the Great Falls art politics and power struggles almost more interesting than the art work. One again, too much aggregation. Not enough curating, or maybe meta-curating. Who’s curating the curators when the curators come from outside?

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I think an ethnography of the contemporary western art world would be appropriate, with all their primitive and arcane rituals, symbolic systems, and social patterns; communitas, sodalities, liminal status and all that. Much more cutthroat than some other historical tribal societies I know of. At least the Northern Plains tribe directed most of their aggression outward to "the Other", rather than in-group :-)