ArtWalk took root 20 years ago when Vicki Van Buskirk, owner of Toucan Gallery, convinced other gallery and shop owners to stay open late for an event that aimed to kindle interest in local artists. The effort started out slowly, but has enjoyed steady growth since then. Van Buskirk sold the gallery to Mark Sanderson and his wife, Allison O’Donnell, seven years ago. Toucan is still a key player in the five-times-a-year event. Sanderson sat down to talk about a thriving art scene that owes part of its success to ArtWalk.
Q: What noticeable changes have you seen since you’ve been involved with ArtWalk?
Toucan is almost 30 years old, at the same location on Montana Avenue for its entire life. Art gallery, custom picture framing shop and boutique. Allison had worked there prior to us buying it in January of 2007.
Allison and I attended ArtWalks prior to us owning the gallery, of course, so we’ve seen the ArtWalk grow over quite a few years. Obviously owning the gallery has given us a much more intimate perspective on the event and the people who attend it.
The biggest change we’ve noticed is that the ArtWalk has become more of a community event than just an “insider” sort of event. Years ago it was pretty much just artists and their friends who showed up, but as the event has endured, more and more people are coming out, and a much broader cross-section of the community. It’s become a great big social occasion in downtown Billings.
Q: A recent study suggested that Montana artists have a $233 million impact on the economy. Does that surprise you?
There are certainly a lot of artists and arts organizations in Montana, so it’s not surprising that there is that kind of impact on the economy. There would have to be an impact, considering all the galleries and museums and theaters and orchestras and jazz musicians and writers and filmmakers and whatever and whoever else that is involved in making some kind of art. When you start thinking about the people you know, an artist of some kind or someone associated with the arts in some way is more than likely going to come up.
I think a lot of artists are attracted to Montana because it’s a place of isolation, it’s a place where people are for the most part going to leave you alone while you do your thing, while you make your stuff. Billings is a more urban place, so it has some of the challenges that that brings, but I think of all the artists living in the more rural and more mountainous parts of the state who have sought refuge here in Montana because of that isolation and quiet — and in some places for the sort of bohemian culture that exists where they’ve found not just that space, but the kind of camaraderie they desire in order to do what they do. There’s certainly a long tradition of artists of all kinds finding this place and staying here.
Q: Here’s a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is it far fetched to suggest that ArtWalk has helped the art community to grow and prosper, or is ArtWalk’s success derived from a thriving arts community?
ArtWalk has definitely played a role in developing an art community in Billings. The people who started this thing were undoubtedly trying to do that, to help create and develop a community around the arts, the visual arts in particular with respect to the ArtWalk, of course. It’s provided a consistent thread of activity around art and artists for the past 20 years. Even as the art community has naturally waxed and waned over the years, the ArtWalk has plugged along, a constant force for organizing the Billings’ community around art, both the making and patronage of art. It’s that organizing force, the power of organization, that has been the source of its endurance.
Q: Can you think of any artists who have been “discovered” and going on to big success thanks to their exposure at ArtWalk?
I’m not sure I could specifically identify one, but there have undoubtedly been many over the past 20 years who have benefited from the exposure that ArtWalk has given them. It’s hard to be an artist, certainly a professional one, certainly one who makes a living doing it, and if you’re trying to make money making art, then you are in a position to be not just an artist, but also to be a business person. You are an entrepreneur. And if you define your art making as a business, then what you’re doing is making a product to sell in the marketplace. That means letting people know about who you are and what you make, which is marketing. So as a marketing play for artists, the kind of exposure that ArtWalk can offer — in the case of Toucan, let’s say that’s 500 people seeing your art in the space of a few hours (we don’t have 500 people in the store in a week) — is invaluable. You can be on the Internet with a website and be active in social media, you can advertise in traditional media, but you can’t do better than having an opportunity for people to see your work in person, and that’s what ArtWalk has provided artists for 20 years. In that regard, the kind of exposure that ArtWalk provides has benefited probably more artists than we can count.
Q: Has your background in architecture given you any special insight into the art world?
The opportunity to buy Toucan was interesting, and my wife and I acted upon it, well, opportunistically, I suppose you could say. It was right there in front of us and it seemed interesting. I had worked in architecture after getting my architecture degree and then did business as Imagimark! Productions for about 12 years before the Toucan opportunity came along. It seemed a different way to pursue something creative. A storefront on Montana Avenue. I had worked for Sandy Fischer’s firm Fischer and Associates, who many will remember as being instrumental to the revitalization of Montana Avenue and of downtown in general. So to be on Montana Avenue and interface with the community in a storefront kind of way, rather than working for clients as a professional consultant, seemed like a different challenge. Toucan might seem a long way from architecture to some, but if you step back far enough to see architecture for what it is at a more fundamental level, then, well, it makes more sense.
The connections between architecture and the things I’ve done that haven’t been architecture, in a traditional sense, actually has less to do with “creativity” and more to do with the nature of “design.” To most people architecture is about “designing buildings.” But it’s more complex than that phrase implies. It is much more diverse and holistic in its scope and purpose than that simplistic definition allows. It is about applying art and science to the human condition simultaneously in order to improve that condition. Yes, a roof over your head to keep you and your stuff dry when it rains, but at the same time it’s an expression meant to make you think and feel, to somehow touch your soul.
Even though I don’t do architecture in the traditional sense anymore, I still seek that transcendent middle in everything I do. It is quite surely what has allowed me to do what I’ve done over my career. As I said earlier, an artist who wants to sell their work is a business person, and that, too, requires both sides of the brain. In design, a critical phase of the process comes in defining the problem to be solved. Toucan was just another design problem requiring both creative and analytical thinking in order to be solved.