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MAM's auction is now a 'Big Night' with online bids, music comp

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The Missoula Art Museum’s annual art auction is more inclusive and multi-genre than ever before.

Because of the pandemic and the freeze on live events, they’re renaming it MAM’s “Big Night.”

On Feb. 12, there’ll be an hour-long streamed show from their galleries, preceded by weeks of online bidding, open on Feb. 1, on all 120-plus works that were submitted. As a musical flourish, they're producing a download compilation of local music.

The auction is the nonprofit museum’s largest fundraiser of the year, helping to keep admission free for its year-round exhibitions of regional contemporary art.

While the museum has remained open since early June with health restrictions, the pandemic has affected the amount of foot traffic.

“Our whole business model depends on public attendance, interacting and talking about art with people,” said Laura Millin, MAM’s executive director.

Its live events were designed to bring artists in for talks and interactions, and having the opportunity to speak with viewers directly about their ideas. The staff are proud of their success with online versions, but the art experience really hinges on being in a space with the work.

“Viewing art and being with art is a physical thing,” said associate curator John Calsbeek, which generates conversations that won’t happen otherwise.

Online, though, there is the potential to include more artists and more out-of-state viewers for the fundraiser.

After going through the normal process of jurying, MAM staff realized that they don’t have any space or time constraints this year. No shipping art to Montana or farther away and hanging it in their galleries for a preview exhibition. Then moving it to the University Center Ballroom for the live event. No rush to have the auctioneer bid all of them up over the course of few hours.  

Since “everything’s out the window” this year anyway, Calsbeek said, they decided to be inclusive and accept all 120-plus pieces.

After considering the difficult year, "it felt better to say yes," he said. The artist are always taking a risk by submitting, and all involved are taking a chance by steering an in-person event with hundreds of supporters into a new format.

It will mean more support for artists in tough times — the split of proceeds is 50-50 or higher in the MAM's favor if the artist chooses. In years past, they’ve sent out $40,000 to artists within days of the auction.

Last year, they used an online platform for all the silent auction that was successful and a positive base for this year. The artwork will be online starting on Jan. 15, with bidding to start on Feb. 1 and it will end after the streamed event. 

One set of artworks will be featured during a one-hour live event streams from the MAM with their regular auctioneer, Johnna Wells.

There is an etching by the late Rick Bartow, an Indigenous (Wiyot) artist who’s celebrated around the Northwest and beyond; a large fabric cat by Missoula’s Nancy Erickson; a glass vessel donated by Lillian Pitt, whose work was featured in a popular exhibition in the contemporary indigenous art gallery a few years ago, a big sculpture piece by the late Jay Rummell, and more.

They're having some video spots recorded to spotlight the MAM's mission and testimonials as well. 

The exhibition includes many familiar names from years past and has the feel of a “statewide show,” Millin said. Josh DeWeese of Bozeman donated a large decorated jar. Jon Lodge of Billings donated an abstract work whose design is tied to music theory. Beth Lo of Missoula gave a ceramic urn. Corky Clairmont of Pablo gave a raven print.

Asha MacDonald, a popular artist from past auctions, painted a contemplative realist seascape. Kaori Takamura, who showed work at Radius Gallery last year, contributed a characteristically eye-popping mixed media piece rooted in typography and abstraction. 

Artists like April Werle of Missoula are familiar from murals and art shows around town but new to the auction night. Stephanie Dishno, a Missoula-based ceramicist who exhibited massive figurine sculptures at the University of Montana at the start of 2020, donated a bust. 

Some special, non-art items include meals and drink combos from Rumour and the James Bar and a Bare Bait Dance performance in the winners’ yard.

Another new feature draws attention to the plight of musicians, who've had few to no gigging opportunities since venues closed in March. The MAM partnered with the Montana Area Music Association to produce a digital album, “Getting Thru: A Compilation,” drawn from submissions by artists who are from Montana or have ties to the state.

The final selection hasn't been made yet, but 50 groups responded to the open call. The album goes live on Feb. 1 through Bandcamp. For information about it or any of the auction features, head to 


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