There are two important functions of a museum: aggregation (the collection of things together) and curation (their interpretation). That’s pretty clear. The problem comes when greed and status are involved. Suddenly the monetary value of the aggregation and the status of the curator begin to put political spin on what most people would suppose to be a rather objective function. In fact, we are used to thinking of museums and historical societies as either governmental (tax-supported, which is more common in Canada or Europe than the US) or non-profit (even when they were originally started with endowments from very rich people). The idea was either that they were part of a cultural heritage that makes the nation stronger or that their purpose was so significant in the eyes of the original founders that they would underwrite them the way they might underwrite a cancer hospital. (We aren’t very used to hospitals being profit-makers on today’s scale either. But in Great Falls and Billings, Montana, health care is a major part of the economy.)
Let’s go back to aggregation. Small towns have often been the locus of personal collections of oddities, like arrowheads or albino animals or pioneer implements. Sometimes the things are there just because they are odd (we never lose our fascination with two-headed calves) and sometimes because they are nostalgic and occasionally because the owner simply had a lot of money, and used it to create an aggregation. They aren’t always in accessible places so after the original collectors, who housed them in a basement or garage or -- in the case of one small town in Saskatchewan -- an abandoned movie house, everything is simply dispersed or maybe there’s an effort to raise money through charging admission.
One of my favorite remnants of history now supported as a museum is in North Dakota. Medora was founded in 1883 by French nobleman Marquis de Mores who named the city after his wife Medora von Hoffman. Originally simply the graceful and elegantly appointed ranch house of the Marquis and his wife, who were driven out by meat-packing competitors, it’s something like the Conrad mansion in Kalispell which was emptied by changing times but left intact with furniture. The rather remote ranch home of Alberta Bair is in the category. Such places are heavily curated: the point is preservation rather than aggregation. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is based on the curation of a place, how Lewis & Clark made the change from boats on the Missouri to horses as they continued their journey across the continent. A certain amount of aggregation of authentic equipment or art works are included as well as a point of scholarship, which is a form of curation, explanatory exhibits and talks by guides as well as small events that help people with hands-on experience of one thing or another, like faux parfleches made from brown wrapping paper.
The CM Russell Museum in the same town also organizes such events, especially for kids, who need more than tours to hold their interest. The point of the CMR Museum is aggregation of all things Charlie Russell. By association other artists have been included, though none as the primary focus. The original “seed” for the museum was Charlie’s good librarian friend, Josephine Trigg, who saved small things like letters or the clever little place markers from parties. Charlie’s original house and log cabin studio were there. Someone saw the potential for development and in the last fifty years the place has mushroomed into a major installation. Such a place offers a range of jobs from janitors and security guards to receptionists (originally volunteers), aficionado groups, and a small gift shop.
At the top is the director, who is presumably both an administrator and a curator -- that is, can manage organizational issues like building maintenance and the dynamics of a board of directors, but also is enough of an art expert to mount exhibits worth scholarly attention and to interact with other experts. Nowadays fund-raising is even more important than in the past. Beyond that, the CM Russell Museum has influence clear into Oklahoma where the residue of Nancy Russell’s estate now endows the CMR Center for the Study of Western Art at the University of Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma Press (along with the University of Nebraska Press) is a major vendor of books about Western subjects.
The Great Falls CMR Museum had the good fortune to attract the attention of the GF Advertising Club, a dynamic group who sponsored an annual art auction on Russell’s birthday. This money-maker, soon imitated by the sincere flattery of other entities, not only attracted a cluster of side-kick auctions all over town, but attracted the interest of people working in the American Southwest on the crosshairs of cowboys and Indians. One example there, the Cowboy Hall of Fame, now called the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, was a major player in the development of Western art because of an alliance with the Cowboy Artists of America, a confederation of buddies who marketed together and gradually became an imprimatur of quality that meant a major uptick in artists' income. This interaction is occasionally challenged -- the motivation for, let's say, "accommodation" becomes a little too strong.
The granddaddy museum of them all, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, sometimes called “the Smithsonian of the West,” is in Cody, Wyoming, where it originally formed out of Buffalo Bill memorabilia, mostly guns, and the patronage of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, from the same family that created the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I hope I am making the point that the aggregation and curation of Western art, artifacts and memorabilia is an international network. (Alberta alone has some remarkable museums, including the Glenbow in Calgary, the Royal Alberta Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Head-Smashed-In in Fort Macleod, and the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.)
Truly qualified directors and curators are hard to find. Individuals shuttle around among institutions, sometimes museums, sometimes publishers, and sometimes academia. Even artists and gallery owners become players. This is not different from other categories of art or natural history museums.
Recently, as the interest of humanitarian millionaires (I mean Billionaires, since millions are small change now) has shifted to international issues (AIDS, starvation, disaster relief) and the big spectacular art museums have been built overseas in Europe or oil country, Western art has changed. Things are leaner. The most nimble of the curator/aggregators have had to mix and match. Take the example of B. Byron Price who is the director of the University of Oklahoma Press (where the editor-in-chief is Charles Rankin who was once the editor of Montana, the Magazine of Western History with its heavy CMR emphasis), also writes books published by the press and/or sponsored by the CM Russell Museum, and is the director of the CMR Center for the Study of Western Art, where staff from the CMR Museum in Great Falls occasionally lecture. Price’s good friend, who previously ran a commercial art gallery, now is the director of the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls.
The Ad Club, which sees itself as local, has decided to change its focus to something else, letting go of the regional network of Western artists who supplied infrastructure for the auction by renting motel rooms and converting them into mini-galleries. The artists are organizing among themselves to maintain this part of the event, but the lucrative auction has moved to the C.M. Russell Museum itself where the director will take on the challenge.
More about this in the future, since my past and, in particular, the career of Bob Scriver is deeply woven into all these institutions even as his estate sits uncurated at the Montana Historical Society.