The Missoula Art Museum's Benefit Art Auction exhibition has more than its share of pieces that live up to the name, "The Power of Art."

"We believe art has enormous power to inspire, to transform, and yes, also to make strong statements and demonstrate innovation" and a love of collecting, said MAM executive director Laura Millin.

While it's hard to find a trend in 80 pieces of work by as many artists, Millin said there's "an overwhelming vibrancy, playfulness, focus on beauty and a very colorful exhibition overall."

A number of important figures have works in the show, including the late Rudy Autio and Terry Karson. Veteran artists such as sculptor and printmaker John Buck and assemblage artist Ken Little and painter Stephanie Frostad donated works.

Of Little's piece, "Red Boar," an animal head assembled from shoes and other items, MAM curator Brandon Reintjes said he "feels like this is a piece of art history in the making." Little, a former University of Montana professor who furthered his career in Texas, has works in the MAM's Permanent Collection.

"They're very significant pieces and we're really lucky to be able to present them in the auction," Reintjes said.

Karson, who made his home in Ennis, and was at one point curator of the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, passed away in January 2017 at age 66. His estate donated "Pupa Americana," one of his intricate "specimen" pieces. Karson carefully folded colorful cellophane wrappers into small forms resembling insect pupae and arrayed them in seven rows and 23 columns.

The Autio family, including patriarch Rudy and his children Lisa and Chris, donated works. Rudy, an internationally recognized ceramics pioneer, died in 2007. One of his Matisse-like drawings on paper fetched $12,000 at the auction last year, and the family has donated another.

Lisa donated a large piece that Reintjes said was unusually more like pure abstraction than her other work, with a richly developed surface texture. Chris, a photographer, contributed a large-scale hand-colored photograph.

Buck, who splits his time between Hawaii and Bozeman, donated a sprawling woodblock print measuring roughly 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. In his signature style, it depicts imagery spanning cultures and time periods: A grizzly bear looms in the foreground on its hind legs, surrounded by figures from European culture and some more modern, possibly American, pop cultural allusions. The title, "Old Ephraim in Paris," refers to a term for bears in the old West. Buck had an exhibition with prints and his room-filling sculptures at the MAM in 2015.

George Gogas returned with another politically themed piece in his Charlie Russell meets Pablo Picasso series. This one, based on Russell's Judith Basin Encounter: Charlie and Pablo Were Alarmed When They Realized Donald Was Unaware of the Serious Threat." Last year, a Gogas piece about President Donald Trump sold for $6,000.

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The auction is the largest fundraiser of the year for the MAM, raising about 10 to 12 percent of its annual revenue. It helps fund the nonprofit museum's exhibitions and related programming of contemporary art from the state and the region. The free-admission museum also offers workshops and classes for children and adults, plus the Fifth-Grade Art Experience, which brings thousands of kids from the broader area to the museum.

Last year, the auction's net proceeds were about $138,000, including $36,000 raised during a "moment of giving" in which the auctioneer solicited general donations.

The auction this year includes 80 artists between the silent and live auction, selected from more than 260 submissions. They range from ceramics (sculptural and functional) to painting (abstract and landscape), and prints, photographs and sculpture. There are 44 women and 36 men, and 10 who are new to the auction.

While the auction benefits the museum, artists typically receive a percentage as well.

This year, the auction will again be held in the UC Ballroom. Johnna Wells of Benefit Auctions 360 is returning as auctioneer. Missoula Wine Merchants is providing the "wine wall," where people can purchase a bottle of wine for $25 that could be valued higher. Slikati Photography will have a photo booth with live projections during the event.

Reintjes said many of sales are entered into an online database that can "establishes their market value when appraisals happen and secondary-market values are determined," Reintjes said. Not all of the artists work directly with galleries, and so in many cases "the auction becomes the sole public measure of their perceived value."

A quarter of the works have an estimated value of $500 or lower, with another 15 in the $500 to $1,000 range, while the rest are $1,000 and higher.

While the purpose of the auction is to raise money, it also cultivates relationships between the museum and the artists. A piece in the auction might build toward an exhibition and vice versa, Reintjes said.

Wendy Red Star, a Crow artist from eastern Montana, has built a reputation as a rising young star in the national contemporary art world from her new home base in Portland, Oregon. 

Red Star guest-curated a current MAM exhibition, "Our Side," that spotlights four female Native contemporary artists. In "Peelatchixaaliash/Old Crow (Raven)" from her "1880 Crow Peace Delegation" series, Red Star marked up a historic photograph with contemporary commentary.

The materials in Missoula artist Joe Boddy's assemblage sculpture could contribute to some bidding. He repurposed a large slab of salvaged wood, complete with rusty nails, and a brick from the Missoula Mercantile Building.

Landscapes and the effects of climate change come into play in a number of works. Clay Pape, a regular at the Dana Gallery, offered up "Glacial Melt," which depicts the craggy break-up of a body of ice in acrylic and wood glue. Kristi Hager's expertly rendered painting of the snowcapped Beartooths can't help but bring to mind glacial decline.

Other landscapes don't have direct messages, such as Ben Bloch's large-scale "Highway, Field, Canyon," with expressive brushstrokes and thin, flowing washes of color. Associate curator John Calsbeek admired the all-over compositional focus in Rosella Mosteller's black-and-white photograph, "Spring Runoff in Rattlesnake Creek II."

Connie Dillon, who owns Gallery Nine in Billings, offered "Every Ripple Is a Symphony," a close view of the water that verges on abstraction. "It really mimicked the subject matter: the dapple of the light, the movement of the water was approximated through these shifting color tones," Reintjes said.

Regarding ceramics, some important figures contributed work. Josh DeWeese of Bozeman donated a large jar with "painterly" line work and striking metallic glazes, Reintjes said. Steven Young Lee, the resident artist director at the Archie Bray Foundation, donated two vases with a geometric fern pattern and contrasting glazes.

On the smallest end of the spectrum, Skylar Brennan of Kansas City crafted a sculpture called "Alternative Artifact." Reintjes said it resembles a "small piece of technology that you're going to plug into your computer." The piece, all of 2 inches long, was so "intriguing and whimsical" that they had to include it, Reintjes said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.