Montana museums, galleries on hiatus

Museum doors might be closed, but virtual access to art abounds

Art Beat

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a cascade of cancellations and postponements among Montana museums and galleries that started as a trickle March 9, when the C.M. Russell Museum announced that it was postponing The Russell Auction – the centerpiece of Western Art Week in Great Falls.

By March 15, most of the remaining art auctions and shows that make Western Art Week an international attraction followed suit, creating a significant hit to the community’s economy.

The Russell has since rescheduled, teaming up with the Out West Art Show and Sale and The Great Western Living and Design show for a trifecta, Sept. 10-12 at Montana ExpoPark.

When the museum reopens, it will feature pieces to be sold at the First Strike Auction and The Russell Live Auction as a temporary exhibit, on display through Sept. 10.

A virtual tour of Angela Babby’s exhibit, We Are All Wicahpi (Star) People, is available online.
A virtual tour of Angela Babby’s exhibit, We Are All Wicahpi (Star) People, is available online.

Western Art Week is by no means the only casualty in the art world. Most of the state’s major museums are temporarily closed, at least through the end of April. The staff at Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls was planning to use the interval to develop programming and work on maintenance projects at the historic building. “Please stay connected to the arts, by creating at home,” advised their email.

A virtual tour of Angela Babby’s exhibit, We Are All Wicahpi (Star) People is available online, and Art in Bloom, a new four-day event during which floral designers and garden club members create displays interpreting works of art in the galleries, is still scheduled for June 4-7.

The Clay Studio of Missoula cancelled its annual Potsketch fundraiser, slated for April 9 at the University Center, as well as the preview reception and Potsketch exhibit. The studio is moving the auction of ceramic art and drawings to an online platform, and also offers an online sales gallery.

Although spring classes were also postponed, the studio has posted online resources pages for artists and families, and was welcoming applications to its residency program. The Experimental Raku Firing Techniques Workshop with Stephen Braun is still on the calendar for May 30.

“This has been a tough and heartbreaking time for all of us, and a huge blow to all the small businesses and organizations in Missoula and beyond,” wrote the studio’s executive director, Shalene Valenzuela, in late March. “But above all, we value the safety of our community members.”

The Archie Bray Center for the Ceramic Arts in Helena also shuttered its public facilities March 16, including classroom spaces and its sales gallery.

In a recent letter, resident artist director Steven Young Lee said the Bray has decided to cancel on-campus summer programs and activities through Aug. 1, including workshops and classes, the annual Bray Benefit Live Auction and Brickyard Bash, and summer exhibition openings. The popular Mother’s Day Pots and Pants Sale will be offered as an online spring sale for both local pick-up and shipment.

“The education staff is developing an online workshop series with our resident and visiting artists,” writes Lee. “Upcoming exhibitions and the annual auction will be viewable in digital catalogs with the work available for purchase online. A top priority is to stay connected to you, our community, at this time.”

Meanwhile, resident artists’ studios, offices and clay manufacturing remain in operation. Although the buildings are closed to the public, clay orders and gallery sales are still available via phone or email.

Porcelain bottles by Deborah Woodward Adornato appear as part of the Holter's #AloneTogether virtual exhibit.
Porcelain bottles by Deborah Woodward Adornato appear as part of the Holter’s #AloneTogether virtual exhibit.Photo © eborah Woodward Adornato

According to its website, the Holter Museum of Art in Helena has cancelled all events and programs in keeping with Gov. Steve Bullock’s most recent “Stay at Home” order. The museum invites artists, poets, writers, creators, and makers “to show us what they’ve been working on in this time of social- distancing and self-quarantine. We want to see your finished works, works in progress, songs, poems and pictures of you and your studio space.”

Photos appear on the Holter’s website under Exhibitions – #Alonetogether Virtual Exhibit as well as in the #Alonetogether virtual exhibit Facebook group. Virtual tours of current exhibits are also in the works.

The Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell is now closed at least through April 24. While director Alyssa Cordova had hoped to keep the museum open “as a place of respite and reflection,” she decided the risk was too great for both staff and patrons, many of whom are senior citizens.

The Hockaday staff will spend the downtime on behind-the-scenes work, and “use our creative thinking skills to find ways to support artists and art education through our online platform,” says Cordova.

Virtual tours are almost certainly afoot. “Maybe instead of trying our best to bring people to art, we’ll have to find new ways to bring art to people through their phones and computers.”

Like the recession of 2008, upheavals offer an opportunity for museums to grow and innovate. “It can be a learning opportunity,” suggests Cordova, “a way to stretch our thinking.”

Meanwhile, the museum has partnered with Kalico Art Center, Insty-Prints, and Imagine if Libraries to supply bags filled with art materials, project instructions, and special artist-designed coloring pages to help kids and families use their creative energy during the Covid-19 stay-at-home mandate. Art kits are available for contact-free pickup at the Hockaday Museum of Art between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays until the museum reopens to the public.

The museum also invites artists from the Flathead Area to send a photo, images of their work and a bio or video for its “Meet a Montana Artist campaign, featured on Facebook and Instagram.

Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings hopes to reopen April 24, and has named April “adoption month.” All sponsorship gifts will support the installation of works in the upcoming “Montana Matriarchs” exhibition which runs July 23-Oct. 18, and features works by prominent women artists Jessie Wilber, Frances Senska, Gennie DeWeese and Isabelle Johnson in the Montana Gallery. A solo show by Wyoming artist Neltje, “Tell me, why flowers?” and “Dialogue of My Mind” continues through July 12. Art in Bloom has been rescheduled for July 8.

The Missoula Art Museum is closed and all MAM programs and events through May 1 are cancelled or postponed. The museum hosted a virtual First Friday, featuring a conversation between MAM curator Brandon Reintjes and exhibiting artists Linda Alterwitz and Elizabeth Stone and about their joint exhibition, Earthborn: 30 Seconds to 40 Moons. The museum also offers an online learning platform for educators and families.

The Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture in Bozeman has closed its offices and public spaces including the theater, ballroom and galleries. The Emerson’s tenants continue to have access to their studios/galleries, unless mandated otherwise by local, state or federal governments. Staff members are working remotely or are on a staggered work schedule.

The museum is hosting an online Art on the Rocks via ZOOM at 7 p.m. April 16, with an emphasis on creating origami animals. Take a virtual tour of Gary Horinek’s installation, The Wait, built specifically for the Jessie Wilber Gallery, at 7 p.m. April 17. Alissa Kost, education curator, will lead this interactive ZOOM tour for visitors of all ages. Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions, share observations, and learn about a project that they can do at home. Family art activities are also available online.

The Montana Historical Society in Helena announced March 17 that it had closed its museum galleries, Research Center, Museum Store, and the Original Governor’s Mansion to the public until further notice.

“Giving a little of each day over to creativity’s boundless expression is an excellent meditative practice, and not a bad way to spend a bit of our self-seclusions,” writes Radius co-owner Lisa Simon.
“Giving a little of each day over to creativity’s boundless expression is an excellent meditative practice, and not a bad way to spend a bit of our self-seclusions,” writes Radius co-owner Lisa Simon.Photo © William Marcus

“We will continue to serve the public by staffing the Research Center desk for calls and email and encourage access to collections through our various digital channels,” said MHS Director Bruce Whittenberg. “Remember that access to the Montana Historical Society collections is not just about walking through the door.”

Among the slew of digital resources is a historical perspective on Montana’s response to the 1918 flu pandemic, originally published in Montana The Magazine of Western History.

Private galleries were also taking a time out. Radius Gallery in Missoula, which moved into elegant new quarters this spring, announced that it was closed to the general public until further notice. It will, however, be open by appointment, and “fastidiously follow health protocols.”

“Giving a little of each day over to creativity’s boundless expression is an excellent meditative practice, and not a bad way to spend a bit of our self-seclusions,” wrote co-owner Lisa Simon. “The business and busy-ness of life will catch up with us all soon enough.”

– Kristi Niemeyer