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Opinion: Income inequality is on full display during Western Art Week

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Travis Vermulm

Since we’ve started here at Big Sky State Buzz last June, we haven’t had too many guest writers. It’s been just me, Jake, who’s done all of the writing.

However, that doesn’t mean we don’t like the idea of inviting guest writers.

One day soon we hope to have a steady stable of writers who can contribute pieces for us, be it reviews, columns, feature articles or news items.

With that in mind, earlier this month I reached out to Travis Vermulm, whom I first met at the old Step 2 the Mic Poetry Slams. Travis is a much better poet than I am, and I knew that he has a strong passion for the arts in our area.

You also may recognize Travis as the guy who played the goat in the last University of Great Falls Theater Department’s play “Tribulation at Goat’s Corner.” He also writes for the UGF student newspaper The Argo Impact.

This is Travis’ first article for us, but don’t let that fool you, because it’s a good one.

It explores how a big event like The Russell Art Auction puts income inequality in focus as the rich dine on fine foods and sip expensive champaign while the working-class folks at the event are there filling a different role.

It also asks whether art, any art no matter the creator, is worth millions of dollars when there are so many people who are struggling to make ends meet and could use a fraction of that money.

It’s a grey area that has no easy answer, but it’s an interesting discussion to start.

Here’s Travis’ piece, we hope you enjoy! If you have any thoughts on the subject yourself, feel free to leave us a comment.

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The black-tie affair that is an art auction is quite something to behold.

The people seem to walk with a different stride, the food smells decadent and expensive, the décor exudes a splendor that attracts only the highest of social classes.

I have never had the personal pleasure of attending such an event, but this past weekend, I finally got the chance to attend The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit The C.M. Russell Museum.

And, I did it without even buying a ticket. How did I manage this? I gained this experience working as a backstage helper during the auction.

There is a common phrase that, “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Well in these short five hours, that phrase rung true for more reasons than one. It was eye-opening and made me think about the world in a different sense.

First, the experience taught me that sometimes there is literally another side. In this case the other side was a separation by a curtain. The night for the people in the audience began with cheer, alcohol, and the decadent food that I spoke of above. They wandered around viewing the different art pieces while filling their bellies with fine cheeses, meats, and wines.

The reason the food and alcohol is provided in the early parts of the night is simple; the backstage workers have realized that people PROBABLY spend more money when inebriated.

A worker’s day begins preparing every piece of art that is to be sold. The art is placed according to a catalog order in cardboard boxes and aptly labeled. Two teams of volunteers are assembled to aid in the functions of the auction.

The first team is the team that I was assigned to: the displayers.

Collectors bid on this piece at the 2015 Russell art auction.
Collectors bid on this piece at the 2015 Russell art auction.

The team was split in two separate groups itself. The first group pulled each art piece out of the labeled cardboard boxes and made sure the pieces were carefully handed to the second group.

The second group wore provided black shirts, dark pants, dress shoes, and Mickey Mouse-like white cloth gloves.

They wore such an outfit because they were the ones who walked down the stage runway with the art piece held in front of them.

Much like a model displaying clothing, the second group displayed each art piece to be seen by the crowd of wealthy buyers.

The second team does their job after the pieces of art have actually been sold. These people were working in the far corners of the backstage behind us. I glanced back every once and awhile to see them working carefully in white dress pants and gloves very similar to our own. They were the packaging crew. They wrapped each portrait in plastic so they were ready to be loaded into the vehicles of the several buyers.

The second thing that I noticed about this particular experience was the cost of art and the cost of living above comfort in this new realm of wealth.

I always view the lives of Montanans as separate from the stereotypical wealthy people portrayed on television and film.

That day at the auction, though, I realized I might be a few feet away from people that fit that exact stereotype.

I was parading around art that cost the same amount as my tuition; better yet I was participating in this event not even a week after writing an article about homeless citizens in Mexico.

I saw in my past and my future the different social classes and activities in which they engage.

On the front side of the curtain was the rich, or the perceived rich — they dined on fine foods and drank expensive liquors all while bidding on pieces of art that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other side of the curtain I stood with a group of people sharing my social class — the privileged college student group paying for their education with loans and work money thinking that they are scraping by a living.

This Charlie Russell oil painting "For Supremacy" sold for $1.5 million last weekend in Great Falls.
This Charlie Russell oil painting “For Supremacy” sold for $1.5 million last weekend in Great Falls.

The art pieces paraded onto the stage by the backstage workers modeled the same beauty that visitors to the great state of Montana probably see when they step into our great state. Perhaps this is why the large sums of money are spent on such things as art.

People want to hold onto the beauty that they may not see while in cities or different areas not similar to these rolling plains and glorious mountain ranges. The question though is whether or not the beauty of the art justifies the spending?

Because spending they were. Unlike the opposite end of the spectrum in a different type of world, I remembered my interviews with Jake Clark and the rest of the Mexico Trip students.

I thought about how many people we could help by taking the money spent on this art and putting it towards houses for the poor.
We are not poor college students. We are students and that is it.

The fact that we live in a pristine society in which our security in the comfortable college is not threatened and we have enough funds to eat meals we deem unsuitable is enough to show we are still privileged.

Travis Vermulm is a student at the University of Great Falls and a native of Cut Bank.

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