Show Preview | The Russell

Great Falls, MT

Various locations, March 15-17

C.M. Russell, Indians Herding Horses Across River, watercolor, 21 x 33. Estimate: TBD.

C.M. Russell, Indians Herding Horses Across River, watercolor, 21 x 33. Estimate: TBD.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Often called the Electric City after the numerous hydroelectric dams peppering its landscape, the city of Great Falls, MT, boasts yet another renowned power source—one celebrated by western artists and art lovers alike. Charles Marion Russell, beloved painter and sculptor of the Old West, called Great Falls home, and though he died in 1926, his powerful legacy lives on today in a local tradition known as Western Art Week. One of the week’s crowning events—The Russell Exhibition and Sale—features a series of exhibits and auctions spread out across three locations over three days. Presented by the C.M. Russell Museum, the event culminates on Saturday, March 17, in a major auction of works by today’s premier western artists and by departed masters, including C.M. Russell himself.

It all kicks off on Thursday, March 15, with a ticketed art preview party at the museum, where artists and collectors from far and wide gather to view artworks before they hit the auction block that weekend. Duane Braaten, the museum’s director of art and philanthropy, describes the party as a festive reunion that sets the mood for the entire event. “It really does serve as a homecoming for western art enthusiasts,” he says. “Everyone flocks back to the same city block where Charlie lived, and where his original log-cabin studio still stands today. We celebrate the man and his art a stone’s throw from where many of his masterpieces were created.”

Of course, The Russell also celebrates masterpieces by contemporary western painters and sculptors like Brent Cotton, Josh Elliott, Luke Frazier, Carol Hagan, Greg Kelsey, and Chad Poppleton. On Thursday at 10 a.m., those artists and 16 other members of the elite Russell Skull Society of Artists set up individual suites at the Mansfield Convention Center, where they display their latest artworks for three full days. The top-tier group comprises artists who—in the eyes of the museum—carry on Russell’s legacy through their work, thus helping to keep his western spirit alive.

The festivities continue on Friday morning at 10 a.m. with the Art-in-Action Quick Finish. The crowd favorite brings together 26 artists at the Meadow Lark Country Club, where they spend the next four hours completing in-progress works while interacting with onlookers. “The extended period of time allows for more fully realized pieces,” says Braaten. “When the buzzer rings, those pieces go straight up to the auction stage, and buyers raise their paddles for a piece they saw being created just moments before.” On Friday evening, art lovers head to the convention center for the First Strike auction. There, bidders vie for works by 92 established contemporary artists such as Michael Blessing, Joe Netherwood, and Ron Ukrainetz. Billed as the more casual of the weekend’s two main auctions, the lively affair also showcases wearable arts and fine-art furniture.

Saturday morning brings an enlightening Educational Symposium in the convention center’s Mansfield Missouri Room. Free and open to the public, the seminar provides an exclusive preview of the museum’s summer exhibition, which examines the women in Russell’s life and how they influenced his portrayals of women in his art. The high point of the weekend gets underway at the convention center on Saturday evening, when 122 contemporary artworks and 42 significant historic pieces are up for sale in a competitive bidding atmosphere, including works by Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), and Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953). Braaten is particularly excited about the range of original Russell artworks on the auction block this year. During his lifetime, Russell created an estimated 4,000 works in oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and bronze. Works in all of these mediums are up for bid on Saturday night, including a major oil titled BUFFALO HUNT (NO. 7), which is estimated to fetch up to $1,750,000. “It’s a fun review of Charlie’s talents across numerous media, and we’re able to show off how great he was at each and every one of them,” says Braaten. “He was a Renaissance man of his time—he could do it all.”

Art sales help generate critical funding for the museum’s annual operating budget, and thus, for those who value the museum’s collection of art and artifacts associated with Russell’s life and work, their contributions during the fundraiser can be especially meaningful. “I think the artists and collectors who flock to our town each year appreciate the fact that their consignments and purchases go to help the museum,” says Braaten. “We sure think the world of old Charlie. The Russell is a celebration in honor of the man who brings us all together and keeps the West alive. It’s a truly authentic western experience, and that’s the reason folks keep coming back year after year.”

As if western art enthusiasts needed any additional enticement to attend, The Russell is celebrating its golden anniversary this year. “With this being the 50th auction to benefit the museum, we have some exciting things up our sleeves to really make a splash,” says Braaten. “Beyond the artwork, which is at a very high level again this year, we’re stepping up the events to make it an experience not to be missed.” —Kim Agricola

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This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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