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Let's make a deal

Art and smarts at the Art Museum of Missoula



While you live within casting distance of a dozen watersheds, Missoula does not offer much opportunity to choose silk over sweats, wingtips over waders, Prada over Patagonia. Restaurant attire here rarely gets fancier than Brushpoppers and new jeans; even weddings tend to be more of the barefoot-in-Pattee-Canyon variety than the Di-and-Charles model. You love Missoula exactly for these reasons, for the casualness of it all, but now and then—it can’t be helped—you, refugee from a life of high earnings and urban sophistication, must don the glowing, glamorous attire of ceremony. The clothes—Black! Backless! Slinky! Sequined! Clean!—carry a bewitching power of transformation, granting one quick evening of otherness before the midnight bell tolls.

It just so happens that in the depths of winter gloom the Art Museum of Missoula holds its annual art auction, an occasion for community support and socializing, a chance to better your spirits with art at a good price, and an excuse to dress up, the thrill of elegance a spur to spend.

Great round tables fill the large ballroom atop the University Center, 83 pieces of art for sale lining the walls and expertly lit. You arrive with your friends, falter briefly with the stiffness your elegant costume demands and make your way to the bar. Within half an hour, the room bristles with energy and pumps with conversation.

The food sits pristine and untouched upon the linen-draped buffets, trays filled with neatly patterned rows of asparagus and red peppers, basil and mozzarella. The art feels safe, and patrons browse, glancing up now and then for a greeting. Museum director Laura Millin flits from cluster to cluster of guests, welcoming, encouraging. One-eighth of the museum’s annual budget depends on this auction, and Millin is long-schooled in the warm, grateful diplomacy that will keep her organization afloat. For a moment you could pretend you’re on a sophisticated cruise ship or at a southern wedding. In any case, you’re on holiday.

The collection displays an extraordinary range of styles, influences and media, drawing a multifaceted portrait of Missoula. You thrill to see such a constellation of Montana talent. You recognize some of the artists at once: Rudy Autio, Monte Dolack, Kendahl Jan Jubb, Adrian Arleo. Acrylic on canvas, glass, ceramic, copper, silver gelatin, beebox. Persons who would not usually spring for a top-shelf beer are here to drop cash for the cause. Many of the artists will donate proceeds from their sales to the museum.

The business of buying art is a serious one, and patrons appreciate their responsibility to the artists and to the museum. Most people are long-time supporters who over the years have filled their own walls with Missoula art. Everyone seems to know everyone else. You see doctors, lawyers, doctors married to lawyers, university professors and artists. In this city, conspicuous consumption is not one of the standard manners of socializing (excepting healthy competition in ski gear), but in service to a good cause, your fellow partygoers buy one, two, even three pieces of art in a night.

What inherent tension auctions possess, revving up quickly, counting on competition for fuel. High school art students line up along the wall ready to parade each piece before the crowd. Bid-card spotters fan out across the room to aid the auctioneer. Above his head, a screen magnifies each image. The auctioneer has flown in from Seattle, and he is loose and comfortable with this crowd, knowing just how to coax another $100 from the bidders.

Whole tables tense up, and you can feel the room grow focused, conversation hushed. Whoops of triumph and glee burst from the groups when someone wins a bid. Balloons percolate around the room, each winner presented with a champagne bottle adorned by this helium flag.

Connie Poten is here with her husband; it’s their “third or fourth” auction. “It sounded like a glamorous, fun event, and we wanted to support the museum,” she says, remembering their first. “The art auction is a bargain if you see beautiful stuff,” she says. Poten has bought plenty of art over the years, and tonight she thinks she knows what she’s after.

She sits at a big table filled with friends, and as wine bottles are opened, the mood grows brighter and more festive. By the end of the evening, she has bid on four items and won three, acquiring a nice mini-gallery for less than $2,000. She now owns Patricia Forsberg’s picture “Memory of Scent,” Beth Lo’s untitled collage, and a large photograph by Chris Autio called “Salmon River Road,” which she plans to suspend by wire from her ceiling, because she and her husband have run out of wall space.

“I look for something that moves me, makes me see something in a different way, opens a door.” Poten says. “And you have to look at something in different moods before you buy, too.”

Two years ago, the museum had what was then its best auction night ever, pulling in $84,650. Then, after September 11 and the stock market’s dive, patronage shrank, and every sector of Missoula absorbed the hit. In such a climate, few were eager or able to open their wallets and toss out $1,500, even for a good bargain. This year’s auction topped the previous record with a haul of over $92,000, of which about $30,000 goes back to the artists.

The subject of a bargain is a touchy one to some. Imagine yourself the artist, sitting there as strangers rate your work with their dollars, an experience both thrilling and demoralizing. While the artists want their work to find an audience, as well as bring joy, and while they believe in supporting the museum, it’s still difficult to watch a painting that would sell in a gallery for $4,000 bring only $1,200. “I’m glad to see my work go out there,” says one artist. “But when it goes for so much less than I could get in a gallery—well, I have to eat, too.”

This may be as close to fairytale ball as Missoula gets—the fine behavior, the giddy spending and, yes, the wonderful clothes giving you a heady, momentary sense of privilege. You feel good, have eaten well, are checked in with everyone who’s emerged from hibernation. And you go home with art. Who knows how it will look in the morning?

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