The electric sense of rising expectations was in the air as the first live Russell art auction opened in two and a half years. The excitement was not only because of the return of one of Great Falls’ premier cultural events, but also because of the transformative changes and impressive acquisitions that the Russell Art Museum was able to herald.
About 400 visitors filled a huge white tent erected on the campus of the CM Russell Art Museum; a major departure from earlier Russell actions that normally took place at the Mansfield Convention Center. There were also significant changes in the format, as the works of art for sale could be seen in the museum, but not seen live on stage.
With 205 pieces available for sale, the tender progressed quickly. Both of them had some unexpected surprises – like the oil painting by the experienced western artist Tom Gilleon “Mourning star “ sold for $ 350,000 – a Russell auction record for the work of a living artist – and a few disappointments too, like the CM Russell oil masterpiece “Piegans” couldn’t draw a single bid.
However; Exciting as it was, the details of the auction itself were somewhat overshadowed by announcements of the museum’s fundraising success and the impending addition of three Russell paintings to the permanent collection of the CM Russell Museum.
At the start of the auction on Saturday, the tender was put on hold to announce that the museum had raised more than $ 22 million in donations over the past few years that will enable it to receive the Russell paintings “Brother Van on Buffalo Hunt”, “Death of a Gamer” and “The stop.”
All of these achievements came to an end in the context of the newly expanded campus and amid a pandemic of the century.
“Of course, 2020 was at best an unpredictable year and not an ideal environment to start the largest fundraising campaign in the history of our institution,” says museum director Tom Figarelle, recalling the chaotic past two years.
As of yesterday, the CM Russell Museum had not held a live auction since March 19, 2019. Annual auction sales account for approximately 40% of the museum’s revenue. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic – even having to be closed to the public for three months in 2020 – the CM Russell Museum has pushed ahead with an ambitious fundraiser called “Art & Soul: A Campaign to Ignite the American Spirit”.
The goal of the campaign is to raise $ 25 million by December 2020. At the auction on Saturday, Figarelle was able to announce to the cheering audience that the museum had already achieved this goal almost a year and a half earlier than planned.
Figarelle said he believes Art & Soul is the largest private fundraiser in the history of Great Falls and the largest campaign for a Montana art museum in the history of the state.
“The circumstances we faced were extraordinary,” Figarelle said of continuing such ambitious plans during a pandemic. “There were also extraordinary opportunities along the way.”
The museum announced its Art & Soul campaign on July 18, 2020. Before the public announcement, CM Russel had already secured donations of around 17 million US dollars through silent negotiations with prominent donors. Since then, an additional $ 5 million has been donated through various Art & Soul campaign efforts, including an additional $ 402,500 that was donated to secure the Russell masterpiece during the auction. “The stop”.
The success of Saturday’s Hold Em ‘Up for the Hold Up event was fueled by a lavish two-for-one game by philanthropists Craig Barrett and Tom Pietrie.
“This paddle raise completed the final step of the match challenge “The raid”, – a painting worth well over $ 3 million, “Figarelle explained.” We have been fortunate to have enjoyed the energy and philanthropic support of a number of people in the room who came to us for their two-for-one Game qualified. That far exceeded us for our goal “The stop”, which we can now happily say, is part of our collection. “
In addition, Tom and Jane Pietre have agreed to donate the Russell masterpiece “Death of a Player” to the museum, on condition that CM Russell add $ 6 million to the museum’s foundation.
“It allowed us to add two phenomenal Russell masterpiece oils that we would otherwise never have imagined bringing back to Great Falls and having as permanent fixtures in our collection,” said Figarelle.
In collaboration with Benefis Health System, the museum was also able to buy “Brother Van hunting buffalo.”
“It’s a piece that Benefis has owned for several decades,” said Figarelle of the newly acquired piece. “You were always kind enough to keep it on loan here at the museum.”
Through the efforts of longtime Benefis Health System board member Gene Thayer and many generous donors, the museum raised $ 700,000 for the purchase “Brother Van on a Buffalo Hunt” through a subordinate fundraiser called the Brother Van Fellowship.
“Gene was eager to lead that effort,” said Figarelle of Thayer’s commitment. “He worked with the hospital administration who kindly supported us with this takeover.
In addition to the excitement about the undeniable success of the Art and Soul campaign, there was of course the drama of the auction itself.
The marquee painting up for sale on Saturday was Russell’s oil painting “Piegans”, expects an offer of between $ 2.5 million and $ 3.0 million. Although the tender started at $ 1.5 million, “Piegans” couldn’t draw a single bid. Likewise, a Russell painting from the beginning of his career entitled “Near Quarter” couldn’t find a new owner. It is expected to raise between $ 175,000 and $ 225,000 and auctioning was discontinued on “Near Quarter” when it failed to break the $ 120,000 mark.
Other Russel paintings performed far better. The Russell Oil on Canvas “Drifting” doubled expectations and sold for $ 550,000 when bids of $ 250,000 to $ 350,000 were anticipated. “Cochrane shot the Indian”; Russell’s portrayal of a firefight in Wyoming also performed remarkably well, selling for $ 850,000 on the high end of the expected price of $ 600,000 to $ 900,000
The most exciting moment of the auction came when Skull Society artist Tom Gilleon’s oil painting “Mourning Star” sold for $ 350,000 – a record for both Gilleon, who was present when the hammer fell, and The Russell as the highest price paid by a living artist at auction.
“It was definitely an exciting moment,” said Duane Braaten, director of art for CM Russell. There were a few collectors who each wanted things worse. It was fun to attend the competition. The smile from across the room was very evident. I’m happy for Tom and his success. “
“In many ways we have traveled a path that presents both challenges and wonderful opportunities for us,” said Figarelle. We are right in this place where the museum will only continue to grow and develop and improve its program, its science and its exhibitions. “
“This was made possible by the generosity of the donors, an expanded campus and the best staff we have had in the history of our institution. We are fortunate to have an association of people who make this organization what it is, what it has. ”Was and what it promises well into the future
David Murray is a natural resources / agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or ideas for stories; E-mail [email protected] or call (406) 403-3257. To maintain the quality and in-depth journalism in northern Montana subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.