The Missoula Art Museum’s curator of exhibitions, standing in the middle of his gallery, begins giggling. Stephen Glueckert, asked if the MAM auction sees many “repeat customers,” is clearly amused. When he thinks of “repeat customers,” he says, he thinks of people who, for instance, head to a local merchant for another pair of Birkenstocks. Not people who buy art. While he laughs, a woman behind the reception desk offers what she believes to be a more apt description of folks who purchase art: They’re “patrons,” she says.
Call them what you will, around 500 of them are expected to attend MAM’s 33rd annual art auction Feb. 5 in the University Ballroom. MAM’s temporary home in the Florence Hotel is filled with nearly a hundred pieces of artwork to be auctioned off that evening. The pieces—donations expected to fetch anywhere between $250 to $8,000—are already open for bidding. Glueckert believes that most of the evening’s successful bidders purchase art for altruistic reasons, but he admits that his view of the world may be tinted a shade of rose.
“Most people come to support the museum and to support the cultural life of the community,” he says. Patrons, then, might be just the term for the majority.
Without a doubt, though, a handful of attendees will be newcomers to MAM’s art auction scene. Some might have refrained thus far from making an art purchase out of gallery intimidation, while others could have more pragmatic reasons for attending the auction. At any given moment, someone somewhere in Missoula is remodeling a bathroom—and what’s a loo without, say, an image of a woman drying her hair? This year’s art auction, themed “Raise Your Voice 4 Art,” has room for both repeat patrons and people who just need to fill a blank space in a new home.
“The psychology of an auction frees people up to purchase,” Glueckert says.
The rules are clear; anyone understands how to hold up a card.
Glueckert believes that attendees who seek a specific piece at the auction are in the minority. These people, he says, are not so much patrons of the arts. They shop for a painting like they would shop for, well, a new pair of Birkenstocks.
Imagine these unlikely “customers” wandering through the Temporary Contemporary. There’s one—she’s in the corner mesmerized by the representation of a mountain lion. To her, wide open spaces connote not the subtly rolling plains of eastern Montana but the blank space above the sofa in her new home. Then there’s the naturalist, maybe a biology professor, anxious for a piece that will personalize her stark office. A new business owner wanders the gallery, too; he’s a hair stylist, opening up his own studio, looking for an eye-catching centerpiece to lure clients in the door. And there, wearing the worn hiking boots, is the activist who marches and protests.
There are plenty of pieces to tantalize the naturalist’s palette, and many that fit within the field biologist’s modest budget. There’s Cathy Weber’s “Dragonfly Stone Poem,” a watercolor on skin parchment. Weber’s watercolor work is so fine that even the hairs on the dragonfly’s head are visible—a feature that impresses the naturalist, who has seen such creatures up close. The stones are painted deep purples and rust. Minimum bid: $300. Then there’s Elizabeth Dilbeck’s “Four Lucky Leaves,” ink and tempera on paper. Dilbeck, of Missoula, is blind, according to the signage, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the work’s pink leaves shimmer over the verdant smudges in the background. Kelly Hart’s “I Love Rocks” tugs at the naturalist’s heart, too: The artist embedded a twig, rocks and printed black-and-white images of a brain and teeth into plaster. The cool, pale plaster that serves as canvas is offset by the warm cherry finish on the frame. Seeing the current bid—$150—our naturalist smiles to herself. It’s not out of reach.
The activist, a relentless war protester, is also giddy with the possibility of owning a piece that practically lurches off the wall to grab him. The piece is titled “Operation Hot Seat,” and the heat to which it refers is both literal and metaphorical. The artist, Andy Cline, bound green-tipped matches together to form a miniature army jeep that can be mounted on a wall. Viewing the jeep head-on, the matches’ green tips are visible. A profile, though, reveals the volatile medium, the individual matches packed together. You can see how the activist already feels a sense of ownership, scrawling in the minimum bid, $125, looking over his shoulder, determined to own the piece, pen poised like a lance, ready to outbid all suitors.
The hair stylist with the new studio sees the activist hovering protectively over “Operation Hot Seat” and feels a surge of contempt. He is the savvier bidder. He thinks of his new studio, the mirrors, the lights, the sound of scissors blades shearing away locks, and he comes upon the perfect piece. It’s Lela Autio’s “Plexi #3 with Lites,” a collection of plexiglas strips in various shades of neon pink, deep magenta and orange undulating against a back-lit white plastic “canvas.” Its waves remind him of thick, uncombed hair. The minimum bid is posted at $375, but there’s no need to start bidding now. He’ll lie in wait. He’ll be the dark horse who casts the final triumphant bid at the auction.
The self-taught carpenter in Carhartts, remodeling his bathroom, is just in from installing a pedestal sink. He prefers a clean, well-lighted effect; Roger Walker’s untitled blue ink on paper, framed in white, fits the bill perfectly. Walker’s delicate pen-and-ink lines fill the canvas entirely, and together the strokes of blue create waves. The carpenter thinks of clean running water. He reminds himself that his bathroom remodel has left him relatively cash-poor, but the minimum bid is still affordable: $150.
The woman with the empty space above her sofa wanders through the Florence gallery cautiously, because the lurking activist repels her. Then Nancy Erickson’s “Pleistocene Cat” leaps out. The cloth wildcat seems possessed of feral energy; its own head is reflected in the piece, as is the outline of an owl. The bidding starts at $2,550. The new sofa-owner wills the cat to spring to life and snarl at the hairdresser and activist, but it simply glares at her with its yellow and purple eyes. She’ll bid anyway.
Had fun shopping? Let’s thank our fictitious customers, then, for demonstrating the broad appeal of the collection, and take our leave. The collection is diverse enough to attract people who don’t consider themselves patrons or collectors, and minimum bids are low enough to accommodate relatively thin pocketbooks. Glueckert anticipates that by the end of the gala evening, most of the work will be sold. But making the sale isn’t the primary consideration, say the man in the rose-colored glasses.
“The important thing is the work finds a home where it’s going to be taken care of,” Glueckert says. In some cases, the artist will assist the new owner by installing the work the day after the auction.
Upstairs in the MAM’s temporary offices, staff members wring their collective hands over how to acquire glass, not plastic, champagne flutes for the event. Downstairs in the gallery, Glueckert hopes that people attend less for the commerce and more for the celebration: “If people want to come to a fun party, they should come.”
Missoula Art Museum’s 33rd annual art auction, dinner and dance takes place Saturday, Feb. 5, at 5 PM in the University Ballroom. Advance tickets are $75 per person or $700 for a table of 10. At the door, tickets cost $85 per person. Preview the artwork at the Temporary Contemporary in the Florence Hotel Tuesday through Friday, 10 AM–5PM, and Saturday 10–3 PM. For reservations, call 728-0447 or visit www.missoulaartmuseum.org.