The CM Russell Art Auction is like an iceberg, to use an image that this summer is more welcome back East than here. But truly there is much behind the scenes on several different levels. I was there in the beginning and I’m here at the end, without any special privilege, but still I have a few things to point out.
The major worldwide art scene has changed radically. I work with print where there has been a huge furor over the fate of paper books, now being replaced by electronic books. This has only barely begun to reach the awareness of most people. Barnes & Noble or Oasis Books in Choteau look about the same, but they are not. The difference is that the BUSINESS MODEL of books is entirely disrupted by electronics and other forces. Layers of middlemen who operated by travel, phone and mail, searching for used books or hand-selling on-site for the wholesalers, are gone. Books have always been objects and therefore samples had to be schlepped around (they are heavy en masse). Readers bought from a shelf supplied by someone -- we don’t think about that. Even the used books had to be physically found and transported to the used book store, like the wonderful accumulation at Oasis, mostly first edition American and Western books. But now finding the books, selling the books, distributing the books can all be done online.
Paintings and sculptures -- even artifacts -- are no different. The advantage of the auction was that it brought a lot of objects together to be inspected and bought. The publicity was as valuable as the schmoozing among dealers, artists and customers. Now all that can be done online where, it’s far more discrete and private -- no need to invent secret signals to keep the curious from craning their necks. But then why have an auction?
For a while there was a furor over keeping the auction catalogues off websites because some artists copied the work of other artists, but then it became clear that people were buying direct from the catalogue. One can’t really see small factors, like the back of the painting, but it’s possible to inquire through someone. Several times I’ve been asked to take a look at a specific work as it hangs and report to someone far away. If the key effective gallery is an auction website, then there’s really no reason for a bricks and mortar building.
When the auction began 42 years ago, it was modeled on an earlier experiment (also powered by Van Kirke Nelson, the doctor who has used the capital from his ob-gyn practice to subsidize Glacier Gallery in Kalispell) in Spokane. That time around it was Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J. (deceased) who was trying to raise money for his Museum of Native American Culture, now dispersed. Father Schoenberg’s book, “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC,” intro by Van Kirke Nelson and Paul Masa, was published in 1981. The events begin in the mid-Sixties. It was a time when Indians were still understood to be a remnant conquered population, cowboys were noblemen on horseback, and artifacts were fair game for anyone to acquire.
Probably Indian Empowerment politics did more to disperse MONAC than any other single force, but also there was a fatal mixing of charity, mystique, tax breaks, and exploitation. Many artists were barely surviving or just starting out, so they could be easily pushed into donating something. Nelson and Masa already had a backlog of art in their warehouses that needed to be promoted and cleared out. The Ad Club -- embodied by Norma Ashby -- saw at once that the product was available, the peg of Charlie Russell was a potent one in the age of Ronald Reagan, and Great Falls was outside the orbits of the giants: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Amon Carter Museum, Cowboy Hall of Fame and several others. Since that time there have been many shifts, some political and some in product. And there are many auctions and shows.
I have argued, in the face of screams of rage from some people, that the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel is essentially Republican. They were marketing on a triumphalist platform emotionally and in capitalist unregulated mode economically, An enlightened person can now see that the prairie clearances of the Native Americans was a genocide not unlike today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somali, and that the artifacts, mythology and lore of the autochthonous peoples should profit those people more than their depictors.
In the capitalist context, some kept arguing that art was no different than the stock market, derivatives of Charlie Russell, while all the time cautioning people to buy what they dearly love because that’s what really counts. (And that masks failures to invest wisely.) A whole business context, partly websites like www.askart.com that act like stock market tickers for auctions and partly slick magazines that “curate” artists, has grown up around this idea. The public, uneducated about what makes art good and resistant to fancy analysis, simply judges art by how much its worth. But the value of art is located more in the sizzle than the steak. An art work is simply worth what it will sell for, regardless of whether it is a Picasso or not.
Montana is a place where there is very little art law and the nuances of numbering, limiting, deriving, etc. are not widely known. An object is treated like an object. So when Bob Scriver was sued for selling a customers’ numbered bronze to someone else next on the waiting list because when the bronze was sent COD, they didn’t have the cash money to accept it, the Montana courts sided with Bob. When the famous lawsuit over the Seltzer that seemed to be a Russell was awarded to Seltzer, that cooled the action. Now the big NA artifact sting in the SW also chills the scene.
In fact, the SW -- which is where what I called the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel first took root -- is now saturated with Cowboy art. The Indian art of the West (meaning art BY Indians, not about them) has taken a slightly different route and so has most of the wildlife art. Scarcity raises value; plenitude drops it. The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel is now webbed among many major institutions, enough to support a class of curators and directors who have not dropped the on-going connections among profiteers and scholars, publishers and promoters.
What made Great Falls a valuable center was the authenticity of a population and place that was in many ways innocent. The forty-two years of its run was four times longer than the typical peak production period of an artist’s work, usually about ten years between his learning curve up and his aging curve down. In the beginning the Scriver Award could be given to people who actually knew Charlie Russell. Now it just goes to patrons and customers. One lady who customarily flew in on a Lear Jet with a group of wealthy Kentucky aficionadoes said that she had “seen everything of interest” that was local. She’s been out as far as Fort Benton and Choteau. Did I know of anything she might have missed? It was all getting a little tiresome. That tells the story.