My night with MAM

Inspired by a classic children’s book, Skylar Browning camps out in the new Missoula Art Museum to explore the intrigue of making old things new.


As most Missoulians were planning their Labor Day weekends at Glacier, on the river or out of town, I was making final plans for my own vacation—a sleepover. It was an elaborate sleepover, but in the end the same as any a typical 10-year-old would take: I had to get permission to spend the night, had to pack my bag, had to promise to behave, had to muster up my courage that everything would be all right and had to tuck away a few comfort items in case I needed something to clutch onto in the middle of the night. Except I’m not 10 and I wasn’t going to a classmate’s house—I’m 31, and was about to spend the night alone in the newly renovated and expanded Missoula Art Museum.

The saying is that there are only two ways to get to know someone: living with him or playing cards with him. I’ve heard that line a million different times, but never quite as directly as from Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. Claudia, 12, and Jamie, 9, are fictional characters from a children’s book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and they’re to blame for my sleepover. It’s not often that grown-ups refer back to a children’s book 20 years after reading it on assignment for a book report—why regress to such elementary prose and unsophisticated narrative?—but I always remembered Frankweiler as being different.

Written by E.L. Konigsburg in 1967, the book tells the tale of Claudia and Jamie as they run away from home. Claudia is a bookworm, a do-gooder who’s never raised the ire of her parents and, perhaps because of that, is looking for adventure. She devises an elaborate and efficient escape plan and convinces her penny-pinching younger brother to come along. Their hiding place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Two kids and 365,000 pieces of art all to themselves.

What made the book different is that it felt real. Jamie was quizzical and naïve; Claudia was cunning and her plan was sound. The action took place in a real setting. There’s even a brochure for the museum—complete with floor plan and informational phone number!—included in the illustrations. What Claudia and Jamie did seemed as though it could actually be done, and that distinguished it from so many other fantastical children’s books. I remember reading Frankweiler and thinking I could maybe pull this off myself.

Twenty years later, I decided to try. What better way to get to know Missoula’s newest, largest, most expensive and arguably most prominent downtown attraction than to have the run of it on the eve of its grand opening?

The first step was easy. In order to make this experiment work, to experience discovery like Claudia and Jamie had, I needed to find some way to recall the feeling of reading that book for the first time. I went to the Missoula Public Library and found a beautifully worn first edition. It looked just like mine looked, back in sixth grade.

When Claudia and Jamie Kincaid ran away they took with them clean underwear, one additional clean shirt each, some basic toiletries, a transistor radio and $24.43. I brought along a similar stash when I entered the museum at 8:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday night: a baseball cap, an extra long-sleeve shirt, basic toiletries, my iPod and $21.30. I also had my copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

And as soon as I walked into the space, I put them all down.

“I think the first thing people will do is look up,” said Warren Hampton, the architect who designed the building, in an interview a few days prior to my sleepover. “People will probably look up, and then go straight to the third floor balcony so they can look back down.”

Hampton’s right about looking up. But after you look up to the skylights 45 feet above, the next thing you’ll fix your eyes upon is the exposed brick wall and concrete foundation of the old Carnegie Library building. It’s right there in the entranceway, met cleanly by a newly cut slate stone floor and adjacent to a stairwell that makes its way up three stories to Hampton’s balcony, marking the line between a building 103 years old and an addition finished just months ago. Standing in the atrium, in the fading light entering from above and from the all-glass façade facing North Pattee Street, that brick wall and exposed foundation draw the eye because they are the only things that hint at history. The rest is too clean. Too bright. Too open. Too polished to spark nostalgia. Too beautiful, in fact, to recall the charm and warmth—euphemisms, in this case, for small and awkward—of the Carnegie Library when it was first put to use as a museum or, even further back, when it served its original purpose of storing Missoula’s books.

MAM’s transformation is so strikingly drastic and impressive on the inside that the connection between old and new seems tenuous. Until you look a little closer.

“There are a lot of things I see as an architect, or that an engineer may see, that I’m not sure the general public will notice,” Hampton said. “But there is a lot of the old building that we tried to maintain.”

Preserving history was important to the architect. Hampton’s a lifelong Montanan and spent most of his youth in Missoula; he was born in the old Community Hospital when it was on Main Street.

“I still have a good memory of that main floor of the library,” he said. “The ghosts for me as I walked in the front door, with the stacks of books and the information desk right to the side, they’re still there for me.”

Hampton’s memories speak to how delicate the balance is in this new building between honoring its past and moving forward. He’s worked for four years to refine a vision of the building’s makeover, at one point road-tripping with MAM staffers throughout the Northwest to scope out other new museums for ideas. Hampton’s renovation challenge—how to make something old feel new again—is similar to mine with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or curator Steve Glueckert’s task organizing the grand-opening exhibit to showcase the museum’s permanent collection. The difference is that Hampton, as of tonight, is the only one who’s actually completed his part. The art is still being hung—as I set up camp, Glueckert is working to finish positioning pieces throughout the six galleries in order, he hopes, to show the evolution of the museum over 31 years—and I haven’t finished reading my book.

After spending some time in the atrium just looking—it’s a truly show-stopping entrance—I take my belongings, just as Hampton had predicted, up to the third level to look back down. On my way up the stairs it’s impossible not to notice some of the other details the architect had mentioned in our conversation: the “code” of the museum’s flooring (slate in the common areas, carpeting in the office spaces, maple plank floors in the galleries and, to mark the switch from the old building to the addition, raised black maple); the “floating metal clouds” that make up the ceiling (flat metal panels that hang a few feet below the actual ceiling to hold track lighting, revealing, if you look up around the edges, the building’s industrial guts); and the overall transparency of the space, with sight lines from the stairwell offering views into each of the six galleries, up to the sky, out to the street.

The other thing I notice ascending the stairs is that it’s deathly quiet. And, despite so much art, the museum’s 6,000 square feet of gallery space feels eerily empty. Glueckert said upon greeting me that the museum didn’t feel quite like home yet. “It needs people,” he said. “It’s ready to be used now.”

I look at my watch: 9:05 p.m. I’ll be here for at least nine more hours.

What would you do if you got to spend the night alone in a museum?

When Claudia and Jamie spent the night at the Met, they slept on an antique bed in a room filled with fine French and English furniture. They visited a different section of the museum each day and at night bathed in a fountain lined with pennies; they collected the loose change to pay for food the next day. The longer they’re stowed away the more they explore, and Claudia becomes so captivated with one particular angel statue she decides she can’t return home until she’s learned all she can about that one mysterious piece of work.

I can’t picture doing any of those things at the new MAM—no fountain, no furniture—so it’s a matter of collecting suggestions from those jealous of my having a museum to myself after midnight. The architect suggested I listen to the acoustics of a flute from the third-story walkway overlooking the atrium. A friend suggested I test out the bathrooms. My mother, an artist, suggested I take my time studying the paintings in each gallery and attach a new title for every one; she implored me to treasure the solitude before the crowds took over. My wife suggested I call her to check in. My editor suggested I streak buck naked through the galleries so I could one day return and casually say, “Yeah, I was naked here once.”

I tried all of these—except the last one, and only because I saw security cameras situated in each gallery. I ruined the early-morning silence of the near-empty space by listening to the International Playboys and then Tom Catmull, just to hear them echo off the walls—no flute, but fun nonetheless. (Later in the morning, Glueckert showed me the state-of-the-art sound system, whereby music can be piped into each gallery and throughout the building.) I found that the men’s room was pretty standard and that the women’s room—hey, there was nobody else there—looked the same minus the urinals. I stood in front of an illuminated installation by Lela Autio until my eyes went blurry, sat in front of a landscape by Aden Arnold for at least as long, and tucked in a corner I found a photograph by Marcy James that kept my sleepy attention much longer than I expected—and I gave each a new title that, a few days later, seems far less appropriate than it did that night. I called my wife twice when I got sleepy.

But the first thing I did was finish Frankweiler. It wasn’t quite as sensational as the singing in the shower/dancing alone in your bedroom freedoms of the other suggestions, but it had to be done. Reading that children’s book before actually entering the museum felt like flipping through mail-order catalogues the night before Christmas. Once I was inside, however, I was completely into the spirit. It took what felt like mere minutes to whip through 100 pages. I identified with the descriptions of darkness in the museum at night, of the feeling of being surrounded by history, of tiptoeing through vast halls to find specific exhibits. The kids were aware of a night watchman who occasionally patrolled their area, and I had Steve Glueckert downstairs occasionally making a noise that reminded me he was there. I spent more time on the sections of the book where Claudia and Jamie explored the Met, and less when they ventured outside during their days to do laundry, eat at diners or collect issues of The New York Times. I read and I read and I finished the book by 11 p.m. It made me want to find something—anything—that would spark my curiosity like Claudia was sparked by the angel statue.

I started in the gallery where I was reading. Oversized collage prints by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a renowned contemporary American Indian artist, lined the walls. And, true to what had become my theme for this sleepover, they included classic native icons colliding with modern imagery of mainstream America. A Chief Crowfoot quote on “Indian Science” below an AT&T Wireless bill envelope; an illustration of a man with a headband and a single feather next to a song sheet of “Ten Little Indians.” Black and white newspaper cutouts under wide swaths of color painted in the shape of ceremonial shawls. The challenge of merging the old with the new can certainly be beautiful, but it’s not always an easy story to tell.

No labels
MAM’s permanent collection includes nearly 1,000 pieces accumulated since the museum first opened in 1975. When the American Association of Museums accredited MAM in 1987, the collection saw a bump in donations of art. When the $5.3 million capital campaign for the new building was launched in 2004, the collection saw another influx of new work. When the ribbon is cut for the grand opening on Friday, Sept. 15, approximately 200 newly gifted or promised artworks will be featured in the six galleries, alongside a number of previously shown pieces by some of the most influential artists in MAM’s history.

But that grand opening is still a ways away and tonight a lot of the art is still propped against the gallery walls or carefully grouped in a staging area before being moved to where a Post-It note placeholder is now affixed. Some pieces are still in boxes, taped shut and marked “This End Up! Always!” and “VERY FRAGILE,” just like a regular move except that the effort and care put into packaging and storing these boxes trumps regularity tenfold. There isn’t a single label next to any painting, so in the middle of the night I’m forced to guess or simply ignore who may have created what, what they used to create it and how it was titled. Thankfully, that leaves a lot to the imagination, and tests my knowledge of who’s who, old and new, at MAM.

In the largest gallery, on the new museum’s second floor and within the old Carnegie Library’s main room, I immediately recognize the ceramics of legendary Montana artist Rudy Autio. The venerable 79-year-old was a founding member of the Archie Bray Ceramics Foundation in Helena and headed the University of Montana’s ceramics program for 28 years, and a half-dozen of his brightly glazed vessels sit perched on display in the center of the gallery. The disorderly sculptures, unpredictable in line and balance, are quintessential Autio, decorated by his whimsical horses and contorting women. Two Autio plates also hang on the wall, in the same decorative style, though slightly more traditional in form. The piece that stands out most, however, is the one that reflects Autio’s talent in a lesser-known medium: a print with the hand-written title—“Summer Solstice”—on the bottom. I’ve probably seen hundreds of examples of Autio’s work, including prints, but his work looks different here. It feels fresh, confidently innovative and boundless, despite the fact some of the pieces are decades old.

In a corner of the gallery is a piece I recognize as the work of acclaimed California collage artist Inez Storer. She exhibited at MAM’s Temporary Contemporary gallery last year and offered to donate an unseen work for the new museum. Storer’s style is hard to miss because she takes the oddest of antique materials—she’s a self-described dumpster diver—and paints around them to create a timeless image. It’s contemporary art typically with current political or religious juxtapositions, centered on objects from generations past.

I noticed other artists about whom I had read about or seen before, but all of their work here was just different enough to give me pause: John Hull, a Wichita, Kan., painter who showed work at MAM’s 2004 baseball exhibit, was represented by a piece from his “rural noir” series, Badlands to the MAM show’s Field of Dreams; an oversized abstract painting from Missoula native George Gogas’ “Montana Midnight” series—full of swirling black, gray and dark purple hues—stood in stark contrast to the more familiar lithographs; and then there was an Arshile Gorky positioned in the corner, the first time I’d ever seen one of the famous painter’s surrealism-meets-abstract expressionism works.

“We’ve never really had the chance to showcase the collection before,” says Glueckert, who also pulled an all-nighter and occasionally crossed paths with me in the museum. “The idea is to put out a lot of things we’ve had that the public has never seen, and different types of works by artists they may recognize. I’m actually finding that even with the extra space we’re having to pull some pieces back and save them for another show.”

Two pieces that Glueckert didn’t hold back were in the main gallery (they’ve since been hung in the main atrium): “Snow Dance” by Gennie DeWeese and “Eggs on Table” by Walter Hook. The paintings were the first ever donated to the museum’s collection.

“The idea is to rediscover the collection,” says Glueckert of MAM Unwrapped, the grand-opening museum-wide exhibition. “And you can really see some of the older, more traditional pieces in a whole new way when they’re on the wall in this context.”

There’s always that moment during an all-nighter when the body starts to shut down and your vision starts to blur and the thought of sleep steamrolls over any other options. At 5:30 a.m., just as that started to happen to me, I decided to prop myself in the corner of the third-floor walkway near the front of the building, looking out onto a still-dark North Pattee Street. I dozed occasionally, but the forward swing of my dead weight woke me each time, just like nodding off in high school math class.

I was glad to be stirred awake. I was waiting for the sun to rise.

Aside from testing the building’s acoustics and bathrooms, and familiarizing myself with the collection, watching the sun rise was the one thing I had been determined to see ever since receiving permission to try this overnight, and ever since I first saw the interior of the new MAM. The museum faces east, and between the glassed façade facing the street and the skylights overhead, I figured the rays of light coming into the galleries and center atrium at dawn would be the sort of payoff few others could ever experience. This was something that even Claudia and Jamie couldn’t pull off—they were hiding and couldn’t risk a vantage point that allowed them to see the sun rise in, say, the glassed room of Egyptian Art.

During summers in high school and long, altered nights in college, greeting the sun was a benchmark. It was one thing to stay up until 5 a.m. and then crash—that’s just a late night, or punishment. It’s another thing entirely to stay up past 7 and watch darkness break—that’s an all-nighter, an accomplishment. It was a small goal, but I wanted to see the sun rise again.

Perched on the third-floor balcony, I watched Pattee Street start to stretch itself awake. Two cleaning men, presumably, entered the U.S. Forestry Service building across the street at 5:45 a.m. A few minutes later one woman went to work on the loading dock of the Post Office arranging bushels of mail. After 6 a.m., cars started to roll by, increasingly so as the minutes wore on. The sun was scheduled to appear at 6:54.

Light plays an important role in art, and it ended up playing an important part in my overnight. One of the features of the new museum is a state-of-the-art, motion-sensor lighting system that scared the bejesus out of me countless times when I thought I was alone, but also spotlights the artwork softly and clearly. The glass partitions, the skylights, the entire front of the building, and the open nooks that allow you to peek from one gallery into another all allow light to reach almost every corner of the space. It sounds clichéd, but the new MAM also achieved its goal of allowing at least this viewer to see old works in a new light. That’s why we go to museums—to see things anew, through inspiration or education. Whether it was the building itself, the works of the artists, or my attachment to a favorite children’s book, each was illuminated distinctly, from a somehow purer perspective.

That’s what I was thinking about when the first glow of the day began creeping across a smoky Missoula skyline. The outline of the mountains came into focus and then, gradually, I saw that the “M” of Mount Sentinel was visible in its entirety, hovering above the city’s skyline. After a few minutes more the natural light started to find its way into the museum as well—in through the basement windows and the ground-level bookstore and then climbing the walls to the second-floor galleries and on up.

I’d seen the sun rise before, but never like that.

Exploring the new MAM

Chances are you will not get to spend the night alone in the MAM now that it’s opening. Don’t fret. The museum has planned a weeklong, all-access, multisensory grand opening beginning Friday, Sept 15 at 4 PM Highlights—all free, as always—include:

Friday, Sept. 15
4 PM: Ribbon cutting and official grand opening
6 and 10 PM: Building tours with MAM Director Laura Millin and Curator Steve Glueckert
7 PM: “Unwrapped” party featuring food and live music from Seattle’s Tiptons.

Saturday, Sept. 16
1 PM: UM professor Rafael Chacon reviews the history of the Carnegie Library.

Monday, Sept. 18
Noon: Local artists and educators are invited to a brown bag lunch and, at 4 PM, a roundtable discussion
7 PM: UM professor Valerie Hedquist discusses the contemporary art viewing experience as it relates to new museums across the country

Tuesday, Sept. 19
7:30 AM: Hatha yoga led by Marina Zaleski (preregistration required; call 327-0775).
Noon: Permanent collection tour, including access to the collection vault, with MAM Registrar Jennifer Reifsneider
7 PM: Discussion with exhibiting printmaker Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, writer Debra Magpie Earling and designer Donna House

Thursday, Sept. 21
5:30 PM: MAM’s monthly multisensory theme party asks attendees to don some bling for a night of film, food and live music from Full Grown Men
7 PM: Building tour with architect Warren Hampton

Friday, Sept. 22
7 PM: Headwaters Dance Co. and Montana Rep Missoula perform in the galleries.

During the grand opening week, the museum will be open daily from noon to 8 PM, with some specially scheduled morning and evening events keeping the museum open longer. Regular hours begin Tuesday, Sept. 26: Tuesday through Friday 11 AM to 6 PM; Saturday 10 AM to 3 PM, closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is free.

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