Stephen Glueckert was first hired at the Missoula Art Museum as the curator of education in 1992.

He's stepping down this month as the MAM's senior exhibitions curator, but the importance of education never drifted from his outlook.

"I really believe that if you're a curator, you better be an educator," he said.

There's the nuts-and-bolts of the work, but outreach is just as crucial.

"Yes, the object's important. Preservation's important. But really as a curator, you're caretaking ideas," he said.

To him, that's meant refining ways of presenting contemporary art to the public and helping visitors understand the importance of art as a language and a metaphor, whether it's an everyday aesthetic experience like a drawing on the refrigerator or a piece of local art in a local museum.

"We have artists right here in the community who are amazing. And how we learn and accept and nurture one another and learn how to be respectful of one another, those are all lessons that I hope the art brings to us," he said.

Glueckert's hewed to that advocacy with the unpretentious ease of a Montana native. His grandfather homesteaded in Ingomar, and he was born in Missoula and attended middle school and high school in Great Falls.

Cutting against the cliche of a curator, Glueckert's a boisterous presence at the MAM's openings, breaking up serious art talk with a quick joke and his signature guffaw.

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Glueckert was promoted to senior exhibitions curator in 1998, back when the museum had three or four employees at any given time.

Over almost a quarter-century, he helped grow the annual Benefit Art Auction, and started new projects such as the Montana Triennial, a statewide survey of contemporary art.

Most crucially, he and executive director Laura Millin were at the helm for the MAM's years-long capital campaign and expansion and construction, which was completed in 2006.

"When we decided to do the building project, he really made the commitment to stick with that process and help shepherd that process, and help really craft and build the expanded museum," Millin said. "During those years, he was also not just doing the exhibitions, but shaping the collection as well until we finally got a registrar on staff."

Many museums lose their senior staff after the exhaustion of a capital campaign and expansion, Millin said. They often stall or take years to find their footing again, something the MAM wanted to avoid.

"I think we were both committed to that not happening, and making sure the institution's stable before I left," Glueckert said. "And I believe there's room to grow and improve and change and become."

Regarding that last part, Glueckert believes the MAM will evolve and get better, just like the art it houses.

"There will be nothing insurmountable in the challenges ahead for the museum, and the museum is going to change and become something different. And that's good," he said.

Brandon Reintjes, the curator at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, has been hired on.

Glueckert credited the museum's staff, which now comprises nine people, with shaping the MAM into its current form.

"There's a really great team here and really gifted people, smart, articulate people. I think it's really a good time for me to step away from that," he said.

And he noted that he's not retiring, or even slowing down. He'll focus full-time now on his own art career.

"It always makes me a little nervous when people say 'retirement,' because in our day, it's not like our parents who retired and focused on filling ice-cube trays and eating bonbons. I think most people, and me included, have the attitude that I'm always going to work. I'm always going to be working," he said.

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Glueckert is proud of the many nationally and internationally known artists who have exhibited at MAM: the wildly popular Ansel Adams show, influential pattern artist Miriam Shapiro and pioneering African-American painter Jacob Lawrence. And Ed and Nancy Keinholz, whose massive installation "The Jesus Corner" required the removal of part of the exterior wall of the building.

But he's remained a steadfast advocate of local and regional contemporary art, tirelessly reminding people that art isn't something that happens only in metropolitan areas.

"While it's important to bring in Robert Rauschenberg, or pieces that we may never have imagined could be here, it's just as important to show Big Sky High School art class, in my mind," he said.

When it comes to Montana art, he drew on invaluable ties to the state's first generation of contemporary artists, such as Rudy and Lela Autio and Ginny and Josh DeWeese, to name a few, who were responsible for laying down the roots for art education and museums in the state in the 1940s and '50s. While 20 years their junior, he sought them out and became friends with them.

Glueckert's co-workers said he has been a champion of a broad range of art, caring less about specific styles or methods than whether the artist was working hard and producing art that had integrity and was properly resolved.

They also noted that he supported younger artists. When working with established artists, he preferred to focus on their new work instead of curating surveys or retrospectives.

Registrar Ted Hughes said Glueckert has an old-school Montana work ethic when it comes to art, whether making it or viewing it.

"You show up and you support each other," he said. "He goes to every opening in town."

And not just local ones: He puts in windshield time as well, driving to Lewistown, Butte and Helena to see new exhibitions.

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That work ethic applied inside the museum as well, helping to keep the MAM's seven exhibition spaces full year-round.

In the 2013-2014 season, the museum presented a record 34 exhibitions and 368 artists and 76 programs.

Whenever the workload got heavy, Glueckert has a saying he'd share with co-workers.

"He would never say ‘Quit your whining,’ ” Millin said. "He would say, 'Go punch your martyr card.' One year he actually presented all of us with martyr cards" – little replicas of coffee punch cards.

Before John Calsbeek was hired as full-time assistant curator, Glueckert handled all the curation and installation work himself.

"He'll do everything. He'll do it all, and he won't stop," Calsbeek said.

He's also done it while maintaining his own career as an artist.

"He's working 40-50-plus hours a week and then goes home and creates body after body after body of work: drawings, sculptures," Hughes said.

Calsbeek recalls when Glueckert used to pull all-nighters like a college kid, particularly when he was producing massive drawings at the MAM that he couldn't make at his home studio.

"He'd de-install a show all day, and then he'd come in and staple canvas across a whole wall and stay up all night so that he could do these drawings," he said. The next day, he'd be back at work.

In addition to drawings, Glueckert is also a sculptor, building often whimsical assemblages that reference American culture and history with interactive elements, such as the "Rat Race" series, or his automatic drawing machines.

Calsbeek said Glueckert's work, which has been shown at museums and galleries around the state, is approachable to most anyone.

"I think a lot of people, whether they know anything about art or not, can relate to it or have fun with it," he said.

Working as a curator involved a certain amount of sacrifice. Not only did it limit his studio time, but the job meant he could never show his work at the MAM, and it limited the venues outside of the museum as well.

"He's extremely ethical about things like that," Hughes said.

That applied to MAM exhibitions and auctions as well. Artists, no matter how well-known, always had to follow the same application process as artists who were less well-connected or lacked clout.

Glueckert was always willing to meet with artists and look at their work, even if they're not museum-ready, Calsbeek said. He would talk with them for an hour and give them feedback, and encourage them to do more.

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Earlier this month, the MAM was honored with a Governor's Arts Award for its myriad programs, which Glueckert said was somewhat bittersweet when aligned so closely with his departure.

He's leaving on a positive note, though, and looks forward to returning to the museum to see his co-workers.

He'll finally get to show his work in one of the galleries, too: The MAM is working on a survey of his work next fall.

In Hughes' opinion, Glueckert has a legacy that resonates locally and regionally.

In his old haunts at the MAM, it will take the form of a new initiative: the Glueckert Curatorial Collection of Contemporary Montana Art.

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