There is something old-fashioned and honest about a live auction. You sit in your seat, nervously jiggling your leg, planning your bidding strategy, the incessant staccato of the auctioneer’s voice filling the hall, raw and relentless like tires bouncing over a gravel road. You sit, watching, listening, waiting for your piece to be brought to the forefront. Then, it is time. Numbers fly, backs straighten, minds focus. You thumb your nose or scratch the whorl of your ear; the zeroes accumulate, the price rolls higher, higher and still higher with each tourettic gesture, then finally… BOOM! The gavel comes down: Sold to the man in the rumpled tweed jacket! Sold to the lady in the canary-feathered cloche!
For 30 consecutive years–even before there was a town art museum—Missoulians and out-of-towners alike have gathered at the annual Art Auction to celebrate the work of regional artists, bring together the community, and enrich the collective quality of life. Produced to benefit the Art Museum of Missoula, the annual Art Auction is a work in progress.
“Every year we experiment anew with the process of putting on the auction,” says Steve Glueckert, curator of the museum. “Experimenting each year is crucial. It’s the nature of what we do. It makes art and the world of art more stimulating, be it the auction, an exhibit, a lecture, class, or educational museum tour of 25 fifth graders. If someone is looking for sameness, there’s the 7:05 p.m. tip-off at the basketball court across town, so no, this is not that. We want the auction to change, to grow, to excite.”
Though the auction has always culminated in an old-fashioned live forum, this year, there is more emphasis on online bidding. “Every single work is available for bid online as well as at the silent auction and then at the end of the evening at the live auction,” explains Glueckert. Like many other auctions, this event used to split the artists’ works: some available through the silent auction, others through the live event. “We moved away from that format a few years ago. There is definitely an air of discrimination dividing it that way, a ranking or hierarchy of the artists and their work.”
In the past, the auction has featured the works of more than 100 artists. “That was too many,” Glueckert says, noting that this year’s event includes only 70 regional artists. “You have to find a balance between a range and diversity of art and a manageable number practical for an auction. It’s difficult to choose, though. This town, this community, this whole area is loaded with great artists. The museum is humbled by it. I’m humbled by it too, frankly. We are blessed not only with the large number of great artists but also with support they give to our programs and events.”
The works for the annual auction are chosen by the museum’s board: a group of 12 to 15 members who represent a cross-section of the community and, according to Glueckert, are “believers in our institution and our outreach mission.”
Along with the boost of online bidding, the biggest change this year is the absence of the museum’s pre-auction exhibition. “We usually exhibit all the work included in the auction at the museum for a few weeks before the event,” he says. This year, the pre-exhibition will be in the form of a preview reception the day before the auction—held not at the museum itself but in the UC Ballroom, where the auction will take place.
“Like everything we do, this is an experiment” says Glueckert. “We’ve gotten mixed reactions so far, but with every word of disappointment, we’ve also received encouragement. So I say, hey, let’s try it.”
Glueckert admits to hearing some rumblings about the inflated ticket price of $50 a head. The price includes a sit-down dinner, drinks, music performed by the bluegrass duo Salt Creek, and—of course—the art auction.
“This event is a benefit after all. And it’s a cool event, a night for artists and patrons and anyone interested to come together and show that they care about art, the community, the community’s art museum,” he says. “As much about the pieces of art themselves, the evening is really about the relationship between the museum and the community, about supporting the arts, about striving for a certain quality of life.”
There seems to be a definite tradition and excitement around the Annual Art Auction– whether enjoyed in socks and pajamas in front of a home computer or surrounded by artists and patrons at the live auction itself. Not only is the event the longest running art auction in western Montana, according to Glueckert, it also draws artists who participate year after year, some of whom have done so for 30 years. Glueckert, like many in the community, looks forward to what each year will bring: oil paintings, sculptures, ceramics, metal works, mosaics, diptychs, triptychs, and watercolors loose and free enough to make you weep.