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."


Monday, August 31, 2009


The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat
by Eugene Field

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t'other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn't there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)

The gingham dog went " Bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "Me-ow!"
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney place
Up with it hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I'm only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed,"Oh dear! What shall we do!"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw-
And oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don't fancy I exaggerate!
I got my news from the Chinese plate!)

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole the pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock, it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)

I reprint the entire poem in case there are young ‘uns who don’t know it. My Prot Irish grandfather used to quote it. It seems apt in a town (Great Falls) with an abundance of museums elbowing each other for shelf space among the precious objects. Many of us have been watching this for decades as the stakes grew higher and the reputation grew wider. Players have changed, sometimes through death and sometimes through a growing number of national players. If Norma Ashby ever writes the true story of these two “animals,” it will be a blockbuster. She took notes, I’m sure.

The most obvious bone of contention was between the local Ad Club and the increasingly national nature of the board and Auction attenders. Most local Montanans pay no attention to what goes on outside the state, so they may not have been aware that “Western art” has been growing into a gargantua, many dealers and endowed institutions in a sprawling network around the whole continent, all ambitious and mostly funded by millionaire aficionadoes of the West who identified with both the cowboys and the oil millionaires at the fulcrum of frontier. Each has ambitious administrators who are often very well paid, but there are far fewer actual art experts and curators specifically trained to address Western art. Most people judged art according to the price it would command (at auction maybe) and the prestige it conferred.

These are the people who wanted to rent the museum premises for cocktail parties and weddings. It was the art experts who cringed to see smoke and alcohol-fueled behavior near their precious collections. Think of the damage to the carpets! But it helped the endowment greatly. Until many aficionadoes began to age out of the picture. Now the market for Western art is shrinking.

The CMR Museum tried to solve the schism by forming two boards: one a local board of concerned and influential Montanans and the other a national board of big money folks. The Blackfeet tribe does the same thing: a board of elders and a board of actual council members. Let the elders speak their good words, just what everyone wants to hear, and then let the council members quietly meet, maybe through the windows of their pickups. When I was at seminary, the board of trustees of the seminary was supposed to include one student, which was intended to keep them from rioting or picketing. I was that student one year and I did my best to rock the boat. The students was expected to show how dignified and adult they were by representing everything in the kindest and most helpful tones. But I was forty and on the prod. I drew wild cartoons and declared a crisis.

That’s when I found out the truth about boards (and Congress and any other body of big shots). I had ruined my reputation and chances for a big time church by making trouble. (It didn’t really matter as I only wanted to return to Montana anyway.) It was revealed to me that there were only about four trustees (all older men with big churches) who quietly made all the decisions after everyone had gone home. Both the CMR Museum and the Ad Club are no different. That’s where the roots of the split really are. Norma Ashby knows, though she’s not one of them. Bob Scriver, on the Montana honorary board, tried to raise an alarm and was shut out. Many small people know.

There is another relevant literary tale, a novel by Mary Kay Zuravleff called “The Bowl Is Already Broken.” She used her knowledge of the Smithsonian to create this much-praised tale of museum politics that spirals around a priceless porcelain bowl, dropped and shattered. Though the story winds in and out of all sorts of worldly pressures, the end is philosophical: as soon as anything exists, it will end. That’s true for all objects, for humans, and for mountain ranges. Even the continents and even the planet. The timing and manner of the end might be unfortunate, but nothing is eternal except eternity.

In the fifty years since the auction was founded, partly as a convenient way to launder art acquired by hook or crook, it has been marbled with dubious practices as well as celebrated as a Great Falls triumph. But what is constantly overlooked is the growing-but-stretched bubble of Western art value that fuels auction profits and, beyond that, a world culture shift that asks “what IS a museum?” “What IS value?” Beginning with the early Pope’s cabinet of priceless treasures, all the way up to the Virginia rec room with a Russell over the fireplace, questions at this level have not been asked or answered.

Is there anything more at stake than a boy’s collection of treasures: pretty rocks, tin soldiers, and the collar off a pet dog that died long ago? It’s only a matter of time before the Chinese plate and the old Dutch clock begin to talk.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Beside me is a foot-high stack of ‘zines that I’m supposed to sort and file as archives. But I’m running out of room and now there are two new magazines to consider. I’ve already got a backlog of Art of the West and Southwest Art as well as Wildlife Art. These have been engines of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel for years now, though they’re a little different from each other.

Art of the West is bi-monthly and comes from Minnetonka, MINN, where the co-Publishers, Allan J. Duerr and Thomas F. Teirney, and the editor, Vicki Stavig, have their offices. But Bill Frazier, who is a Big Timber attorney specializing in art issues, is a contributing writer. He writes a back page noting scams and issues that have less to do with aesthetic questions than consumer affairs. Interestingly, the consumer in question is often the artist! Fraser was recently the head of the Montana Arts Council which also works for the benefit of artists.

One of the major aspects of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel is the print market, which Bill Frazier recommends against, saying that artists occasionally become convinced -- often through the persuasions of an optimistic brother-in-law trying to help out -- that getting prints made of the more popular paintings will be a major economic breakthrough. But without contacts, a marketing plan, and other machinery of the industry, the artist merely ends up with boxes of prints in the garage, gradually wrinkling in the damp. My own bias is a little different: I see the reproduction market as the source of much of the industrializing, the coarsening if you like, of mass producing (the whole point of industrialization) and moral weakening of art. Think Thomas Kinkade. But then I’m an idealist and a romantic who thinks art should be “pure,” approaching religion. The print industry people, who have made Terpning a wealthy and rather callous man, try to keep that sort of fancy talk while all the time cranking out “limited editions” that are anything but -- merely “print runs.”

Art of the West was started iin 1987. They do self-publishing, book-binding, and other related technologies, including print-making so it is rather surprising that Frazier takes a dour point of view.

Southwest Art is more broad-based in terms of genre and also in terms of geography: partly in San Francisco, partly in Florida, partly in Colorado, and with an editor, Susan Freilicher, of unspecified location. This mag is owned by Cruz Bay Publishing Co. which is owned by Active Interest Media. Inc. (“Log home dwelling vegetarian karate adepts,” according to Yahoo. 13.80 M in revenue in 2006 with 99 employees. Doesn’t say whether the head guy, Efrem Zimbalist III -- “Skip” if you know him personally -- is counted in that number. The official contact is in California.)

SWA is much more open to abstract art and Native American art (which are sometimes the same thing), but if you follow these 'zines you will see the same ads for the same galleries and auctions over and over. The editorial copy will support those ads so that you will see the same paintings and sculptures over and over, read the same names of the same artists again and again, until they’re far more familiar than the content of the art history course you took in college. Yet the content rarely says a lot that’s enlightening. NEVER anything that is critical. Everyone is the greatest.

American Art Review is out of Kansas and casts a much wider net in terms of subject matter, though it’s all representational. The articles themselves are written by professional academically trained curators and directors, which is quite different from the two ‘zines above. They tend to be formal and historical as well as analytical. They are attached to specific institutions, generally exploring one exhibit.

Wildlife Art is published by “Pothole Publications” based in California. You can buy a business profile for thirty bucks. (I won’t.) It overlaps a good bit with the “cowboy” subject matter but it is a distinct genre and I’ll come back to it in a later post. It’s a dollar less, a little more naive, a little thinner in size.

So now back to the newer ‘zines. Western Art Collector is a frank guide to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. Same familiar ads, same subject matter, but now more than ever like a race horse guide. What auctions are coming, what artists are promising, and -- most important -- constant attention to the prices: the estimated worth, the auction total, the rate of increase over the years of an artist’s career. Lots of “society” photos of customers and dealers partying in their fancy dress, champagne glasses in hand as they celebrate snatching a “masterpiece” from the jaws of some other white-haired matron who offered them five figure checks to give it up because it is her “heart’s desire.”

This ‘zine comes from Scottsdale, AZ, where they say the streets are lined with Industrial Cowboy Art Galleries, and it is under the umbrella of International Art Publishing, or if you prefer, Libri dell'editore. (Spaghetti Western Art, perhaps?) It’s seven bucks and monthly. You can get it online ten days ahead of the poor schmucks who have to wait for the mail or ride their horse a hundred miles to a newsstand. There’s an interesting emphasis on tourism: what to see when you travel to participate in the auction events, which have settled into seminars, quick draws, banquets and awards. Friendship circles charter a plane to fly out West.

But if you OWN your own jet, the high end mag you want is Western Art & Architecture, from Cowboy to Contemporary which is an eight dollar mag (ten in Canada -- they’re aren’t keeping up with the exchange rate) and has a lot of overlap with the Bozeman-based Big Sky Journal. (Though it’s an inch taller and a quarter-inch wider -- more white in the layouts.) BSJ is seasonal and WA&A also appears to be quarterly. Same editor and publisher. Ads are an intermix of the Big Sky Journal architecture and real estate with the usual galleries as the other Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel ads. But this publication is trying to step away from the Industrial Mass-Produced style into something more sophisticated. The writers are from the House & Garden-type high-end shelter mags. (H&G has just folded.) More Taos here, elegant art-centered hotels, timber-and-boulder houses mixed with glass-and-steel houses. An interesting close relationship with the Thomas Nygard Galleries in Bozeman.

What will happen next? I’m fascinated.


Wilfred P Schoenberg, S.J., never got no respect though he was a Jesuit which showed he was not stupid and was part of a long tradition of dealing with Native Americans. However, he was no match for a determined Blackfeet woman, Mae Williamson (Many Victories, a name she bestowed on Barbara Stanwyck when the latter was on the rez filming “Cattle Queen of Montana.”) Here’s a story that is NOT in Schoenberg’s book, “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC.” (Museum of Native American Culture)

Schoenberg had a vision for a museum next to Gonzaga University and covered the country begging and leveraging donations, either of objects themselves or for donors, subsidizers, benefactors, etc. He heard that Mae Williamson had an exquisite elk-tooth-decorated traditional dress. When he came to Browning, Montana, in search of it, he stopped at the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife where he saw a sculpture called “Transition,” which depicted Mae -- who was an official interpreter as well as being the first female member of the Blackfeet Tribal Council back in the Thirties -- standing in the middle with one hand on Chewing Black Bone, ancient blind warrior, and the other on a school boy. It’s a very fine piece and Schoenberg felt he just had to have it. He wanted a bronze, $3500, and soon realized that Bob Scriver had NO intention whatsoever of giving a casting to any itinerant priest intent on creating a competing museum, though it would be in Spokane. But at Mae’s house he saw a casting of “Transition” and expressed desperate interest in both that and the dress. She put him off. He went home to search for money.

In those days Bob always gave his models a hydrocal casting of the piece for which they posed. Hydrocal ™ is a very hard form of plaster which sets up to be something like china, but is never fired in an oven. It is susceptible to shattering and chipping, but if that doesn’t happen, hydrocal should last indefinitely: forever. They were finished to look like bronzes and sold for 10% of the price of a bronze: $350. This was how Bob got started before he could afford to cast bronzes. Local people and George Montgomery bought hydrocal castings made by Bob himself.

At this point Mae brought into the shop her casting of “Transition,” complaining that it had a few unsightly chips in it where the white hydrocal showed through and would Bob fix those places? It only took a few moments to repair the damage and Mae took her casting home. When Schoenberg showed up again, hoping for the best, Mae sold him her hydrocal for $2000, which the Father thought was a wonderful bargain. Until he got it back to Spokane, went to unload it from the car and dropped it. Then he was probably more shattered than the sculpture, esp. since he had twisted the arm of some donor for the $2,000 who was shortly coming to view it.

The chances of getting the money back from Mae were nil. In the first place she was in residence on the reservation and had put her land and house back into trust with the US Government. In the second place, he had never asked what the sculpture was made of though he should have realized it if he’d had any background in art. In the third place she’d already spent the money on a splendid coffin for her newly deceased husband -- it had a tooled leather cover lining that said “Empty Saddles.”

At an early point in her life Mae had been married to a white lawyer and ran rather a splendid household by local standards. (She was Gary Schildt’s grandmother and had a hand in raising him.) When Bob and I married, her gifts to us included a purple Hudson’s Bay blanket created to honor Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her coronation. It’s in the artifact book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains,” so it ought to be in the collection of the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton now.

I have no idea where the elktooth gown went. Schoenberg managed to ace out the Buffalo Bill Historical Society for the entire Sherburne Collection of artifacts -- a far more splendid, complete and historic collection than the Scriver Collection that raised such a furor. It was transferred to MONAC with no publicity at all, despite Eula Sherburne’s daughter Faith objecting even as she wrote an expensive insurance policy for the transfer, which Father S. resented. Not the insurance, the cost. Eula was the wife of J.L. Sherburne, the second generation trader who had a hand in almost everything financial around the reservation, quite unlike his father, J.H. Sherburne who was the original owner of the collection.

When MONAC went belly up, the collection, along with everything else, went to Cheney-Cowles, a second Spokane museum, and from there it has wandered in de-accessioned bits throughout the world. A Blackfeet man who tried to trace as much as he could said he located one piece in a collection in Chile. The inventory listed it as “a duplicate.” What Father Schoenberg achieved, in essence, was to create a depot for fine things where wheeler-dealers could find them. He is deceased. I hope Saint Peter has him by the nape of the neck and is forcing him to look.

Father S. reports that his health was bad his whole life -- terrible headaches coming from a drive to overachieve, weak lungs, etc. -- and the book mixes accounts of terrible bouts of vomiting with marathon narrow escapes in millenial storms driven through in faulty old cars -- regular Oregon Trail stuff, easily rivaling the exploits of Father DeSmet if not his achievement. There is constant noting of his poverty, the lack of heat where he worked, the various injustices and misunderstandings imposed by his superiors. He was evidently a veritable Rodney Dangerfield of Jesuits.

But oddly, the foreword, written by Van Kirke Nelson and Paul Masa, appeals to a quote in a letter from Charlie Russell to the Methodist Brother Van, who didn’t even have a second-hand car but walked everywhere. “Saints and Sinners were gathered there that night.” I didn’t identify any known saints. Plenty of sinners. These years were the beginnings of the Flathead Valley Art Mafia, a subsidiary of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. A little cadre of physician opportunists stripped several artists. Tom Sander paid the highest price: his wife, his house and his son, now attached to Dr. Vranish.

The trouble with Father Schoenberg, and many another, was that he knew nothing about art except what he was told by wheeler-dealers, whom he believed because they flattered him. Fortunes were made, but not by MONAC.

REX BRENEMAN 1918 - 2008

Today I received word from Iola Breneman that Rex, her beloved husband, has passed away after a long struggle with the consequences of strokes. For those who didn’t know Rex, I’ll say that I’m typing out the obituary here because he represents a “type” of Montanan created by the sequence of Depression and War and also that he was the kind of person who loved “cowboy art” for its own sake.

Rex Eugene Breneman, long-time resident of Coram, passed away on March 14, 2008, at the Brendan House in Kalispell.

Rex was born in Salina, Kansas, on August 21, 1918, to Arthur and Pearl (Richards) Breneman. The youngest of three children, he grew up in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and graduated from the eighth grade. During the Depression, he left home seeking work and opportunity. Rex laughed and claimed he had ridden 40,000 miles on freight trains before he was 21.

In April of 1941 Rex enlisted in the US Army. He first served in Quartermasters as a cook and baker. At the start of WWII he desired to join the US Army Air Corps and applied to enter as a cadet. Having only an eight grade education, Rex was told he could not pass the cadet school entry test. This challenged him to read the dictionary, encyclopedia, almanac, and other books. Rex succeeded in entering the cadet school. Upon graduation he was awarded the rank of first lieutenant, navigator and bombardier. He flew more than 70 missions in the South Pacific and Korea. During this time he was awarded 13 medals, some with oak leaf clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He never elaborated on any of them.

In October of 1941 he married Rosemary Hanley and they had a daughter, Rexine Rose. This war-time marriage ended in divorce.

Following WWII, Rex settled in the Centennial Valley of Monida, MT., where he worked and trapped at the Sam and Lyz Breneman ranch. This was a special time for him.

During the construction of the Hungry Horse Dam, he moved to Coram and built a service station, “Breneman’s Union,” later called “Coram Truck Stop.” This work was interrupted when, as a reserve officer, Rex was called back to military service for the Korean conflict. After the Korean War, Rex came back to Coram to run his truck stop.

He met and courted Iola Soderstrom of Kalispell. Rex built a home near Coram for Iola and her daughter, Rhonda. Rex and Iola were married on Jan. 23, 1960, in Libby. They worked side-by-side at the Coram station -- catering to loggers, truckers and the local community. In 1968, they sold the business to the Union Oil distributors.

Rex became friends with two artists, Ace Powell and Bob Scriver, which led to his love for western art and western Americana. He enjoyed the challenges of swapping and trading art and land. He was known for his knowledge of art and history and his character of honesty, generosity, dependability and independence. He authored the book, “Ace Powell in Bronze.”

With his passing, Rex took with him a huge library of knowledge. Life for him was a continual education. From the challenge of self-education, enabling him to enter and complete the Army Air Corps Cadet school, Rex realized the rewards of reading. He did not read fiction but was an avid reader of nonfiction and particularly history until his death. He also loved to fly fish, picnic and bird hunt. Rex was always ready for a cribbage game and his skill was a challenge to all opponents.

Our lives are made up of bits and pieces of those around us. Rex was a unique person and many hold special memories of him. He never shied away from hard work and strong opinions. One thing for sure, you could always depend on him to be “Rex.”

Rex was preceded in death by his parents; his brother, Louis Breneman; his brother-in-law Art Johnson; his mother-in-law, Ruth Guinard, and his granddaughter, LeAnna Bunch.

Rex is survived by his beloved wife, partner and constant companion, Iola, of Coram; two daughters, Rexine Howell and husband Bill of Texas and Rhonda Bell and husband John of Oregon; sister Nedra Johnson and family in Nebraska; sister-in-law Pauline Breneman and family in Kansas; five grandchildren, Lawrence Howell, BeLinda Shirley; KaSandra Verett and husband Don of Texas; Jacob Bell and wife Jaime of Colorado; Clinton Bell and wife Christina of Washington; six great-grandchildren: Julia and Jessica Burich; Byron and Jacob Verett; and Zane and Henry Shirley of Texas. He is also survived by sister-in-law Edna Carter, husband Ron and niece Ruth Skaggs of Kalispell; nephew Don Tomfohr, wife Jan and their families in Oregon; and nephew Cory Baker.

There will be no services at this time. The family will gather this summer.

I’m here to say that Rex really was as he is described in the obit above. The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel auctions everywhere are full of “Rex’s Bull” and “Iola’s gopher,” among the bronzes commissioned by them from Bob Scriver. They also bought many of the big rodeo pieces and bequeathed them to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. & and will lead you to the Breneman’s nephew’s websites about the Brenemans and their collections.

I sent my biography of Bob Scriver (“Bronze Inside & Out”) to Rex and Iola just in time for him to read it before he died. He said I did a good job and one that needed to be done. From Rex that’s high praise. He was quite a guy.


Every year the School of Journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula does a newspaper insert containing stories about Montana Indian reservations. In previous years I’ve responded with letters -- this is the first time I’ve been asked for ideas beforehand. My reporter is someone named Vicki.

Where to start? First, Bob Scriver never did "Indian art" and was not part of that world. His museum was about animals though he often made sculpture about Blackfeet as well as animals, family members, and commissioned portrait busts. He employed maybe four or five Blackfeet families over decades, but they didn't do "Indian art." They helped with the taxidermy and the sculpture, both, as well as building and maintaining the ranch over towards the Rockies. Another group was paid to pose for sculpture. Bob always meant his museum to complement the Museum of the Plains Indian, not to challenge it.

It may surprise some that the categories of "Indian art" and "Cowboy art" are quite distinct with customer bases that are often quite different. “Indian art” is often abstract and always based in the Southwest, maybe in Santa Fe where there is a school that gathers young people. “Cowboy art” as it exists in Montana is dominated by the example of Charlie Russell, who was always realistic and mostly self-daught.

BUT Bob was raised among the Blackfeet (born in the house where Leland Ground now runs EagleCalf Medical Supplies, next to Cuts Wood School.) Most of the people he knew were Blackfeet and he was always friends with Claude Schaffer, Tom and Alice Kehoe, John Ewers, and Raymon Gonyea, the anthropologists at the Museum of the Plains Indian. (Gonyea is Indian, but not Blackfeet. He's now at the Eiteljorg.)

In Browning the Museum of the Plains Indian was ALWAYS the main museum from the time it was formed in the 1940's. It was seriously damaged in the Big Flood of 1965 and so were many of the materials stored in the basement which was flooded. The damage has never really been addressed and this information is suppressed. The displays were never changed and were not originally meant to be: they were supposed to be a “library” for craft workers and one wing held the work room. That room was run for many years by Jackie Parsons, now the head of the Montana Arts Council. She is Blackfeet. It’s a bit of a mystery why that system came apart.

At the height of the “Red Power” movement when anthropologists were no longer directing operations, all the files in the archives that had to do with white people were taken to the dump. That included white artists like Russell. Not long ago a Ph.D. candidate went with her professor to visit the library but was prevented from entering because she was Blackfeet. The white professor was admitted. It was another of those Simple Simon reversals that reservations are prone to perform, doing the opposite of something that got them in trouble but without understanding why. The Museum is owned by the Craft Board, which is a subsidiary of the BIA. They are much less powerful now and largely unfunded. They would like to give the museum to the Tribe, which cannot afford to maintain it.

Another blunder was an “upgrading” of some of the exhibited materials, mainly the clothing. In doing cleaning, repair, and replacement, the value of antiquity was lost. But this sort of issue is not a matter for tourists to think about. They probably didn’t know the difference. The local people who did the work thought they looked better and, of course, they made a little money.

The feeling is that tourists might not be stopping in Browning because Bob is gone and his museum has been obliterated, now existing as the Blackfeet Heritage Center. I’m not sure how many of Bob’s art customers even came to Browning. Certainly, they were not tourists if they already knew about Bob’s work. “Tourists” were people who happened by and came in out of curiosity. Once they walked through the front door, we worked very hard to get them to buy an admission to the museum. Many turned on their heel and left. Few could have afforded a bronze if they had wanted to.

The suggestion was made that Bob’s bronze customers were famous people who came from Europe because they loved Indians, but I don’t think so. Scriver customers mostly belonged to the people served by the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, a network of auctions, institutions, and galleries -- people who swarm the CM Russell Auction every March. Very few Indians attend or participate in that Auction. Many of Bob’s customers were Montana folks and almost all were white and American. America patriotism, especially for Republicans, links far more strongly to “cowboy art” than to Indians, unless the subject is the Prairie Clearances and the resulting genocide by cavalry, where some white people weirdly identify with the victims AND the soldiers.

Indians have made it a point to preserve their own identities and to protest against governmental domination. It is said that many Europeans, particularly Germans, come to Browning for the culture and art. The Germans and French are very aware of the NA American genocide and still insist on the idea of the Vanishing Indian, though they’ve stopped vanishing! Euros want relics, they want 19th century sights (tipi villages), and so on. Darrell Norman’s operation capitalizes on that. His wife is German. Adolph Hungry Wolf actually LIVES that.

Vicki says that a survey in 1995 on behalf of the Montana Arts Council verified over 300 traditional artists practicing beautiful work on the Blackfeet reservation. She asks, “Why isn't it a draw for economic development?” It’s very hard to interface between producers and consumers because the producers tend to be free-lance individuals working out of their homes, when they have time, an idea and the right materials. The consumers come through during a ten week period in summer and there is no real “marketplace.” Producers tend to need money as they go, so they don’t stockpile for the summer.

But it’s possible to follow the Pow-wow circuit, which is a bigger market and one that grows constantly as more NA people themselves become prosperous enough to be good customers. Artists who are good enough to go to the annual Santa Fe annual fair can really clean up.

Also, people really don’t know how to evaluate Indian work and tend to buy “trinkets,” that is, beaded barrettes and the like. If people do major, sophisticated, expensive artifacts, they get a lot more money, but have to find some other way to pay the bills in between. Those who appreciate high-end authentic artifact reproductions are not usually tourists but are more likely to work through brokers. Responding to the need for small popular items, a class of pan-tribal objects has developed, like dream-catchers or rearview mirror fetishes that include feathers and crystals. The big seller at this spring’s Indian Art Show, a separate and very nice art show at the Civic Center during the Russell Auction, was dream catchers with a wee basketball at the center!

Vicki bravely asks a painful question: “Are people afraid to stop on a reservation?” The answer is also painful: people are always afraid to stop. This was especially true when there was polio on the reservation in the Fifties (before I came) and after Wounded Knee II when the image of Indians changed drastically. I’m not afraid of street “winoes” because I know most of them (might’ve been their English teacher!) but tourists can’t tell. Anyway, they can see Glacier Park in the distance. The highway looks a little tough these days. No white money comes in from outside because there are no particular advantages for white merchants-- sometimes penalties. There is a LOT of risky traffic on the main streets, esp. in summer, because local people spend so much time cruising. Gas prices may fix that.

Indians want two mutually exclusive things at once: they want everyone to come around and love them and celebrate them, but they also want to appear potent and connected to the 19th century warrior culture. If you look at Robert Hall’s “Rez Dogs” video (created in Missoula as part of a project), you’ll see the full spectrum from the spitting contempt of the first wino to the expansive hospitality of the one at the end. (It might still be on YouTube.)

The focus gets lost. First it’s artifacts, then it’s modern art, then it’s dinosaurs, then it’s a casino, then it’s environmental studies. As leadership shifts around and the media change the subject, everyone hares off to the next idea instead of concentrating on one thing until it works. Successes like the Scriver Studio or Darrell Norman’s camp and gallery, or the Blackfeet Trading Post happen because of a near monomania over a period of years, maybe decades. Too many people want instant results. They have a deep conviction that there is a magic answer and a terrible vulnerability to the possibility that they just aren’t good enough. What wins is a lot of preparation, steady work at the project, and the ability to congratulate oneself over small but real successes.


I’ve been known to refer to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, by which I mean the loose network of galleries, institutions, dealers, slick magazines, auctions and, of course, actual cowboy artists who turn out an avalanche of work, not always about cowboys but always in the West. Landscape art, Native American art, coastal art (both California and Pacific Northwest) tend to separate themselves out. But cowboy and Indian artifacts are often associated, if only because the artists themselves buy them to use in paintings. The other thing the artists buy, without talking about it, is old-time glass negatives of authentic scenes in the West taken by roving photographers with dark rooms in converted wagons. Often these early photos are copied exactly, but not attributed.

What makes dealers in Western art a “cartel”? This is from Wikipedia: A cartel is a formal (explicit) agreement among firms. Cartels usually occur in an oligopolistic industry, where there are a small number of sellers and usually involve homogeneous products. Cartel members may agree on such matters as price fixing, total industry output, market shares, allocation of customers, allocation of territories, bid rigging, establishment of common sales agencies, and the division of profits or combination of these. The aim of such collusion is to increase individual member's profits by reducing competition. Competition laws forbid cartels. Identifying and breaking up cartels is an important part of the competition policy in most countries, although proving the existence of a cartel is rarely easy, as firms are usually not so careless as to put agreements to collude on paper.

It seems easy to understand that even so innocent an organization as the Cowboy Artists of America is a kind of cartel -- an ARTel, if you like. People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776. By grouping themselves, and particularly by affiliating with the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, an affiliation that broke when Dean Krakel began to try to direct the group, the CAA became a strong advantage. Belonging to this group gave a cowboy artist assurance of first class exhibits, friendships with people who had been in the business a long time, access to the A-list of customers and a certain floor on their prices. The original purpose was friendship and support, but those original founders are all dead now.

Historical museums, which often include art and paraphenalia collections, also form a loose network of professionals who guide their boards to decisions about acquisition and de-accessing -- that is, the buying and selling of materials. Even art boards are notoriously naive and historical society boards are usually drawn from lay people with no formal background in history. Since professional directors “curate” each other’s collections and write books about them, the circle becomes rather tight, even tighter when they control key publishers. Most ordinary collectors are blithely unaware of such arrangements, though key people are part of the cartel. They cannot be named without tripping a lawsuit.

Outside the official or covert circle (since cartels are not legally any more respectable than predatory money-lending) is another shadow group, MUCH more secretive, not a cartel but in symbiosis with them. At one time they were “boot-leggers,” a term which refers to what is sold out of the “boot” or trunk of a car -- often liquor, but sometimes other illicit or semi-respectable materials: art that MIGHT be by Charlie Russell, Indian artifacts that were PROBABLY acquired by legal means, old-time paraphenalia sucked up from tiny municipal museums or private collections.

In the Sixties they stopped at the Scriver Studio all the time, hoping for a little action. Sometimes Bob traded something -- he was a fur buyer and the whole business of dickering over price appealed to him. He particularly liked to trade sculpture for paraphenalia. Ace Powell always had something to trade. A few of these roving dealers were relatively honest, many were occasionally honest, and some liked making a profit off someone unawares more than anything else. They were usually male, sometimes gay which gave them a motive for staying on the move, and shuttled far and wide around the West. Because there was no Internet yet, they were human eBays, driving on cheap gas and living in cheap hotels. The advantage was that people didn’t find out what they’d really acquired or lost until quite a while later when maybe a more convincing and certified expert stopped through.

In recent years a few of these people have been caught. John Flaherty, who sold Bob the gun collections and antique mountie uniform collection which were included in the so-called “million-dollar Scriver artifact collection”, blundered when he tried to sell Sun Dance Natoas headdresses to the grandsons of the proper owners, who recognized them, and he compounded the error because he had transported a boy across the Canadian border for purposes hard to explain. He was arrested on re-entry to the US and I’m told he died in jail.

This is not unlike the LA gallery that tried to sell a Seltzer painting as a Russell original and was tripped up when Seltzer’s grandson identified it properly, documenting with his archives. Brazenly, they tried to force the grandson, also an artist, to identify the painting incorrectly by suing him for the loss of value. The difference was exactly a zero added to the price -- from $10,000 to $100,000. The painting had been sold and resold several times between unknown parties, one of whom had neatly cut off the bottom of the painting containing Seltzer’s signature.

The most recent coyote is James Lyman Brubaker who has pled guilty in federal court. He is in jail until September 15, when he will be sentenced. His crime was quite literally “cutting edge.” He was razoring historical maps and illustrations out of valuable books in libraries and selling them on eBay, the modern way to bootleg. “BOOKlegging,” you might say. But he is well-known around the Blackfeet as someone to whom one can fence or sell dubiously acquired artifacts, some of which were found in his home in Great Falls.

There are more of these shadow coyotes out there, but they are aging. When the Russell Auction happens in March, another motel sponsors rooms where many of these folks quietly sell both what is spread out on desks and beds and what is perhaps still in a suitcase until the buyer is confirmed as discrete. Many collectors now find it easier to cruise auctions on the Internet through digital catalogues and make their bids via telephone or text messaging. Occasionally, I get requests from purchasers to visit a pre-auction art work and give an opinion about its authenticity, since the actual buyer can’t see the physical object well-enough in the catalogue. Not even the back of a painting, which is often revelatory.

It’s a frontier phenomenon. The West has always been pawnshop heaven, a part of the world where people spend big when they have money, and take a loss when they have to -- which happens rather often in the West. It’s part of the on-going gambling game, the big Stick Game or Hand Game that Native peoples have always played. (Poker was more popular in cowboy saloons.) But librarians don’t like it one bit and historians shouldn’t either.



I have no real academic art training, so in this field I’d have to be classified as an autodidact or amateur -- maybe both. If, as my dictionary suggests, being an aficionado means being an “avid follower or fan, as of a sport or activity, a devotee,” then I’m not an aficionado though many Scriver customers were exactly that. They didn’t look at the actual work so much as they looked at the other collectors and the value of what they collected. Usually aficionados stick to one genre or category -- in this case it was Western art.

For a long time Western art was below the radar, not quite “real” art -- for kids and the naive. This seems to be because from the time the Parisian “Roman block casting” (think Rodin) replaced marble as the monumental media of choice, Paris naturally was the center of that particular medium. The “Beau Arts” school of painting and sculpture was the pinnacle of sophistication and desirability.

Then it was displaced when war brought so many sophisticated and experimenting “modern” artists to New York City where Abstract Expressionism and other vigorous but less accessible schools of work came to dominate the media. “Real” art was Picasso and Pollock.

The Sculpture Review, which is published by the National Sculpture Society, posted itself on the boundary to defend representational art throughout human history and they’ve done an exemplary job. Bob Scriver was burstingly proud of being a member of the Society. It’s the one magazine I make sure to subscribe to when I’m out of reach of libraries that carry it. Here’s the newest issue.

Each issue has a theme, which for this one is restoration, cleaning, reconstruction and even copying in the interest of recapturing the original. The story keys off the Elgin Marbles, the friezes around the eaves of the Parthenon, shattered but recovered and sort of jigsawed back together in a new museum next to the actual Parthenon in a frame that preserves the gaps as well as the fragments. In another famous example, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue was in 118 pieces which were re-situated where they ought to be and then a replica was made that restored the missing parts according to the best guesses. Only one wing survived, so it was copied in obverse for the second wing. The head was lost.

The latest trick in bronze cleaning and restoration, just in time to save some of the Beau Arts bronze monuments -- so familiar and dear to so many of us -- is lasers to remove corrosion. I argue that these are the true precursors of “Western” art, celebrating brave men and valiant horses in action. It’s the context that I tried to recapture for Bob Scriver’s work, though his subject matter was usually local to Blackfeet country.

This is a detail from “The Virginia State Memorial” by Frederick William Sievers (1872-1966) . It’s a figure from action clusters at the bottom of the forty foot column that supports a serene officer on his horse. The monument is at Gettysburg. Sievers was educated at the Academie Julian in Paris, part of the Beaux Arts context. What I love about Sculpture Review is that you’re never in doubt about who the sculptor was, so you can do a bit of research. I’d love to find out who his model was. It seems to be the same man most of the time and he has a truly noble face.

What I love most about Sievers’ work is a quality hard to describe: just enough evidence of the clay work -- esp. that brass serrated loop tool or the curled steel hook in several sizes that pares away clay, leaving subtle tooth lines that somehow make the sculpture realer than real -- something like fine brushwork in a painting by Sargent. With Rodin it was his finger marks in long lines clear enough to imagine the sculptor’s strong hands. For me, one of the best parts of fine sculpture is the strong kinesthetic empathy I can feel, as though I had my hands on the clay myself. Look at the clothing and hair, how real they are and yet “artistic.” No need to make a choice between the two qualities.

But I started out to talk about this issue of Sculpture Review. I love it in part because I’m a snob and like knowing about these fine public bronzes that no one “collects.” Of course, all snobs love anything Parisian and I value the French influence on America, which is why I love Jefferson (among other reasons).

I also like this issue because I understand the “hands on” things about bronze like patining or molding or, indeed, restoration. Modern Art Foundry in New York City, which was Bob’s main foundry other than his own, was one of the leaders in alerting the public to the danger threatening these hundred year and two hundred year old works, esp. in these times of acid rain.

In short, my snob’s refuge from the aficionado-overrun Western art world has always been the National Sculpture Society and Sculpture Review. Therefore it was a shock to open this issue and find a Vogue or Vanity Fair-style whole-page snaphot layout featuring a bunch of aficionados and collectors Western Art-style! An invasion from the pop mags called “Southwest Art” and “Art of the West”!!?? I mean, they’re fine and I read them, but when I was with Bob, cowboy artists were sort of an oxymoron. Now they’ve evidently not just joined the mainstream but have become the cash cows, as exemplified by a Herb Mignery corny cartoon joke about where the grass is greener. Full-page, no less.

What does it mean? There’s not much text. Most of the photos include sculptors. In fact, as I look closer I see that there are few aficionados and collectors after all, so this is still a gathering of true artists -- it just happens to be in Loveland, Colorado, with a cowboy band. Nothing wrong with that! They all seem to be having a good time.

I suppose that when it comes to sculptors, as with their works, what doesn’t stay open to new trends will stagnate and die, but what lets go of the old raison d’etre will become something else, which is also an obliteration. This new phenomenon seems to be an energizing force, so how can I object? After all, they bring their own horses.


Friday, March 20, 2009
My movie this week included “Country Matters” which is a compendium of dramatized English short stories from the Edwardian times. One of them was called “The Higgler,” which is their word for a man who goes around the country with a wagon, buying small things low and reselling them somewhere else for a higher price. Eggs, produce, pans and the like. There are art higglers in Great Falls today as the CM Russell Museum benefit auction that the Ad Club puts on each year begins. Satellite shows are also open. Most people operate out of motel rooms, but some use RV’s or car trunks or even, in the case of monumental sculpture, flatbed trucks, which can be rather startling when encountered in traffic.

In the old days, by which I mean the Sixties which I suppose could be called the JKF times, the wheeler-dealers were still cruising the Eisenhower highway network to search the country for art bargains and then sell them as great treasures elsewhere. Sure enough, in those years original Russells were still being found stored in attics and chicken houses across the high prairie. One could buy an old book in a junk store and shake out an illustrated letter. Not many people got rich but some did well enough to keep going. Certainly, it’s how Dick Flood got his start.

The higgler wheeler-dealers of the last half of the twentieth century are a little thin in the ground now. Instead they use computers. But some have galleries. A few, knowing there are rumors about them and famous swindles that they made, have come to self-proclaiming their wheeler-dealer status. Others are disguised as patrons who pretend to be helping the alcoholic or improvident artists from whom they buy, later inflating their reputations. Running art through an auction is a good way to attract attention, even if quietly buying it back through a front is the main way to establish a high selling price.

We used to think of gallery owners, publishers, and other impresarios as people who knew quality plus a formidable amount of art history and who were prepared to see potential in beginners or to find quiet rural geniuses. That was back in the days when professionals, like doctors and lawyers, were seen as “professing” something and to self-monitor for ethics. Nowadays, of course, the waves of greed have transformed them into profit-meisters whose high pay makes them able to accumulate the capital to play games with people’s lives, though they really rather prefer them dead. And they like the artists to fit into a “brand” expectation on the part of the buyers.

For their part the bourgeoisie are likely to be buying to be part of the crowd, to do the “in” thing, to be able to say to their friends, “Oh, I picked up a bluhbluhbluh for a real bargain price!” Also, like high school kids, they love the party atmosphere of auctions and high brow (they think) shopping in galleries. Around here, of course, the Western art has the huge advantage of being subject matter that has been experienced by many people who then buy portrayals that remind them of their own lives. Neither buyer nor seller is likely to have studied much about art and their “eye” these days is mostly taught by movies and television.

But then, we didn’t know a lot back in the Sixties either. Ace and Bob used to muse over what made a really “good” painting. Ace kidded about how a painting on stretched canvas was worth more than one painted on canvasboard, but then there were the gimmicks of a painting by Charlie on a windowshade or a silk petticoat that belonged to winkwink. Did using a lot of different colors mean that the painting was worth more money? Was an oil painting worth more than a watercolor? Surely it was worth more than a print? (This was before giclĂ©e prints made fortunes for some artists.) Was it more valuable if an artist taught himself, thus avoiding the contamination of scholars and professors, or was it better to have gone to prestigious schools? (Which WERE they? We knew about the Famous Artists correspondence courses.)

Would it be better to own a painting that had actually appeared on a calendar? Calendars and magazines were the art most people knew and they weren’t surprised when suddenly those same people turned up as high-dollar easel painters in the Western mode. Now that so many have eyes educated by animation, a surprising number of Western artists come from Disney. Among the most skillful and accepted painters are Chinese artists, but people here still aren’t quite sure about Native American painters who paint abstractly. We don’t know how to look at them. How do we know what they’re “about?”

Sculpture is both easier and harder. Wood carving is easy, though many of the old timers used a lathe-type machine to make multiple bears and mountain goats. After all, they finished them by hand. Marble is like that, too. Bronze casting baffles people, though not many still believe that they are whittled out of metal. We’ve seen too many photos of Charlie Russell with clay or beeswax in his hands. But many still believe that the modeled product is somehow “bronzed” like electroplated baby shoes.

If you say “mold,” people see in their heads a machine, though old-fashioned French or Roman block investment is pretty much back-bending labor. Modern ceramic shell casting is far more industrial, cheaper, faster, less skill-demanding, much better suited to mass production -- natural enough since it was developed to cast parts for space-age rockets in military applications. All the little signs of excellence in casting and patining metal are harder to learn.

The three main categories of Scriver bronzes for sale might be labeled white, black and gray. The “white market” bronzes are those cast in his lifetime in his own foundry in Browning with his skilled Blackfeet crew (plus me). They were sold with a certificate of authenticity showing the limits of the edition and that was registered in a book that the Montana Historical Society refuses to search for in his estate, thus crippling estimates of value. But very few of them go through auctions anyway.

The black market bronzes are flatly illegal castings, often originating in the Flathead Valley. They are invariably ceramic shell castings and usually have lousy patinas, often looking like paint instead of the subtle depths of a true patina.

The gray market castings come from sculptures that were commissioned by entrepreneurs, a new kind of wheeler-dealer, who suggested subjects, bought them WITH the copyright, set their own edition numbers (often as high as a hundred copies) cast them through some Montana ceramic-shell foundry, and sold them through their own galleries. Now they show up at all the auctions and on eBay. When Bob died ten years ago, his will specified that all molds should be destroyed. But he didn’t own the molds that belonged to these speculators and most of them didn’t have warehouses to store them, so they remained with foundries that later dispersed. No one knows where they went then, or even whether they still exist. It’s hard to maintain even today’s durable molds in prime condition.

A whole new field of expertise has developed -- not in higgling -- but in tracking the activities of the wheeler-dealers and how they parlayed opportunism into high dollar SW galleries. (I can’t think of any who ended up in New York.) There are books, some of them autobiographical. We need some good novels. I’ll get right on it!