One of the intriguing and problematic features of the water developments in Montana is the diversion canal and siphon that changes the destination of the Milk River, which arises pretty much in Glacier Park, from going north into Alberta and makes it travel along on the south side of the Canada/Montana border. This water has made it possible for a line of small towns to develop in country otherwise too arid for farming. It’s so old that it’s deteriorating and the small towns must either shutter themselves or find a way to repair it.
A mini-version of this has developed at one point along the piped water-course, a leak has developed that has now been exploited by plants and animals until it has formed a small and pleasant ecology, the way any natural spring would. If the pipe is repaired, that little community will be destroyed. But this is just a parable.
Auctions bring in people with money. Around here we know that water is the same as money. An ecology of art auctions has sprung up in Great Falls around the annual celebratory auction on Charlie Russell’s birthday in mid-March. In the early Sixties Van Kirke Nelson had tried to establish such an auction in Spokane through Father Schoenberg’s work to establish “MONAC,” the Museum of Native American Culture in Spokane. (See “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC” privately printed by Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J., 1981.) For whatever reasons, the auction collapsed, so did MONAC and, tragically, Father Schoenberg.
Beginning as a benefit for the small museum of minor Russell works the artist’s librarian friend had collected, after forty years of successful auctions the C.M. Russell Museum has grown to a city block of grounds that includes the Russell home, Charlie’s log studio, and a massive structure. Not only that, the original local gala event in the Rainbow Hotel, now a retirement home, burgeoned into a whole complex of vaguely related auctions and shows: the Indians are back with their own event, the accoutrement people show guns and so on, the women artists have a show, the local artists show together, and two major galleries clean out their back rooms with an unjuried auction ("March in Montana") that includes on-line bidding, as does the Russell Auction. The pipeline was gushing. Rich people flew in from back East. They say during that week there is a whole row of Lear Jets up at the airport.
But other dynamics took hold. The board of the CMR museum had been local people with a few wheeler-dealers protecting their interests. Now the bigtime national high-rollers came in. The board was split into two boards: one the money people who were endowing the museum and the other the local people who felt invested, including Bob Scriver -- sworn enemy of Nelson. Across the country millionaire collectors were endowing a network of fine museums featuring Western art. The biggest is still the Buffalo Bill Historical Center which consolidated different interests into one complex, earning it the nickname “The Smithsonian of the West.” Even in Great Falls, a town of less than 100,000, there are multiple museums: one for Lewis and Clark, one for modern art work, one for local history, one for children, and that’s not even counting the small cowboy museum. The fact that the CMR building was so grand meant that maintaining it was expensive and more high-powered staff was vital. The need to stage major shows thinned the always permeable membrane between profit-making galleries and more protective museums.
One of the most energetic developments in terms of the annual auction, which the museum came to see as an entitlement they could count on, was due to the structure offered by the auction events happening in a motel, convention-style. Motel management was inspired to offer the motel rooms as individual galleries, removing all the furniture to huge vans in the parking lots. It took heroic effort, but the result was a kind of artists’ rendezvous at which a person could go through the halls surveying the year’s innovations and developments among the art community, meeting and greeting old friends, and making new contacts. Artists began to come a distance, some of them with works so monumental they had to remain on trailers in the parking lot. It was great stuff and the whole community was aware if not involved.
Last year proceeds of the Ad Club Auction sank from the high of $421,280 a few years ago to $120,829. Most people blamed the depression. Others looked around the seminars with their dwindling and white-haired audiences and noted that the Ad Club is a young person’s game. Others said that Western art had become too much of a muchness, something like Scottsdale where cowboy art spills out of gallery after gallery. Where was the new insight? What did this have to do with contemporary life? Maybe Charlie had been done to death.
The consequence was splitting the Auction in half -- or doubling it -- depending on how you look at it. Now it appears that the CMR Museum version has netted $605,473. The Ad Club is not saying much except that they did all right. They have not said where the profits will be sent. Some snakebit unidentified persons suggested that if the CMR Museum had put in as much effort on behalf of the Ad Club in previous years, the original Auction might not have struggled.
But the real damage was suffered by the artists in their individual room/galleries. Though it was nice to have elbow-room and a slightly less feverish atmosphere, some artists found auction bids were low and they made fewer sales independently. Customer traffic was scattered all over town instead of concentrated in one spot. I don’t know how many Lear Jets brought in big bankrolls or how many bids were Internet. I’m not sure anyone could or should try to figure out the total of what individual artists made, though everyone is quick to publicize high amounts achieved by individual painters. It’s the possibility of “winning the lottery” that brings in the tickets.
The whole complex is an ecology, one small thing enmeshed with another to amount to something big. The public mostly sees a surface, not the global forces at work, which are as important to the auction complex as the annual snowpack in the Rockies is to the High Line water supply.