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Robyn Peterson earned her doctorate in Viking art and archaeology, but since coming to the Yellowstone Art Museum 10 years ago, she’s surrounded herself with much more contemporary art.

Peterson, YAM’s executive director, spoke to a crowd of about 20 people at the Billings Public Library on Tuesday as part of Zonta Club of Billings’ Artful Women of Montana series. Her talk gave the crowd a behind-the-scenes look at, among other things, the value of establishing good relationships with donors and the people who run other museums and have items that can be swapped with works in YAM’s collection.

“We’ve spent a lot of time establishing those collaborative relationships,” she said, which can result in exhibit exchanges that cost the museums only the cost of shipping the art pieces and insuring them.

A swap about four years ago with a museum in Lafayette, La., brought contemporary Chinese art to YAM.

“China figures largely on the world’s stage today,” Peterson said during an hour-long question-and-answer session emceed by Connie Dillon, a Zonta Club past president. “So that exhibit was part of making us all better citizens.”

Some big-name works that have been displayed — Peterson specifically mentioned a handful of Monet paintings YAM has exhibited in recent years — have been made possible by anonymous lenders “and we are grateful for those relationships. Otherwise,” she said, “we couldn’t afford even the insurance.”

She’s also pleased with the museum’s Montana Masters series, which features artists “not necessarily born and raised here.” The series has demonstrated “the immense diversity of the work being done here. It allows us to step away from the stereotype of what people think Montana should be about — cowboys and Indians, and traditional landscapes. That is just a small, small part of what is being done around the state.”

The Visible Vault

Among YAM’s most significant developments during Peterson’s decade running the state's first museum devoted to contemporary art is the Visible Vault, where visitors can check out the museum’s entire collection while it’s in storage and, if they’re lucky, watch and speak to an artist in residence while at work.

YAM’s first artist in residence was Molt artist Tracy Linder, who told the group that during her time in the Visible Vault she visited with “a lot of people taking respite” while their loved one was being treated at one of Billings’ two downtown hospitals.

Among Linder’s favorite visitors: a high school couple out on their first date. “They talked to me for 45 minutes!” she said, her head shaking in amazement.

The Visible Vault, one of just a handful of similar facilities in the nation, was a big step in getting reaccredited by the American Alliance of Museums this spring.

Peterson said the approach has created transparency that visitors and other museum professionals appreciate.

“When I go to a museum like (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City), I see a lot of doors with no labels,” she said. “I just know that something good is back there that they’re not showing us.

“When people can see the behind-the-scenes operation, it can improve understanding of what’s going on and increase support,” she added. “People are not inclined to help support you for a collection they have never seen.”

As an added benefit, creating the Visible Art as a self-guided public program has “opened doors to funding that would not have been available to us it if were closed to the public,” she said. “People are very interested in the process and seeing how things happen. We are pleased by the community’s reception to the space. That rough industrial aesthetic has turned out to be very popular.”

YAM’s permanent collection, she said, is almost evenly split between male and female artists.

“There’s still tremendous gender disparity, but I’m happy to say the museum does not take part in that,” she said. “It’s not because we have tried to do that — it’s because there are a lot of extraordinary women artists in the state. It has just worked out that we are not really following the bias that marks so many museums — and that’s not just in the art world.”

Peterson said that on occasion, the museum opens its doors for meaningful community discussions. “We see the museum as a library in that sense,” she said, noting that recent discussions have focused on the legalization of marijuana and gun rights and restrictions.

“Art can engender a wide range of responses. Museums are considered to be trusted, safe places, and we want to take advantage of that," she said. "When we do an exhibit that relates to contentious topics, we will provide the backdrop of the artistic exploration of those topics.”

“I think that is an appropriate role for museums,” she added. “It’s not like we’re reaching. Art is about everything. There is no topic you can name that artists haven’t dealt with.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.