JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Yesterday I went to Great Falls in order to attend a presentation by Ed Mitch, an entrepreneur who produced speculator bronzes by Bob Scriver and who has now donated his personal collection of sixty or so of them to the Charles M. Russell Museum. He has also given the museum the rights to an excellent DVD of Bob talking about his career and especially his Blackfeet series of bronzes which are also shown in the video. This DVD is available through Pat Bryan, Museum Shop Coordinator, at the CM Russell Museum, 400 13th St. North, Great Falls, MT 59401. 406-727-8787. Mitch is sharing his profit with the Cut Bank kids through some sort of program. $10 plus throw in another few dollars for packing and postage. I recommend the DVD for libraries and schools.

I was late getting to the meeting of “Charlie’s Top Hands,” which is meant to reward people who promote the museum. This is part of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel activity that I talk about, which is more a matter of enmeshed museums, historical societies, publications, and gallery owners than the artists themselves who are simply “product” in today’s commodified world. Mitch and his friends were from Cut Bank, where a circle of businessmen tried to get some kind of profit out of Bob’s career and Bob tried to do the same with them, mostly by finding a community that would finance and support his museum, which politically could not exist in Browning. The Cut Bank version as disguised as a World Peace Center with Jesus on top. When that effort failed, the C.M Russell Museum fully expected to receive Bob’s estate and were part of the negotiations after his death. In the end, they were excluded -- some say by trickery. The estate of 1,000 bronzes plus much other material like saddles, wagons, paraphenalia and so on, went to the Montana Historical Society which simply stashed it in a warehouse.

Glacier is a county in the NW corner of east slope Montana where the Rocky Mountains intersect with the Canadian border. The county is almost entirely Blackfeet Reservation except for a little piece where Cut Bank is. A piece of the reservation also extends over into Pondera County, where I live in order to escape the jurisdictions of both the reservation and Glacier County. Cut Bank began as an oil boom town more than half a century ago. Valier started as an irrigation-based town, deliberately separate from Cut Bank, which was considered an inappropriate environment for families. Even in 1961 when the wells were mostly pumped dry, the roughneck bars boomed in Cut Bank. (I was taken pub-crawling by a fellow teacher and swore "never again.") The boom was based on a huge underground pool of oil that was mostly under the reservation but accessible from around Cut Bank, esp. after the east boundary was conveniently moved closer to the west.

Now both the reservation and Cut Bank struggle to replace the oil economy with something else. Corruption comes to mind. When the tribe wants to scare Cut Bank, they threaten to become a separate county. This would mean separating the soft underbelly of Cut Bank corruption from the great deadlocked tribal/federal softly corrupt placenta of the reservation and weaken the soft corrupt underbelly of the state in Cut Bank. The tribe, representing a large and growing population of voters, is attracting considerable state support at last, at the expense of Cut Bank except to the degree that tribal members live there, more and more all the time.

Now back to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. Most people envision the art economy as an artist who sells art, either to the public directly or through a gallery. But there are concentric circles that grow up around that nucleus. One is a circle based on selling advice, information and promotion. Another is a circle based on second-level objects. In terms of paintings, those would be prints or what has come to be called “giclees” which are simply high-quality computer printouts. Well-marketed, these products account for most of the millions of dollars accumulated by people like Terpning or Kinkade.

In terms of sculptures, one can achieve second-level products by creating small, easy-to-produce sculptures like belt buckles -- as the speakers last night were saying, “real bronzes for $35” -- or one can go to a different material. Before Bob could afford to have his work cast in bronze, he was casting them in a very hard kind of plaster, which (alas) is quite breakable though resistant to disintegration. (Pristine plaster castings have been found in the Egyptian pyramids.) The plethora of clever and inexpensive little “bronzes” seen everywhere now are plastic mixed with powdered bronze and called “cold cast bronze” or something similar. They are produced by injection in machinery that uses space age technology for molding. They might cost $20 or less and are not necessarily very accurate.

When he had enough reputation, Bob expanded his sculpture business in two ways. One was by collaborating to make monumental bronzes, which satisfied him the most because of his original love of Beaux Arts equestrian monuments and which were financed by the sales of many small replicas. This was made possible by the invention of ceramic shell casting, also developed for space age needs, which was so much easier and cheaper than the Roman block investment process that foundries sprang up on all sides.

Entrepreneurs saw the potential in this kind of many-small-copies technology and Bob saw the advantages (esp. as he aged) of getting away from the constant struggle of casting. He began to sell the original plaster or plastilene models WITH the copyright -- that is, the right to reproduce for sales. The price to the entrepreneur, of course, was much higher because he was selling the potential profits of an entire edition. Sometimes Bob might contract to sell them the figure for a percentage of future profits and some, like Ed, took out their profit by keeping one of each for themselves. The molds for these sculptures belong to the entrepreneurs and were not destroyed at Bob’s death. One can still buy them.

One of the ways of creating value in the art world is the principle of scarcity. Some dealers will not touch editions over twenty or even less. But these entrepreneurs had no sense of the traditional art marketers and put the edition size up into the hundreds. These were small, charming, traditional pieces, sometimes on subjects suggested by the entrepreneur. My objection to them, and something I argued strongly with Bob which was part of the rupture of our marriage, was that they cheapen the prestige of the work. Some of them Bob would have to admit were “modeling” rather than sculpture, esp. after his serious stroke in 1988 which damaged his talent and left him unable to think straight about business.

There’s nothing wrong with these works except that they violate another of the principles of traditional value: that the sculpture is from the “heart and soul” of the artist, inspired, unique. These pieces tend to be along the lines of what some call the “Grand Narrative” of the settlement of the West which so hypnotizes a certain kind of person who ironically is white but idealizes the Plains Indians, esp. the ones who didn’t survive the genocidal Clearances of the Prairie. The more cynical believers in this point of view admire “Deadwood,” while the more idealistic prefer John Wayne and “Gunsmoke.” Bob Scriver accepted that but at the same time did NOT accept that. He was a complex person. The difference is obvious when one considers, say, “Transition” alongside the “Taking of a Scalp.” At least he spared us his interpretation of an Indian baby being born, though other artists did not.

There were probably a half-dozen of these bronze speculators and the pieces that come out of that context are the great majority of what circulates through the Western art auctions, a vital part of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. Ed Mitch came up with the successful idea of a small series of “coffee drinkers,” characters swigging their non-alcoholic standby. Bob always produced a steady stream of small animals which have been sold more by Rex Brenneman than Mitch.

To keep these entrepreneurs interested, Bob used the same seductive strategies he had always used on customers. He invited them into his small private office (which he had to create when his fourth wife failed to keep the studio decent enough to take people out there) where he would show them art work he’d bought, suggesting that they were the only ones to see it, and telling them little tidbits about his history. Sometimes he suddenly had a cowboy accent, which always aggravated me. He’d pretend to be dumb and outmoded, outclassed by his customer. Once in a while he’d take someone out to the ranch and get them to smoke kinnikinnick in his tipi or ride his horse. Hey, it worked on me! Why wouldn’t it work on others?

These small-town whites were wary of Indians, but fascinated at the same time. Bob had grown up with them. (He was the same age as George Kicking Woman. His best grade school buddy was Jim Welch, the father of the writer. The writer was my age.) The entrepreneurs had no way of knowing just how initiated into secret ceremnies Bob really was, but they felt sympathy for him after the well-publicized dive-bombing attacks of the AIMsters, which they thought represented the whole tribe. As soon as Cut Bank people have enough money, they move over to the Flathead Valley to escape the climate and the Indians, but they are proud of the fact that Bob is buried in the Cut Bank cemetery. The only reason he’s buried there is that Lorraine, the fourth wife, ignored his wishes, which were to be buried on his ranch alongside his horse. Burying him there might have diminished the saleability of the ranch (it was bought by a coalition of Nature Conservancy and the tribe) and anyway, Lorraine’s goal was like that of Mamie Russell: prosperity and respectability. She buried him with his white family.

People asked about the Museum of Montana Wildlife in Browning. It was also bought by the tribe and is run by Siyeh, the wholly-owned business subsidiary of the tribe. The main hall, which once housed the full-mounts, was redesigned by a professional museum team and now shows “Leonardo” the baby tyrannosaurus rex. The workshop part is now the Blackfeet Heritage Center, a shop that is a source of crucial reference materials and novelties.

Del Gage, who was at last night’s meetiing with his wife, has been a state legislator. He is not an entrepreneur in the same way as Ed but he is someone I remember from the Sixties. (I don't remember Ed.) The third speaker I only know because he stepped into the shoes of Wilbur Werner, a friend of ours and supporter of Bob for many years. Wilbur’s law practice was based in part on being the county attorney and much of his power around the state was through his brother, a high official among the Catholics. He was also very active in local history organizations. Epstein married his daughter and when Wilbur retired, sat at his desk as county attorney and history buff.

Most of the information he supplied was wrong and I said so, which was the first that some people realized I was there. I was not invited to attend or to speak. Epstein made several remarks about Indians, which I doubt that he recognized as belittling nor his audience either. They have very little consciousness of “politically correct” protocols, only a nervous awareness that they’re Out There. As soon as the speeches were over, he hastened to me to mend fences. I shall have to write to Miss Manners for advice about how to handle lawyers who put their hands all over people in order to show relationship, dominance and ownership.

I led Epstein over to the Winold Reiss painting of “Old Lady Cree Medicine” to impress upon him that Bob’s foundry was competently run by two generations of her descendants. His reaction was “Oh, I have that print” and then, “Migod, is that an original Reiss? Where did they ever get such a valuable thing?” He knows damn well that Reiss’ family gave the whole collection that was hanging in the room to the Russell Museum. He never heard what I said about Carl and David. He went back to organize select members of Charlie’s Hands to go drinking while the rest of us sat with our coffee.

Even the best-hearted among these people (all men except Norma Ashby) who believe they were dear friends of Bob Scriver do not know and would be hard to persuade that they really WERE NOT part of his inner circle. In fact, Bob’s closest friends were either Indians, wives or Ace Powell. Small-town middle-class people were his family’s friends and peers -- not his. He didn’t drink, he didn’t play bridge except in the very earliest years with his second wife, and he always hunted with a wife and a buddy. But to point this out is to spoil sales and to diminish the prestige of donations. I wonder how parallel this is with Charlie Russell. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m pretty persuaded.

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