Perhaps there's no better way for the Missoula Art Museum to kick off its Ruby Jubilee than the annual Benefit Art Auction.

After all, the auction was what helped the MAM first open its doors 40 years ago.

MAM Executive Director Laura Millin noted that it was a "groundswell of supporters who brought the museum to life," including artists, politicians, developers and community members who are still in the MAM's circle of supporters at the auction to this day.

And she noted that the MAM has stayed true its original mission: exhibiting contemporary art in the West.

This year's auction includes 80 pieces by 80 artists, divided equally between the live and silent auctions.

The jury assembled a typically eclectic exhibition with artists from Missoula and across Montana, as well as some in far-flung places around the country and world with ties to the Treasure State.

"There's something for everyone in this show," said MAM curator Stephen Glueckert. "There's abstraction. There's realism. There's storytelling. There's non-objectivity."

A sampling of the well-recognized artists from Missoula gives an idea of the breadth in style and content: George Gogas has another painting in his Charlie and Pablo series, and there's a print by James Todd, an acrylic on copper panel by Monte Dolack, a ceramic piece by Lisa Autio, an oil stick on silver gelatin fiber print by Chris Autio, an acrylic on canvas by Tim Thornton and a mixed-media collage by Patricia Thornton.

As in last year's auction, the state's ceramics community is well-represented.

Especially noteworthy is a piece by David Shaner, who passed away in 2002. His wife, Ann Shaner, donated "Obelisk," a glazed porcelainous stoneware sculpture.

Shaner was an influential ceramics scholar and artist and a longtime resident and supporter of the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena.

Glueckert said "many ceramic artists look at him as a mentor and teacher," and two glazes bear his name: "Shaner Red" and "Shaner Black."

Three ceramic artists who attracted high bids last year have returned.

Ryan Mitchell, a University of Montana MFA graduate and former resident at the Clay Studio who's now based in Indonesia, contributed another porcelain and stoneware sculpture, "Arrangement in White and Grey: The Weight of Gesture."

Like last year's piece, "Everywhere Buddha with Flowers," it contrasts a large, heavy stoneware base with an exterior of delicate porcelain flowers.

"Everywhere Buddha" was the top seller overall in 2014, capturing a $5,000 bid during the live auction. Its estimated value was $2,800.

Alison Reintjes, a Missoula ceramic artist whose massive installation piece, "DoubleColumn" was at the MAM atrium last year, contributed "Double Ohno," a slipcast ceramic piece.

Last year, a similar piece of hers closed out the auction with a $1,600 bid, more than twice its estimated value of $600.

Stephen Braun, a UM graduate and nationally shown ceramicist who lives in Whitefish, contributed "Why One World is Not Enough," a rakued clay sculpture of a figure positioned above four planets, each covered with evidence of human ruin. Last year, his sculpture “The Source” sold for $3,200. Its estimated value was $2,000.

Andrea Moon, a staff member at the Red Lodge Clay Center, contributed "Large Stoneware Basket," which is exactly what it sounds like: a basket "weaved" from loops of stoneware – a "technically superior" construction, noted assistant curator John Calsbeek.

Painters include a mournful West Texas Main Street by Elizabeth Bass of Missoula, and a large landscape by Asha MacDonald, a Missoula resident who attracted the highest bid for a 2-D work last year.

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The auction is the MAM's largest fundraiser of the year. The museum relies heavily on its proceeds to fund its year-round educational programs and art exhibitions, which are free to the public.

Last year, the auction raised approximately $114,000.

Millin said "we have a terrific community of artists represented in the show," who donated their work toward the auction. The donation amounts vary from 50 percent to 100 percent of the bid amount.

The work will be on display in the MAM's upstairs galleries through Feb. 4, when they'll be moved to the University Center Ballroom for the auction on Saturday, Feb. 7.

This year, the number of works was lowered to 40 pieces each in the live and silent auctions.

The number fit with the Ruby Jubilee theme, and also will help the auction experience.

"We've been trying to make the live auction shorter for quite a few years. One of the best ways to do that is to sell fewer pieces," said Calsbeek. It trims the auction time, which is in turn more fair to the artists.

If the live auction runs late, then the works at the end are up for bid in a room that may only be two-thirds full and could attract bids that are equal to or less than their estimated value. 

Fewer pieces means a faster and more competitive auction, they reasoned.

This year, there are two "experiential" items. One is "Art of Food, Wine and Design," a dinner for eight at the home of Jennifer Leutzinger and Glenn Kreisel, who own the Brink gallery downtown. Their ultramodern home, designed by Seattle architect Chris Pardo, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Modern Living. The evening will include a dinner by Chef Andrew Dolan, music by Beth Lo and David Horgan, and wine from George's Distributing.

The second is a weeklong stay at a "secluded oceanside home" in Costa Rica, donated by auction committee co-chairs Jennifer Boyer and Jeff Crouch.

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