Art on a limb 

Economy forces art museum to get creative with auction

Laura Millin understands change isn't easy. As the executive director of the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) for 20 years, she's had to adjust and readjust her institution's strategy for maintaining the museum's free admission and affordable classes, while still keeping artists happy and the museum financially stable. Within a recession, finding that balance becomes even more difficult—especially when it all comes together in an annual art auction that acts as both the museum's largest fundraiser and a major social event among the city's most avid art patrons.

Over the years and under Millin's direction, the auction has consistently gained ground and raised significant funds. In 2003, MAM recorded a net profit of $50,270 from the auction. By 2008, the net profit reached $127,708. But last year, the event made just $90,005, the first time since 2002 the net profit failed to surpass the previous year.

Following last year's downturn, and the continued state of the economy, Millen and MAM's board made major changes in advance of the Feb. 27 event. Instead of hosting the auction at a local hotel, like last year's Hilton Garden Inn Ballroom, it will be held inside the art museum. The smaller space requires other changes: a tapas menu replaces the usual sit-down dinner because the building can't accommodate enough dinner tables, the number of auction items up for bid will drop from close to 90 pieces to 57, and attendance will be capped at 225 as opposed to the approximately 500 who attended at the Hilton. The capacity limit also impacts local artists who donate artwork to the event—instead of receiving comp tickets as a thank you, as they have in the past, the artists must buy their own ticket if they want to attend.

click to enlarge Laura Millin, executive director of the Missoula Art Museum, says the current economy forced the museum to make significant changes to its annual art auction. Those changes included a greater emphasis on the Artini Auction, above, a more casual—and affordable—fundraiser that occurs a week prior. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Laura Millin, executive director of the Missoula Art Museum, says the current economy forced the museum to make significant changes to its annual art auction. Those changes included a greater emphasis on the Artini Auction, above, a more casual—and affordable—fundraiser that occurs a week prior.

That last change received the most immediate criticism, and Millin responded with a letter to local artists explaining the importance of filling the room with more potential art buyers than artists, and managing expenses.

"We're certainly responding to the recession, to what has happened in recent years and what happened last year at the auction," says Millin. "[By holding the auction at the museum] we're able to control our costs much more—in all ways. It makes a big difference in our percentage of profit."

Leslie Van Stavern Millar, a local painter and vocal advocate for Missoula artists, donated a piece to this year's auction. She says the letter from Millin showed good communication from MAM and that, by and large, the artists she's spoken with understand MAM's position.

"They have a size limitation so that makes them feel like they need to maximize each person that's there," Millar says. "They're having to be very strategic."

In a perfect world, says Millar, the museum could accommodate more people, the economy would be robust and the auction would effortlessly raise money hand over fist.

"But that's not what's going on," she says. "So I've thought about it long and hard and my feeling is that, of course I would love to go, but I'm not going to pay $100 for a ticket. So if by me staying home, somebody who actually pays $100 goes, and that person pays full value for my work and my friends' work, that's what I'd want to happen every time."

One way Millin says MAM has tried to address accommodation and affordability issues is through the Artini Auction—a more casual auction thrown a week before, with a lower ticket price and comp tickets for artists.

"Our relationship with artists is extremely important," says Millin. "One of our commitments is to sell the art as best we can and we're working hard to represent the artists' value. The artists' primary concern, too, is to sell well. So it's more an issue of wanting to fill those seats with bidders than us not wanting to spend the money on the artists. But we regret that part of it. That's been hard."

As for the main auction, Millin maintains the necessary changes may prove valuable, even beyond any financial gains. She envisions a more free-flowing evening, as guests liberated from a formal sit-down dinner can walk among bars and food tables set up throughout the multi-level, art-filled building. The auction itself will be shorter, and include a dessert and champagne intermission. More than anything, she believes it's important to hold MAM's signature event inside the actual museum.

"It is a celebratory event that really needs to be about MAM," says Millin. "I feel like bringing everyone here really underlines that. It supports our mission. It just makes sense."

But Millin has enough experience to know not to guess what will or won't work. MAM will evaluate the event afterwards, and take into consideration more than just the bottom line. In the meantime, she hopes people understand the museum, like every other arts organization in this economy, is simply trying new things to keep MAM in its best state.

"I think a lot of it is just a really understandable reaction to change," she says, "but we have to try to make a certain amount of money just to be here...We're kind of backed up against the wall."

The 38th Annual Art Auction starts at the Missoula Art Museum Saturday, Feb. 27, at 5 PM. $125/$100 members/$150 at the door.

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