Doodling around in search of information about the auctions in Great Falls this weekend, the ones that used to cluster around the annual auction celebrating the birthday of Charles Marion Russell, I stumbled across this video. It only mentions Russell at the beginning and is really focused on Texas rather than Montana, but it’s a VERY good job of tracing the development of the genre. The quality of the video is not the best and it doesn’t occur to the cameraman that we’re more interested in seeing the art work than looking at the speaker until partway into the lecture, but it’s worth using up some patience to struggle along. Here’s the formal description.
Lecture: Cattle Drives to Cadilacs: Visions of the West by Contemporary Artists
Lecture Date: Tue, May 11th, 2010
Speaker: Michael Duty
Speaker Bio: Michael Duty is a noted author that has spent three decades in the museum community in various Director capacities, including at the National Western Art Foundation in San Antonio, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis. He is a co-founder of MuseumsWest consortium and a former Executive Director of the California Historical Society in San Francisco. Michael has organized more than 60 museum exhibitions, is a frequent lecturer, and has won multiple awards.
Evidently Heritage Auction Galleries handles just about every kind of valuable object except livestock. Given the times, this is not surprising as wealth is rearranged to better match fortunes. But other posts lead me to believe that Duty has left Heritage. This is not surprising either, since he is of retirement age and writes books, so it would be reasonable to move to a more free-lance sort of arrangement, maybe writing or visiting institutions for one-time curating jobs.
The CM Russell Museum in Great Falls is a member of the “MuseumsWest” consortium which Duty helped found. The entire list is: Amon Carter Museum, Autry National Center, Booth Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, C.M. Russell, Museum, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Gilcrease Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, national Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, National Mueum of Wildlife Art, Petrie Institute of Western American Art at Denver Art Museum, Rockwell Museum of Western Art, and the Stark Museum of Art. Duty is the founding director of the Eiteljorg Museum, which has quickly moved to the top rank of these institutions.
I have been frank -- indeed a bit rabid -- about what I call the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. Bob Scriver was coming to prominence just about the same time that the major institutions and most qualified directors were also developing in the Sixties. The Ad Club’s CMR Auction also formed about this time. Artists and markets sort of grew up together, not always watching carefully about which were public venues with nonprofit status and which were wildcat operations for personal profit. That is, this week’s road shuttler became next week’s gallery owner became the third week’s institutional director. Some of them were educated in a scholarly way (Duty clearly was) and others simply keyed off auction results, like the information on www.askart.com which runs a sort of “ticker tape” of results.
The result of this pattern was that it followed the money. The big free-standing museums were generally created by natural resource and engineering money, the state historical societies varied widely in holdings and expertise, and the line between cowboys and Indians was often split into two tracks.
There was also a major regional dynamic, so that the SW developed quite a long time before the northern plains where lesser wealth, sparse population, and long distances made life harder. The fact that Charlie Russell became such a “marker” artist was an anomaly, as was Frederick Remington, who was essentially an Easterner. Perhaps they stand out because of clever marketing, though they are both skillful and valuable artists and the times were right.
On the northern prairie in the Sixties, Dick Flood and Ace Powell were the voices of cowboy art. Flood was a definitive shuttler and gallery founder. Ace was more sophisticated because of a Russian wife who knew things. That was fifty years ago. They were operating by the seats of their pants, not through sophisticated knowledge about art. Some of the artists that Duty talks about in this lecture did not exist yet -- literally had not been born. As the genre has matured, it has acquired “middle-age spread” and now includes many paintings -- you’ll see them in this presentation -- that we would never have imagined, much less called “cowboy art.” (Mainly crossing into abstraction or landscape.) Cowboy Artists of America was an effort to define the category, maintain friendships among artists, and introduce value-based marketing -- a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Through the efforts of Dean Krakel in Oklahoma City and Harold McCracken in Cody, institutional holdings became more justified, curated, and carefully managed.
That’s where my complaints about the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel begin. Where there is carrion, there will be coyotes. I suspect that at first the “de-accessioning” -- that’s museum talk for disposing of art and objects -- was simply a matter of clearing the shelves of things that were clearly not worth saving. You won’t hear many museum people admit that. In the Sixties the director of the Montana Historical Society lost the line between his job and himself and simply gave away what he considered lesser art to friends and important people. He was caught and paid the price.
But the biggest de-accessioner is time. Especially in terms of “hard economic times.” So across the nation boards of directors have bowed to the idea that certain commercially valuable holdings are not “within the goal and mission of this organization.” When the “holding” is a giant Jackson Pollock mural worth millions (even though there are still people who consider it just dribbling), the story goes ballistic. Probably there have been smaller items quietly shifted out the back door everywhere. A big “name” can protect some things. I doubt that the Charlie Russell mural in the Montana state legislature will be peeled off the wall and sold tomorrow. But given major aesthetic shifts and maybe politically correct rhetoric from Indians who don’t care for their depiction and never liked Lewis & Clark anyway . . . ideas could change. The most potent persuasion, of course, would be money. I wonder what the mural would look like in Dubai.
“Cowboy art” is most meaningful when connected to its roots, but the roots don’t go back more than a couple of centuries. Unless it is more than just subject matter, it might not last that long into the future. But Michael Duty can reassure you about that. He has a dry sense of humor, which is a necessity and a pleasure. At least for me.