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Home Missoula Magazine Art and Culture Treasures

by Martin Kidston

sacajwea-paxsonOn a midsummer’s day at the University of Montana, Barbara Koostra was already looking toward fall.

Not that she was wishing away the idle pace of a university between semesters, but rather she simply wanted to release the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s newest publication, and in doing so, hasten a future filled with possibility.

Seated in her office at Main Hall, Koostra set out the proof of the museum’s much-anticipated, glossy publication, “The Art of the State: 120 Artworks for 120 Years.”

The 120th anniversary may not officially hit until 2015, but there’s hope of a new world-class museum near then, and the publication could help drive support, previewing the organization’s vast collection by highlighting 120 of its most prized pieces.

“We’ll have an exhibition in 2015 that will contain all 120 objects in this book,” said Koostra, director of the museum. “We want to shed light on this vast treasure, this resource no one knows about. It’s the first time we’ve been able to say this is what we have, and these are the best pieces that represent our collection’s 11,000 objects.”

If you didn’t know the collection was so vast or that it even existed, you’re not alone. More than a century in the making,italian-pinecone-jar it includes a sweeping array of works gifted over the years, from the American paintings of Chas Turner and James McDougal to a drawing by Frederic Remington – yes, that Remington.

Because the Montana Museum of Art and Culture has never had a proper home, the works are infrequently displayed. For art fans and students, that’s something of a shame, as the pieces range from 16th century European masters to early 20th century works of Glacier National Park.

“It would take four lifetimes to see our collection at the rate we’re able to show it now,” Koostra said. “Most of this collection has come together out of the largess of donors. We’ve never really had an acquisition fund.”

Despite the museum’s lack of space and identity, it has garnered a trustworthy name among donors, who have given priceless pieces at an impressive rate. One donor last year gifted “Mary Cassatt au Louvre: La Peinture,” by Degas. The piece was painted 133 years ago, depicting Cassatt – who also was a painter – viewing art at the Louvre.

gunsight-passThe museum’s new publication will include other pieces in the collection, including the work of several Dutch masters. “The Persian,” rendered by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1632, is listed along with “The Young Fruit Seller,” painted by Abraham van Strij in the 1820s. Western artists include John Fery and his 1913 rendition of Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park, and “Sacajawea” by Edgar Paxson in 1904.

“We have this international collection that’s absolutely beautiful,” Koostra said. “But when people come to Montana, they also want a story of place, something that speaks toward the region. Our display will have elements of that, too.”

Over 120 years, the collection has grown remarkably, thanks to generous donors, and it has emerged as one of the richest assemblages of art in the Northwest. Its depth and diversity has surprised curators who, at no fault of their own, weren’t previously aware of its existence.

The museum’s print collection alone floored the former registrar at the Philadelphia Academy of Art when she saw it the-persianwhile volunteering at UM. The museum’s collection of Italian maiolica – described as colorful lusterware rendered in Italy during the 15th century – may be second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“It’s the best fine art collection in the region, but there’s no identity that goes with that,” said Brandon Reintjes, curator for the Museum of Art and Culture. “Our challenge is lack of identity. There’s constant confusion about who we are, where to see the work, what’s on view and what’s not. We’re trying to build that identity around the collection.”

To achieve that identity, museum backers aim to bring the collection out of storage and give it a new home in a museum built for the cause. The sense among museum staffers is that they’re close to achieving their goals, and something big could break in the coming year.

Koostra placed the efforts to fund the design and construction of a new museum in the pre-public phase, saying a lead gift was still being sought. Yet the vision isn’t hard to imagine: a new facility as grand and welcoming as the collection it will house. Once built, it could place Missoula on the fine arts map and serve as a cultural and economic draw across the region.

the-young-fruit-sellerAs it’s currently envisioned, the facility would showcase the museum’s permanent collection and offer space for traveling international exhibitions. It would showcase sculptural elements, including the collection’s Russian lacquer ware and Italian maiolica, and have room for public celebrations through a dramatic entry.

“The Art of the State” publication, published in July, is intended to help the museum meet its goal. The publication marks the combined efforts of the Gallagher Western Montana Charitable Foundation, the Morris and Helen Silver Foundation, and the Cultural and Aesthetic Project, along with UM.

“We hope this publication creates opportunities, and we hope people will look at this as a resource and approach us in terms of the building, but also with exhibitions and loans,” Koostra said. “There are collectors who are aware of us and who are watching us, and who could be wonderfully generous, too, as far as enhancing our permanent collection.”

The collection comes out only in doses and is displayed in pieces at seven sites scattered both on and off campus. Reintjes is equally emphatic about the need for a true museum, saying moving and displaying the work would be greatly simplified. It also could enhance student learning, one of the organization’s foremost charges.king-of-the-beasts

“Currently, everything I want to display has to fit through a standard door,” Reintjes said. “We’ve missed some fabulous opportunities because of our limitations. It would be a big step having a space designed for art movement, and being able to finally provide an opportunity for student learning.”

Softcover handbooks are available for $35 and hardcover for $55. For more information, visit www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.

Martin Kidston covers the University of Montana for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5260 or martin.kidston@missoulian.com