MISSOULA — One of the West’s oldest and more robust collections of fine art may be closer to finding a fitting home thanks to a gift by a California couple with strong ties to the University of Montana.
Suzanne and Bruce Crocker committed a significant portion of their estate to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the university on Friday.
While the amount went undisclosed, the gift will support the director’s position at the museum well into the future.
“This has been a project of mine for a very long time,” said Suzanne Crocker before Friday’s announcement. “I’ve wanted to see this art collection come out of the basement storage areas and go up where people can see it. It’ll be the first comprehensive art collection in the state of Montana.”
Crocker resides with her husband in Palo Alto, California, and is deeply involved in the Western art scene, working as a docent and lecturer at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.
Crocker also serves on the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s advisory council while husband serves on the UM Foundation board of trustees.
While the couple’s gift won’t go toward creating a new museum — one of the university’s top building goals — it does give MMAC more clout as an institution, setting the stage for other donors to follow.
Their gift creates the Suzanne and Bruce Crocker Distinguished Director Fund, paying the salary and benefits of the museum’s top official.
“This gift is like creating the cornerstone of the building itself,” said MMAC Director Barbara Koostra. “It’s their desire that this create serious momentum toward a museum building. They see this as part of the infrastructure in a place that will celebrate our great permanent collection.”
The collection held by MMAC is vast and all-inclusive, containing 11,000 works representing nearly every period of art rendered by cultures around the world.
Established in 1895, the collection has grown to include such names as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Marc Chagall and Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, who inspired Monet in 1863 with his ideas on color and tone.
The collection also houses names lesser known to Montana viewers, including the Japanese prints of Utagawa Kunisada and the Native American works of Kevin Red Star. The stoneware of Montana artist Rudy Autio is included, along with Bonner-born artist Walter Hook.
“The museum’s collection includes 11,000 original works of art,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “But we only display a small percentage of that collection at any given time because we don’t have much in way of display space.”
For art connoisseurs and educators, the museum’s lack of a suitable gallery has served as an ongoing frustration. With so many pieces and so little space, the work is rarely displayed, leaving the vast majority of the collection tucked away from the public.
For museum curators, the lack of a proper home also has served as an ongoing concern. The work is stored in less-than-ideal conditions on campus. When it is moved for showing, curators must consider the weather before transporting the pieces.
“We need a building, a facility, so we can display most of the collection,” said Crocker. “This art belongs to the people of Montana, and it should be where they can see it. There’s a lot of people we’re talking to who could possibly help with this effort.”
Over the last year, the museum has ramped up its efforts to promote the collection and its need for a new home. Last summer, MMAC began the effort by publishing “The Art of the State; 120 Artworks for 120 Years.”
The publication served as a strong promotional piece, marking the first handbook ever printed highlighting the museum’s permanent collection. Earlier this year, Engstrom also submitted a request to the state Board of Regents, seeking to expend up to $10 million in private funds to construct a new museum.
During his request, Engstrom told regents the university was embarking on a fundraising effort to achieve that goal. He noted the “exciting potential” that could quickly develop with donors.
Engstrom continued that message on Friday, saying the efforts to raise money for a new museum continued to show promise.
“We’re working on that,” Engstrom said. “It’s one of our goals here for the next several years to put together a facility that’s a fitting facility, a state-of-the art facility, to display this collection and to have interactive education and outreach programs associated with art.”
Koostra said it takes time to develop relationships and trust with prospective donors — something the Crocker gift will help achieve.
When pitching the plan, supporters often speak to the educational and viewing opportunities a new museum would offer. They also note the role a world-class museum would play as a cultural and economic boon for the region.
“I’m working closely with the president, other campus leaders and the UM Foundation to create momentum with other folks who understand the needs of a museum,” Koostra said. “We’re looking for people who understand that the history and culture of a place and the world — given the international nature of our collection — is vastly important.”