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Would Charlie Russell be proud of Great Falls if he came back today?

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If Charlie Russell were still alive today, what would he think of the town that has his likeness scattered across it? Would he be happy with it? Or, would he feel it’s changed beyond what he could have ever imagined, and not in a good way?

There’s times where I get the strong feeling it’s the second, and I also recognize how I’m partly to blame for that.

So, Mr. Charles Marion Russell, I offer to you a heartfelt apology letter.

Charlie, I’m sorry that a lot of people in Great Falls haven’t seen your works at the museum named after you. Did you know, dear reader, that the Russell Museum has featured this summer an exhibit titled, “Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art” featuring, “Russell’s life and work in the context of the women who encouraged his creativity and helped shape his career.”? It’s open until Sept. 30. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m also sorry Charlie that all attempts to start independent media organizations dedicated to sharing what our arts community are doing, have failed due to a seemingly lack of financial support.

I’m sorry that it can feel like the only people who can really enjoy your work have to be wealthy due to the amounts of money your works sell for each year. We all know that’s not true, but to outsiders there can be that air of “financial sophistication” that it takes to be a REAL Western Art aficionado.

With all of the culture happening here, and my lack of participation in a good portion of it lately, Charlie, I’m especially sorry that I’ve lost my way in remembering the powerful effect it has on me.

I’m sorry Charlie that Great Falls has a hard time finding its identity sometimes, and that we’re not quite sure if we want to lean into the arts community or actively work to destroy it. It’s complicated. We do have people who refuse to waver in their dedication, however, and they’re the real heroes our town should be celebrating.

I’m sorry Charlie for the article I wrote a few years ago decrying White Privilege and Western Art. While I do think that’s a problem that needs to be examined more, instead of talking to people about it and turning it into a wider dialogue within our Western Art world, I came out pointing fingers without anyone knowing what I was about to do.

The question I should have been asking at the time, and one I’m starting to think about more, is this…”How can a town with such a close connection to one amazing artist not have more continuous efforts fostering his medium?” We have tons of amazing events here with music, drinking, socializing, and maybe a few artists on hand who will talk about their latest pieces, depending on the venue.

But, where are the events centered on everyone creating art? Or everyone doing something to bring out their creative side? Instead of coming out to listen to another band play the standard blues covers that we’ve all heard the past three summers, what’s stopping us from starting weekly, or monthly, events where people are encouraged to create their best artwork, and at the end the best works are voted on with the winner receiving some kind of small award? That’s but one simple idea. I’m sure people with more connections and more history with our town could come up with something much better.

People might take this as my swipe at Great Falls and how bad things have gotten, and if you feel that way, I’m sorry for that, as well. This comes from a place of love. I want to feel like our creative community, one that I myself have been failing, is more important to everyone who lives here. That artists are perceived as being just as distinguished or important as politicians or doctors or lawyers.

Because after all, how many doctors in this town have a statue of themselves in the heart of downtown? Or have a high school named after them here? Or a museum filled with things that they’ve done or created? How many doctors or lawyers or politicians have children write essays after them every year to be hung in the museum named after them?

It might seem bizarre to some, but, I think it’s something that we should be working to achieve as part of defining what Great Falls is about.

It can’t be done by one person. It can’t be done by 10 people. It can be done, however, by many folks who all have similar ideas for making it happen.

I don’t think Charlie would be TOO disappointed in Great Falls if he came back today, but I do know that we could be doing better.

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