Russell Art Auction makes a triumphant return to Great Falls, MT

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The electric sense of rising expectations was in the air as the first live Russell art auction in two and a half years was about to begin. The excitement was not only due to the return of one of Great Falls’ premier cultural events, but also to the transformative changes and impressive acquisitions the Russell Art Museum was able to announce.

About 400 participants filled a huge white tent erected on the campus of the CM Russell Art Museum; a major change from past Russell actions typically held at the Mansfield Convention Center. There were also significant format changes, with the art for sale displayed in the museum, but not displayed live on stage.

With 205 pieces on sale, the auction went off at a steady pace. There were both unexpected surprises – as when veteran Western artist Tom Gilleon’s oil painting “Mourning star “ sold for $ 350,000 – a Russell Auction record for the work of a living artist – and some disappointments too, such as when the CM Russell oil masterpiece “Piégans” failed to pull a single offer.

Auctioneer Troy Black raises the stakes at the Russell art auction on Saturday.

Nevertheless; As exciting as it is, the details of the auction itself have been somewhat overshadowed by announcements made of the museum’s fundraising success and the imminent addition of three Russell paintings to the permanent collection. from the CM Russell Museum.

At the start of Saturday’s auction, the auction was suspended to announce that the museum had raised more than $ 22 million in contributions over the past few years, which will enable it to secure the paintings by Russell. “Brother Van on Buffalo Hunt”, “Death of a player” and “The heist.”

All of these successes ended in the context of a newly expanded campus and ended in the midst of a “once-in-a-century” pandemic.

“Obviously, 2020 has been an unpredictable year at best, and not an ideal environment to launch the largest fundraising campaign in the history of our institution,” said Museum Director General Tom Figarelle, recalling the last two chaotic years.

Until yesterday, the CM Russell Museum had not held a live auction since March 19, 2019. Annual auctions represent approximately 40% of the museum’s revenue. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic – even having to close its doors to the public for three months in 2020 – the CM Russell Museum continued an ambitious fundraising campaign titled “Art & Soul: A Campaign to Ignite the American Spirit”.

The goal of the campaign is to raise 25 million dollars by December 2020. At the auction on Saturday, Figarelle was able to announce to the applause of the public that the museum had already reached this goal with almost a year and a half in advance.

Figarelle said he believed the $ 25 million Art & Soul was the biggest private fundraising campaign in Great Falls history and the biggest campaign for a Montana art museum in the history of the state.

“The circumstances we had to navigate were extraordinary,” Figarelle said of implementing such ambitious plans during a pandemic. “Extraordinary opportunities have also presented themselves along the way.”

The museum announced its Art & Soul campaign on July 18, 2020. Prior to its public announcement, CM Russel had already secured contributions of around $ 17 million through quiet negotiations with prominent donors. Since then, an additional $ 5 million has been donated through various efforts as part of the Art & Soul campaign, including an additional $ 402,500 donated during the auction to help secure Russell’s masterpiece. , “The heist”.

Russell Museum CEO Tom Figarelle announces the museum's multiple successes

The success of Saturday’s “Hold Em ‘Up for the Hold Up” event was prompted by a generous two-man game by philanthropists Craig Barrett and Tom Pietrie.

“This paddle relaunch completed the final stage of the game’s challenge. “The heist’, – a painting worth well over $ 3 million, ”Figarelle explained. “We were fortunate to have the energy and philanthropic support of a multitude of people in the room, which qualified us for their two-man match. This put us well above our goal for “The heist”, which we can now say with pleasure that it is part of our collection. “

Additionally, Tom and Jane Pietre have pledged to donate Russell’s masterpiece “Death of a player” to the museum, on condition that CM Russell adds $ 6 million to the museum’s endowment.

“This allowed us to add two phenomenal Russell Masterpiece Oils that we could never have imagined otherwise bringing back to Great Falls and becoming an integral part of our collection,” said Figarelle.

In collaboration with Benefis Health System, the museum was also able to purchase “Brother Van on Buffalo Hunt.”

“This is a coin that Benefis has owned for several decades,” Figarelle explained of the newly acquired coin. “They’ve always been so kind to keep it on loan here at the museum.”

Members of the public cheer at the Russell Art Auction as it is announced on Saturday evening

Thanks to the efforts of longtime Benefis Health System board member Gene Thayer and many generous donors, the museum was able to raise $ 700,000 to purchase “Brother Van on the buffalo hunt” through a subsidiary fundraising effort called “Brother Van Fellowship”.

“Gene was very keen to lead this effort,” Figarelle said of Thayer’s involvement. “He worked with the hospital administration who graciously supported this acquisition. Gene truly became the voice to galvanize attention behind the acquisition of Brother Van.”

Along with the excitement of the undeniable success of the Art and Soul campaign, there was of course the drama of the auction itself.

The marquee painting that went on sale Saturday was Russell’s oil painting “Piégans”, is expected to pull a bid between $ 2.5 million and $ 3.0 million. Although the tender started at $ 1.5 million, “Piégans” failed to pull a single offer. Likewise, a painting by Russell from early in his career titled “Nearby neighborhoods” impossible to find a new owner. Scheduled to fetch between $ 175,000 and $ 225,000, the auction ended on “Nearby neighborhoods” when it hasn’t gone over the $ 120,000 mark.

Other Russel paintings have done much better. Russell “Drifting” oil on canvas doubled expectations, selling for $ 550,000 while bids of $ 250,000 to $ 350,000 were expected. “Cochrane shot the Indian”; Russell’s depiction of a shootout in Wyoming also performed remarkably well, selling for $ 850,000 at the high end of the predicted price of $ 600,000 to $ 900,000.

Museum philanthropist Craig Barrett salutes crowd applause for his work in support of raising $ 25 million for the CM Russell Art Museum.

The most electric moment of the auction came when Skull Society artist Tom Gilleon’s “Mourning Star” oil painting sold for $ 350,000 – a record, both for Gilleon who was present as the hammer fell, and for The Russell as the highest price paid for a living artist at auction.

“It was a really exciting time,” said Duane Braaten, artistic director of CM Russell. There were a few collectors who each wanted it in the worst possible way. It was fun to watch the competition. The smiles across the room were very evident. I’m happy for Tom and his success. “

“In many ways, we’ve hiked a trail here that presented both challenges and wonderful opportunities for us,” Figarelle said. We are in that place right now where the museum will only continue to grow, develop and improve its programming, scholarship and exhibitions. “

“This was made possible by the generosity of donors, an expanded campus and the best staff we have had in the history of our institution. We are fortunate to have a union of people… who make this organization what she is, what she has been and what he promises to be in the future

David Murray is a natural resources / agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or ideas for articles; email [email protected] or call (406) 403-3257. To preserve quality, in-depth journalism in north-central Montana, subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.


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