Sitting at a desk in her office, Missoula Art Museum executive director Laura Millin opens a small, red notebook. Inside, filling the ledger-lined pages, is a handwritten accounting of donations and sales brought in at the first Benefit Art Auction, held 40 years ago at Missoula's Florence Motor Inn.
The tallies were hardly great, even for a first-time fundraiser: $13,206 was brought in through art purchases, event sponsorships and ticket sales. But costs to put on the two-day event were $11,121.
Much has changed since then about the Missoula Art Museum - then just a dream among a group of local arts patrons - and its annual auction, which now raises tens of thousands of dollars each year to support the museum's operating fund.
But some things remain remarkably consistent.
Millin flips back to the first page of the ledger. There, at the very top of the page, in neat cursive, is the name of the first artist whose work was auctioned off at the event in 1972: Bill Ohrmann.
Today, Ohrmann remains a fixture of the western Montana arts community. His museum and gallery a mile south of Drummond on Highway 1 serves as one of the region's most remarkable and eccentric roadside attractions.
And Ohrmann, now 93, continues to create work - and donate it to the MAM's auction.
"The kind of commitment that Bill has shown to what we do over the years, it's just astounding and so heartwarming," said Millin. "It really speaks to the community values and relationships that this auction and the MAM have been about from the get-go."
It is for that reason that Ohrmann was chosen as the featured artist in this year's Benefit Art Auction. Two of his works - a large oil painting from 2010, and a much earlier wood carving - will be auctioned off at the event, which takes place Feb. 4 at the Holiday Inn Parkside.
Between now and then, those two pieces join 93 other auction artworks in an exhibit on the top floor of the Missoula Art Museum.
As has long been the case, the show serves, in a sense, as a survey of the diversity and quality of art produced in this region. Yet its significance is ultimately deeper, said Steve Glueckert, curator at the MAM.
"I think there's so much good will in the art community toward the museum, and I think that is what's really reflected in this show," he said. "When you see artists willing to undergo scrutiny, to be juried in or out, and to put the work up for sale, oftentimes for less than they can probably get elsewhere just to help us - that says a lot about how people in the art community value this institution."
Like Ohrmann, many of the artists with work featured in this year's Benefit Art Auction are repeat and sometimes longtime participants.
Leslie Van Stavern Millar - whose gouache paintings have frequently appeared in the auction - submitted a new painting from her "Ideal Girl" series, this one with a timely nod to the MAM: "An Ideal Girl Takes Her Sister to the Art Museum." Works by other local artists are depicted in the painting.
George Gogas returns with another in his familiar "Judith Basin Encounter" series of paintings, this one titled "When Charlie and Pablo Optimistically Raced Toward the End of the Recession." Members of the Autio family - this time, Chris and Lisa - also return with fresh work, as well as many other familiar names from past auctions.
Yet new names and artistic perspectives grace the walls as well.
UM student Clay Pape contributed a canvas on which painted elements blend with cement, dirt, and other natural materials into a landscape image that is at once visually abstract and texturally vivid. Kelsey R. McDonnell, a Wyoming painter with Montana roots, contributed a surreal painting of a spindly, leafless tree clad in a miniskirt, hovering in a dusky sky near a "No Parking Any Time" sign.
Several artists new to the Benefit Art Auction are not new to the MAM. In the wake of last summer's major ceramic art exhibit, "Persistence in Clay: Contemporary Ceramics in Montana," several artists included in that exhibit contributed works to the Benefit Art Auction this year, including Stephen Braun, Adrian Arleo and Robert Harrison.
Those new artists joined several familiar ceramic artists from past auctions - Josh DeWeese, Beth Lo, Sarah Jaeger, Trey Hill, Alison Reintjes and others - to make for a particularly robust selection of three-dimensional works in this year's auction show.
"Ceramics is really a regional strength, which is why we did that show last summer," said Glueckert. "So it's great to see that strength in the auction as well."
Photography also takes a prominent role in this year's show and auction, noted John Calsbeek, the MAM's assistant curator. Those works range from a stark documentary portrait of a chair by Jill Brody, to a paint-and-photo collage by Troy artist Alan McNiel.
One photograph, by Oklahoma artist (and Rocky Mountain School of Photography alum) Joshua Meier, hints at the MAM's role in the lives of artists around the region.
Back in mid-2010, Meier came to Missoula to celebrate the opening of a solo exhibition at the MAM. While here, he visited Fort Missoula, where he happened upon a scene of two children seated by a wooden building.
Meier shot a photo, which he transformed through darkroom tricks into a haunting image - which he submitted to this year's auction show.
"His work is really strong and just keeps getting better and better," noted Calsbeek. "And to have this connection to it through the work we've done with him - that's a pretty nice circle."
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, firstname.lastname@example.org or on NickellBag.com.