Artists Along the Bitterroot offers art admirers an opportunity to demystify the art-making process, and discover the stories behind the artwork of professional Bitterroot Valley artists.
The annual tour had its genesis in 2008 when friends and colleagues Bobbie McKibbin and Barbara Michelman began to discuss selling work directly to the public from their studios. They opened their doors for a Holiday Open Studio that November.
Four other artists were intrigued and the group began meeting regularly to organize the first Artists Along the Bitterroot Studio Sale and Tour. The event debuted in June 2009 with 14 artists, and has since continued to collect artists and visitors. This year’s tour has expanded to three weekends – June 2-4 and 9-11 and Nov. 3-5.
Membership by juried application now includes more than 30 artists and represents a wide range of media, with studio locations open from the north end of the valley in Lolo to the southernmost town of Darby.
“It’s pretty rare to have an opportunity to go to an artist’s studio and feel invited,” says renowned pastel artist McKibben, co-director of the organization and a former college art teacher. Visitors discover “who you are, some of the history of the studio, and something about the history of the object they’re taking home. It’s no longer anonymous.”
Artists, who typically sell works through galleries or art shows, benefit from an opportunity “to sell directly to the public, no middleman.”
Sales have the added bonus of making room for new work. “There’s nothing like clearing something out of the studio to make you want to create more,” says McKibben.
Many participants get “pretty darn excited” about an opportunity to interact with the public. Art making is a “rather solitary gig,” says McKibben. Perhaps because of that, “Most artists find it invigorating to engage, to talk to people about their work.”
McKibben also sees an educational component to the visits too. “A lot of effort and cost goes into setting up a studio. It’s good for people to see that.”
Premiere visual artists event
Cinda Holt, business development specialist for the Montana Arts Council, calls the evolution of Artists Along the Bitterroot “a good lesson in organizational development.”
McKibben, agrees. “I’m very proud of how it’s grown” from a two-person brainstorm to a 30-member nonprofit that hosts one of “the premiere visual art events in the region.”
It’s been a gradual process that evolved through careful planning, crafting a mission statement, reaching out to the community, and eventually becoming a 501c3 nonprofit.
The inaugural event was advertised through word-of-mouth, a tri-fold brochure and a few advertising outlets. Now, the group prints and distributes 6,000 full-color catalogues across western Montana, from the Flathead Valley and Missoula to the southern reaches of the Bitterroot. Tour members are represented in the catalogue (designed by Bobbi Dye of Hamilton) with photos and a brief description of them and their work. The centerfold offers a map, “so it’s like a treasure hunt.”
The organization went online in 2013 at artistsalongthebitterroot.com.
The tour is financed by membership dues, which pay for advertising, and “our loyal sponsors,” who pitch in approximately $8,000 a year to cover the costs of printing and distributing the catalogue. The group has also invested in signage, and uses its trademark green balloons to let visitors know they’ve arrived at a studio.
Attendance has steadily increased over the years (McKibben sees hundreds of visitors each weekend at her studio), and sales have been “quite successful.”
Although membership in the organization is selective, “people who submit are typically quite wonderful and we try to be as inclusive as we can.” Members range from artists with some experience who are at the onset of their careers, to professionals with years of experience.
Media is equally wide ranging, with a selection that includes acrylics, watercolors and oils, scratchboard, photography, gourds, bronzes, glass, leather, mosaics and jewelry. “We’re very open to all sorts of different ways of being creative,” says McKibben.
As the ninth year begins, the tour’s co-founder finds herself already “jazzed up” about next year’s 10th anniversary. And the enthusiasm is reciprocal. “People are very excited about coming to see us. They’ve become old friends – it’s a lovely situation.”
“It’s better when there’s a visual conversation and a verbal conversation,” she adds.
– Kristi Niemeyer