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A random stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills a couple of decades ago ignited the art lover in Billings developer Gary Oakland.

Of particular interest was a visit to Galerie Michael, where Oakland viewed Barbizon paintings that led the way for the more well-known Impressionist movement. Since then Oakland has acquired 30 pieces of Barbizon works — and nine of them are on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum in the “Curious Finds” collection, which is up through Jan. 10.

YAM executive director Robyn Peterson said the show, which features artwork from 10 Billings collectors, sends an important message to art lovers: You don’t have to be living in Manhattan to buy and own art.

“It’s a great way for people to see there is a passion for art among people living in Billings. It’s not something that only the super rich in Manhattan do,” Peterson said.

Oakland said initially that his interest in Barbizon pieces came from the fact that they were more affordable than Impressionist paintings, and dealer Michael Schwartz said they may be the next big thing in the art world. But beyond an investment, Oakland’s growing art collection speaks to him in ways a stock portfolio doesn’t.

“There is more to life than just investing,” Oakland said. “It wasn’t done as a moneymaking venture. The joy of it is having these pieces, living with great works of art.”

Among the pieces in the YAM show is “La Gardienne d’Oies” by Constant Troyon, which shows a lone peasant woman tending her geese. The lighting is soft but vital to the painting because it illuminates the tufts of grass and the white feathers on the geese, defining the shapes without requiring much detail.

The Barbizon school of art paved the way for Impressionism, and you can see the overlap in the later Barbizon works at the YAM. Barbizon painters went into the countryside to the village of Barbizon, France, to paint plein air works, some of the first artists to do so. They painted ordinary, working-class people, a switch from the pre-French Revolution painters who limited their subject matter to royalty and the wealthy. The Barbizon artists celebrated the peasants working in the fields, and many pieces show noble, determined faces on both man and beast.

“There is a real valor to these pieces,” YAM education director Linda Ewert said. “You can tell they are hard workers.”

Oakland said he relates particularly to the paintings showing women with winsome, hardy faces. Oakland said his mother grew up on a farm during the Depression, living in a tarpaper shack.

“Her circumstances were not that much different than some of the women in the paintings,” Oakland said.

The Oakland collection has works by most of the Barbizon period’s most important painters, Ewert said. So it’s a good sampling and shows how the Barbizon period evolved into Impressionism. Oakland’s favorite Barbizon artist is Jules Dupre.

“You don’t really own the painting, you’re just a steward,” Oakland said. “I look at it as a privilege to be able to live with beautiful art.”

The Barbizon school lasted almost 50 years from 1830 to the 1870s, compared to the Impressionistic period that lasted just more than a decade, beginning in 1870 and ending in the 1880s, Peterson pointed out.

“Impressionism was a quantum leap of defiance,” Peterson said.

Oakland compared collecting art to land speculation because neither one generates a cash flow. He noted that the paintings he purchased have made more gains in value than the stocks he purchased.

“Quality always maintains its value,” Oakland said. “My advice to people interested in collecting would be to only buy or collect what you love. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks or worry about resale.”

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“Curious Finds ... Selections from Billings Private Collections,” an exhibit featuring works owned by 10 local residents, is on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum through Jan. 10. Collectors include The Oakland Collection, Hewes and Susan Agnew, Anonymous Lenders, John W. and Carol L.H. Green, Larry and Ruth Martin, Dorothy Metz, Thomas and Abigail Minckler, David Orser and Ossie Abrams, Dr. Donald and Carol Roberts, and Al Winegardner.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the YAM is offering an heirloom care workshop Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free with the price of admission. Visitors may bring items in for specific recommendations (maximum two items per person). The workshop will provide information about paintings, drawings, and sculpture, as well as documents, vintage clothing, antique toys, family Bibles, photographs and many other types of heirlooms.