It is a place made of paradoxes. The building we now know as the Art Museum of Missoula was originally commissioned in 1903 as a library by the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. He was in Pittsburgh; his “free library”—only one of hundreds around the country that he professed to erect for the public good—was thousands of miles away in Montana. He was a starch-shirted Scot; his beneficiaries in Missoula were scratchankle Irish, or French, or Indian, or Chinese. He was a living embodiment of the extravagance of the Gilded Age; his millworkers, though, had such little education and worked so many hours that the vast majority of them did not once set foot in any of the libraries he had built in their name.
Flip forward 97 years, to the spring of 2000. Missoula was trying its hardest to wriggle itself out of the Industrial Revolution. Though pulp mills still belched sulfuric miasma into the skies and mines like Carnegie’s continued to burrow into the soil, this small city on the tail end of the Northern Rockies had finally begun to deaccession itself of the 20th century. The clutter, the divisiveness, the cultural lag that all began with Carnegie’s day seemed at last to fall away in this little Montana town. It had become a community that prided itself on its wealth of culture, rather than of commerce, and only part of that new mindset had found expression in the fact that Carnegie’s library had long since become a museum, and thrived. It had been 25 years earlier that a seasonal art festival made its new home behind the rather staid collegiate façade of the old mogul’s library, and looking back, it seemed like that might very well have been what started Missoula’s cultural renaissance. Since the museum took root, private galleries had sprouted up all around town, filmmakers had flocked here, novelists had nestled in close together like pigeons around a smokestack, and as you traced back the transformation that art had brought to this town it seemed only proper and good that we pay homage to the museum. But this was in the spring, before we were reminded of the paradoxes.
Since then, there have been signs that put the lie to the image that Missoula has of itself. One is the emptiness of the side yard, where Vera stood for a couple of seasons. It was a sculpture of a seminude, seignorial woman crouching in the museum’s garden, tending to her work. In June, vandals dashed her into pieces. Then to that injury, there was the added insult: On the following day, the people of Missoula County voted down a small levy intended to support their museums. The building was nearly a century old. The institution itself was fully 25 years old. And we chose to commemorate them both by forsaking them.
But perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the Art Museum of Missoula has gone on about its business, seemingly unfazed, to remind us what museums are for. Since its unfortunate summer, the museum has brought together some of the most ambitious and articulate and unexpected work that it has shown in recent memory. There is its current flagship exhibition, for example, Te Ao Tawhito/Te Ao Hou, a show of contemporary art from New Zealand that offers a welcome break from the sometimes too-familiar art of our own region. Then there’s the peculiar work of local Marvin Messing, which can only be described as street-level surrealism. And finally you’ll find the expressive artistry of Blackfeet artist Neil Parsons, whose paintings are handled with a dignity that is hard to find in a day when Indian art is usually paired in the mind with dreamcatchers and screeching eagles.
This is what museums do. At least, they should. They invite and show and inform and provoke. But these are difficult tasks, and carrying them off all at once is itself something of a conundrum, especially when there’s public money involved. But that’s the dynamic paradox that makes a museum what it is, and if anything, Missoula needs to take that as more of a given. Other media outlets in recent days, doing their part to observe the museum’s 25th anniversary, have taken the approach that we are lucky to even have a museum. Owing to the belief that any museum is better than none, they rehash the history of our town’s only official artspace as if it were a self-evidently happy one. It was once a library. It could have been turned into a parking lot. It was spared at the 11th hour. The end. But perhaps it would be more useful for us to consider that no town should be without a museum, that all museums are as elemental to a community as a courthouse or a post office, and that our community should not only consider itself fortunate to have a museum, it should count up its bragging rights for having one as professional and accomplished as this one.
This weekend, the Art Museum of Missoula is throwing itself an anniversary party, and, true to its history of inconsistency, it is inviting everyone to attend—even those who have neglected to support it in the past. It is a mighty sporting gesture on their part, and it would be only fitting, after a quarter-century of ambivalence, if Missoula would turn out to help celebrate the one institution that it has always forgotten to honor.
The Art Museum of Missoula hosts its 25th Anniversary and Chair-ity Auction, Friday, Oct. 20 at the Boone & Crockett Club. Festivities begin with after-school art activities for kids at 3 p.m., cocktails at 5 p.m., a buffet at 5:30 p.m., and plus performances, speeches and a silent auction. Recommended donation: $25-$2,500. Call 728-0447.