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White privilege a problem some Western Art Week shows need to address

Art Week could use some more diversity

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Today, I will be talking about some painful truths that Western Art Week brings with it each year to Great Falls.

I take no pleasure in pointing out these facts and I have many, many reasons to ignore them like many others so plainly choose to do.

However, this year I feel it’s more important that I share these thoughts if only to possibly open up a dialogue about how we got here and what, if anything we can change.

On Friday I attended the First Strike art show at the Mansfield Center. Organized by the C.M Russell Museum the First Strike show is, as I was told by Christina Hoover-Blackwell “for first-time buyers.”

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“The goal is to reach out to people who are maybe getting rid of their rock and roll posters … And we want you to buy your first piece of art here.”

Hoover-Blackwell is the museum’s chairwoman of the board of directors. She is a Great Falls native and has donated several original Russell pieces her family owned to the museum.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for her, and the Russell Museum. However, on this fact I largely disagree.

Looking at the crowd of buyers during the First Strike show I couldn’t help but see lots of grey hair and only a few people who I would guess were younger than 45.

No, the way I saw First Strike was that it is very much like all the other art sales except the opening bids were just a bit lower.

What really concerned me about this show though was the fact that even though it was billed as an event open to new art collectors and a younger demographic, it still reeked of white privilege.

It reeked of expensive taste and of a certain exclusivity that only one type of person will ever get the chance to experience.

This fact was driven home even more given that all of the people involved with the auction were white males. Everyone in the band were white males. Many of the artists also were white men, although I do have to conceed that the Russell does do a decent job at diversifying it’s collection of artists it draws from.

Several people have commented that much of the art comes from white males, too, but others claim minority artists have done well at Western Art Week also. I feel confident in proclaiming that the art is the most diverse part of the experience. And while certain shows do strive for diversity, the main events still are mostly white.

This is a problem that extends beyond just Western Art Week and can be traced to many other events of the same kind. It’s just that it seems to be more magnified when something like this comes to town.

It’s impossible to deny, too, that Montana is a state with mostly white people. And, maybe most art auctioneers are white too. However these facts don’t keep us from starting a dialogue as to why it’s like that.

This probably isn’t new to a lot of you. Each year people with a considerable amount of wealth pull into Great Falls, buy their art and then leave, never to return except for maybe during next Western Art Week.

It’s also curious how the Great Falls Tribune covers the hell out of this event but pays only cursory attention to any other art show throughout the year.

For instance I saw multiple Tweets about this painting selling for this amount and this other piece going for that much.

But, I ask you will we see their publisher Tweeting out who bought what during the Paris Gibson Square auction coming up next month? Maybe, but it would be an exception to the rule. Is Western Art Week a big news event? Of course but it’s all about the cash, it would seem.

So yes, the real news is the money the museum rakes in every year. I don’t think it’s wrong for them to do so and in fact I’m proud that one of our local Museums has the unique ability to draw that kind of influence across the country.

It’s just that this big money is so far removed from everyday Great Falls that it blurs what the spirit of this event should be.

When the part of the weekend designed for new folks draws the same rich millionaires as the other auctions, well Houston we have a problem.

So, how do we fix it?

Firstly I think having more of a diverse crowd would help. Maybe invite a Native American autioneer or more native musicians. (Granted the Russell may have done this in past years but it never hurts to remind them of why it’s important to keep doing.)

They could avoid making it feel like the only minorities involved with the event were the ones cleaning up the dishes, which they were during First Strike.

Finally, the truth of the matter is I didn’t attend much of Western Art Week this year. Partly its because of personal preference, but also too because I don’t care how much money exchanged hands.

Please don’t mistake this as a piece slamming the Russell Museum or the other shown organizers.

I have friends who work at the museum, I have written for the museum and it’s an institution for which I have a deep amount of love and respect.

I want every Western Art Week to be as big and successful as possible. It’s just I feel we need to change a few things to keep regular people more engaged in feeling like they belong.

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