The black snail-shell patterns sewn into the center of the red cloth draw the eye. The artwork, titled “paj ntaub” (flower, cloth) visually anchors Missoula Art Museum’s first exhibit in its new and temporary gallery, named the Temporary Contemporary, in the Florence Hotel. It’s neither the artist, Dia Vang, nor the medium that merits the piece’s inclusion in the new exhibit. Rather, “paj ntaub” was selected because it demonstrates one manner in which art comes under the care of the Missoula Art Museum (MAM): via donation. The current exhibit is titled Gifts, Grants and Legacies: Recent Growth of the MAM Collection.
In February, the Art Museum announced plans to renovate and expand its permanent home in the former Carnegie Public Library on the corner of Pattee and Pine streets. While the building is under construction, the museum has made its temporary home in a small gallery adjacent to the lobby of the Florence. After being closed for most of August at the Carnegie, MAM unveiled Gifts, Grants and Legacies in the Temporary Contemporary on Sept. 10. The show is scheduled to run through Oct. 9.
“Most of the work has never been seen before and most of the work is recent acquisitions,” says MAM Curator Stephen Glueckert. Of the 39 pieces selected for the exhibit, 29 have not been publicly displayed before (MAM’s permanent collection holds between 500 and 600 pieces). The pieces were selected for display because they illustrate the various means by which MAM acquires work. The exhibit also illustrates the artists’ ties to each other and to the art community beyond Montana.
“It’s kind of neat when artists give us other artists’ work,” says Renée Taaffe, MAM curator of education.
The exhibit includes several such pieces, including Theodore Waddell’s untitled steel sculpture, reminiscent of a dancer, back arched, balancing on the tips of toe shoes. Artist and former UM art teacher Maxine Blackmer, who served on the mayor’s committee that first supported the formation of the museum formerly called the Missoula Museum of the Arts, gave the piece to MAM. One of Blackmer’s own pieces, “Big Bird Chest Ornament,” is also on display.
Another donated item, a small graphite drawing, hangs in the back corner of the new gallery. It’s a self-portrait by Montana artist Bill Stockton, sketched on the edge of a napkin. The piece was donated by Missoula resident and painter Sheila Miles, whose In the Neighborhood exhibit was on display at the museum just last year. Stockton died a year after Miles donated the drawing.
Art also comes to MAM when patrons make direct purchases on behalf of the museum. Billings resident Miriam Sample, a longtime supporter of Montana arts, has funded the purchase of numerous pieces for MAM. In the ’50s and ’60s, says Glueckert, Sample watched as much art and many artists left Montana. “She saw a creativity drain” says Glueckert. “She wanted to see significant work stay within the region.” Lela Autio’s red vinyl boots, “Zizi’s Boots,” hang from a gallery wall courtesy of Sample.
In 1905, the students of Hawthorne Elementary commissioned Edgar Paxson’s “In the Enemy’s Country,” also on display. In 1975, the school donated the painting to the new museum’s permanent collection.
Organizations purchase work on behalf of MAM, too. The exhibit includes a wood carving by E.W. Riley called “Satan, Jr.,” purchased by the First Bank Fund. Satan wears shoes that each sport an “S,” he holds a small bronze pitchfork, and he is smiling. After Riley retired from his career as an auto mechanic and service dealer for the Missoula Buick dealership, he became a prolific carver.
“This is probably not the only ‘Satan’ around,” says Taaffe.
The museum’s mission is to show contemporary art, not necessarily regional or Montana art. Still, the ties that connect the Missoula museum to the greater world of art are evident. Next to the crimson “paj ntaub” hangs New York artist Miriam Schapiro’s “Arbor,” gifted to MAM by collectors Eugene and Barbara Schwartz in 1991. The couple is probably best known in the world of art for purchasing one of the first digital Internet-based pieces of art, “The world’s first collaborative sentence.” Eugene Schwartz, then living in New York, was a Montana native.
It seems fitting that as MAM prepares for what staff describe as the museum’s renaissance, MAM resides in a gallery in the Florence Hotel. The Florence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Carnegie Public Library. Fire destroyed the Florence in 1913 and then again in 1936. When the hotel was rebuilt the second time, the country was recovering from the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the community recognized the hotel as an important gathering place and raised money for reconstruction. MAM, too, has witnessed the community’s financial support. In four months, MAM raised more than $2.2 million toward construction and renovation—more than half of the estimated total cost of $3.5 to $4 million.
Squeezing into the little gallery has posed challenges, too.
“This is smaller than we’re used to,” says Glueckert—about 1,400 square feet, compared with the Carnegie Public Library’s 3,600 square feet of gallery space. “We want to have a presence that’s comparable, and it’s hard.”
While the gallery allows the museum to show only one third of its usual exhibitions, it is located in the heart of downtown. It was important, says Glueckert, to remain part of that “vitality.”
When the Carnegie Public Library is remodeled, it will offer 60 percent more exhibit space, but being in the lobby of the Florence has provided the museum with a built-in audience. While MAM redid the floors and the ceilings in order to turn the space into “an environment that’s appropriate to present art in,” butcher paper covered the glass walls and doors between the lobby and the gallery. People would loiter in the lobby and try to sneak a peek. “They’ve been incredibly curious,” says Glueckert.
At least 775 people satisfied their curiosity at the Sept. 10 opening. Typically, between 300 and 350 people attend exhibit openings, says Registrar Jennifer Reifsneider.
While the museum adapts to the Temporary Contemporary space, construction will begin next month on the Carnegie Public Library. Missoula’s Carnegie is one of 1,698 libraries built nationwide with Carnegie grants. Now, 6 percent of them have become art museums or art centers. In an April interview with Glueckert, architect Warren Hampton described the building this way: “The Missoula Art Museum is a contemporary art museum—a contemporary institution residing inside 100-year-old building skin.” Hampton noted that one of the key concepts in designing the expansion is “the need to express the identity of a contemporary art museum to the outside world.” Architect A.J. Gibson designed the original building in Greek Revivalist style. With the addition of a second story in 1913, Ole Bakke brought Prairie School style to the structure. Hampton told Glueckert that he would contribute “the use of natural light to illuminate and animate architectural space.” As such, a new entryway and stairwell will link the old building to its new addition with a glass wall.
Along with the addition, the existing building will be restored. In the Temporary Contemporary, a photograph of the existing building is posted along with a list of the work to be accomplished. Item number eight: “remove bat nest and repair wall as necessary.”