The Yellowstone Art Museum staff refers to its Visible Vault as the community’s “treasure house.”
And it is. The vault holds significant moments in Montana’s history, dating back to territorial days. It is a record of cultural legacy as told through personal accounts by artists, photographers and sculptors.
And what better facility to keep these treasures than the state-of-the-art vault, located on North 26th Street, just east of the museum. Every one of the 7,400 works of art and artifacts were donated to the museum or purchased using community donations. So, in essence, it’s our stuff.
The collection began the year the museum opened in 1964 in the former county jail. A committee of artists, YAM staff, and community members helps decide what works should be included in the collection. In a way, seeing these works is like holding up a mirror to see ourselves and our past. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s mixed-media work, “Tongass Trade Canoe,” shines a harsh light on the logging industry and Kevin Red Star’s rich oil on canvas, “The General,” depicts a proud native warrior wearing military garb.
These images are bold representations of where we’ve been. Others hint at where we are headed.
“Some people’s view is if it’s not C.M. Russell cowboys and Indians, it’s not Montana,” YAM director Robyn
Peterson said. “A surprising amount of our Montana collection doesn’t have horses. The works deal with a vast variety of universal themes.”
A primary part of the YAM’s mission is to preserve, conserve and exhibit the art of this region and a big part of that is building the permanent collection, YAM curator Bob Durden said.
“The legacy of any civilization is described by what it leaves behind, as a document of its existence — the accomplishments, concerns, insights and innovations of the age,” Durden said.
The vault’s collection is available for public view any time the museum is open, which means history or art classes can study specific works by an artist or Billings residents can show off their favorite Charlie Russell painting to visitors. A glass cube was constructed in the center of the vault, which opened in 2010, to allow visitors to look into the archives. Given a day or two notice, registrar Kelly Everitt will locate works and put them on display at the vault.
Peterson said opening the archives to the public is rare in the museum community.
“I only know of one other museum, one in Detroit, that keeps its storage open to the public,” Peterson said. “People are curious, and we’re happy to accommodate them.”
On the 50th anniversary of the YAM, The Billings Gazette is featuring works from the permanent collection, which are indeed treasures to our community and region. Those works, including the 4,900-piece Will James Collection, help tell the story of Montana and the West.
Peterson said contemporary art is informed by the past. So the trove of historic works, including works by C.M. Russell and photographs by L.A. Huffman, have influenced some of the region’s finest contemporary artists, including Deborah Butterfield, Kevin Red Star, Ted Waddell and Russell Chatham.
Arlynn Fishbaugh, director of the Montana Arts Council, said Montanans should be proud of the YAM, especially its collection of Montana artists’ work.
“The state of Montana underscored the significance and value of this collection through the seed funding it provided through the Montana Cultural Trust, funded by coal tax, which matched major private donations to launch the collection 30 years ago,” Fishbaugh said.
As part of an effort to showcase the permanent collection in a bigger way, the YAM opened “Boundless Visions” in the downstairs gallery in 2012 where 80 to 100 pieces are on display throughout the year. The YAM rotates in pieces that relate to events in the world and Billings. For example, during the Chinese New Year, works showcasing horses were added to the exhibit because 2014 is the year of the horse. Most of the works that will be showcased by The Gazette in coming months will be placed on exhibit in that gallery. Others will be showcased in the Visible Vault.
Peterson chose to lead off the series with one of the earliest works in the collection, a photograph taken in the late 1870s by Fort Keogh photographer S.J. Morrow and printed by Miles City photographer L.A. Huffman in 1913. The photograph shows the Little Bighorn Battlefield three years after the historic battle took place along the Little Bighorn River.
The series of works that will be showcased in coming months will also include one of the YAM’s signature artists, Deborah Butterfield, whose welded-steel horses have been displayed at the museum since the 1980s.
The collection stands as a record of what artists have observed, Durden said. Those personal accounts give testament to a broader culture and to cultural and personal concerns. Visual art helps bring Montana’s stories to life and the YAM is committed to sharing those stories.
“As a matter of practice, Montana has historically exported its resources — gold, silver, coal and agricultural products — to other places,” Durden said. “The arts in Montana are not immune to this exportation as a simple matter of survival. The permanent collection at the YAM protects a portion of the region’s visual resources from being completely dislodged or dislocated from their points of origin.”