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."


Saturday, August 07, 2010


The CM Russell Art Auction is like an iceberg, to use an image that this summer is more welcome back East than here. But truly there is much behind the scenes on several different levels. I was there in the beginning and I’m here at the end, without any special privilege, but still I have a few things to point out.

The major worldwide art scene has changed radically. I work with print where there has been a huge furor over the fate of paper books, now being replaced by electronic books. This has only barely begun to reach the awareness of most people. Barnes & Noble or Oasis Books in Choteau look about the same, but they are not. The difference is that the BUSINESS MODEL of books is entirely disrupted by electronics and other forces. Layers of middlemen who operated by travel, phone and mail, searching for used books or hand-selling on-site for the wholesalers, are gone. Books have always been objects and therefore samples had to be schlepped around (they are heavy en masse). Readers bought from a shelf supplied by someone -- we don’t think about that. Even the used books had to be physically found and transported to the used book store, like the wonderful accumulation at Oasis, mostly first edition American and Western books. But now finding the books, selling the books, distributing the books can all be done online.

Paintings and sculptures -- even artifacts -- are no different. The advantage of the auction was that it brought a lot of objects together to be inspected and bought. The publicity was as valuable as the schmoozing among dealers, artists and customers. Now all that can be done online where, it’s far more discrete and private -- no need to invent secret signals to keep the curious from craning their necks. But then why have an auction?

For a while there was a furor over keeping the auction catalogues off websites because some artists copied the work of other artists, but then it became clear that people were buying direct from the catalogue. One can’t really see small factors, like the back of the painting, but it’s possible to inquire through someone. Several times I’ve been asked to take a look at a specific work as it hangs and report to someone far away. If the key effective gallery is an auction website, then there’s really no reason for a bricks and mortar building.

When the auction began 42 years ago, it was modeled on an earlier experiment (also powered by Van Kirke Nelson, the doctor who has used the capital from his ob-gyn practice to subsidize Glacier Gallery in Kalispell) in Spokane. That time around it was Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J. (deceased) who was trying to raise money for his Museum of Native American Culture, now dispersed. Father Schoenberg’s book, “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC,” intro by Van Kirke Nelson and Paul Masa, was published in 1981. The events begin in the mid-Sixties. It was a time when Indians were still understood to be a remnant conquered population, cowboys were noblemen on horseback, and artifacts were fair game for anyone to acquire.

Probably Indian Empowerment politics did more to disperse MONAC than any other single force, but also there was a fatal mixing of charity, mystique, tax breaks, and exploitation. Many artists were barely surviving or just starting out, so they could be easily pushed into donating something. Nelson and Masa already had a backlog of art in their warehouses that needed to be promoted and cleared out. The Ad Club -- embodied by Norma Ashby -- saw at once that the product was available, the peg of Charlie Russell was a potent one in the age of Ronald Reagan, and Great Falls was outside the orbits of the giants: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Amon Carter Museum, Cowboy Hall of Fame and several others. Since that time there have been many shifts, some political and some in product. And there are many auctions and shows.

I have argued, in the face of screams of rage from some people, that the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel is essentially Republican. They were marketing on a triumphalist platform emotionally and in capitalist unregulated mode economically, An enlightened person can now see that the prairie clearances of the Native Americans was a genocide not unlike today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somali, and that the artifacts, mythology and lore of the autochthonous peoples should profit those people more than their depictors.

In the capitalist context, some kept arguing that art was no different than the stock market, derivatives of Charlie Russell, while all the time cautioning people to buy what they dearly love because that’s what really counts. (And that masks failures to invest wisely.) A whole business context, partly websites like that act like stock market tickers for auctions and partly slick magazines that “curate” artists, has grown up around this idea. The public, uneducated about what makes art good and resistant to fancy analysis, simply judges art by how much its worth. But the value of art is located more in the sizzle than the steak. An art work is simply worth what it will sell for, regardless of whether it is a Picasso or not.

Montana is a place where there is very little art law and the nuances of numbering, limiting, deriving, etc. are not widely known. An object is treated like an object. So when Bob Scriver was sued for selling a customers’ numbered bronze to someone else next on the waiting list because when the bronze was sent COD, they didn’t have the cash money to accept it, the Montana courts sided with Bob. When the famous lawsuit over the Seltzer that seemed to be a Russell was awarded to Seltzer, that cooled the action. Now the big NA artifact sting in the SW also chills the scene.

In fact, the SW -- which is where what I called the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel first took root -- is now saturated with Cowboy art. The Indian art of the West (meaning art BY Indians, not about them) has taken a slightly different route and so has most of the wildlife art. Scarcity raises value; plenitude drops it. The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel is now webbed among many major institutions, enough to support a class of curators and directors who have not dropped the on-going connections among profiteers and scholars, publishers and promoters.

What made Great Falls a valuable center was the authenticity of a population and place that was in many ways innocent. The forty-two years of its run was four times longer than the typical peak production period of an artist’s work, usually about ten years between his learning curve up and his aging curve down. In the beginning the Scriver Award could be given to people who actually knew Charlie Russell. Now it just goes to patrons and customers. One lady who customarily flew in on a Lear Jet with a group of wealthy Kentucky aficionadoes said that she had “seen everything of interest” that was local. She’s been out as far as Fort Benton and Choteau. Did I know of anything she might have missed? It was all getting a little tiresome. That tells the story.

Monday, August 02, 2010

BOB SCRIVER: The Trajectory of a Career

BOB SCRIVER: The Trajectory of a Career
This post is preparation for a talk I will give at the Gear Jammers’ Convention in East Glacier on September 9. The Gear Jammers drove the famous red tour buses in Glacier Park and returned many summers, observing local development.

When Thad and Wessie Scriver’s two sons were adolescent in Browning, Montana -- white boys on the Blackfeet Reservation -- they were not all that different from each other. Both were excellent musicians, both were hunters, both were good students and both were full of beans. But Harold was the older boy and earmarked to join his father in the family business. Robert was the younger and would have to find some other career. The possible interests and talents included art, music and taxidermy.

No one took taxidermy very seriously and his mother was indignant at the very idea of art, which to her meant a ne’er-do-well life. But she liked the idea of music -- she herself had a little musical talent -- if only it would yield a living. When Robert’s music teacher in the Browning schools pointed out that Robert had major talent and volunteered to help the boy at Dickinson State Teachers’ College where the teacher was going for more training, she agreed. In fact, later when she Robert went on to the Vandercook School of Music on the south side of Chicago, she went along to interview Mr. Vandercook herself and was entirely charmed.

Harold had been sent to Kinman Business College in Spokane, where he did fine, though he would really rather have been a rancher. Each young man embarked on his career well aware that they were meant to stay in Browning with their parents. Then came World War II and it was no longer a matter of choice in their minds: they both enlisted. Robert was already married with a daughter, teaching in Browning and then in Malta. Harold married when he was home on leave.

When the intake questionnaire was filled out, Harold had answered honestly that he was a skilled big game hunter and a crack shot. He was assigned to Patton’s forces in North Africa and refused to ever discuss it. Afterwards he returned to a quiet life managing the Browning Mercantile. Eventually he bought a small ranch on the edge of town. He ran the store alongside his father until his father’s death, then until his own death.

When Robert joined the military, Harold made him promise to answer every question with “musician.” Robert’s marriage fell apart during the war. Stationed in Edmonton, he had been assigned to the Alaskan Division of the Army Air Force Band in which he was the first chair cornet. When possible Robert, now “Bob,” played in clubs and gave private lessons. He also began to look into such projects as mink ranches and fur buying. He married a French-Canadian girl, Jeanette, in an effort to get at least partial custody of his children. Jeanette claimed that if Edmonton had been big enough to support a symphony orchestra, Bob would have stayed there. In the end he returned to Browning and resumed teaching, but it didn’t work. He began to think seriously about what sort of business he could create.

Right after WWII the national parks began to attract much attention, partly as a matter of patriotic pride and partly because the newly reunited families finally had access to tires and gasoline. It was the age of the “woody” stationwagon and the family camping vacation. Eisenhower was creating the major highway system that would unite the nation and that included the Al-Can Highway -- the ambitious route from the US to Alaska across Canada. Browning and Glacier Park were on that route through Alberta, which meant much traffic, both tourists and hunters.

Bob and Ace Powell, co-conspirators, began to think about how to produce tourist items. Ace had some training in forming plastic but it would be too expensive, so they turned to a kind of plaster as hard as ceramics. Bob went back to Vandercook for his Master’s Degree in music, just in case the idea didn’t work. Scouting the industrial south side of Chicago, he found Koroseal, a new kind of flexible material for molds, and p300, a latex mixture that could create unbreakable antlers for small game figures. These “secrets” gave him an advantage.

The experiment was launched in an old service station and seemed to work well enough to justify investment in two lots on the highway across the boundary street from the Museum of the Plains Indian; an ancient warehouse belonging to J.H. Sherburne (originally built by an earlier Indian trader), a collection of basic tools like crowbars and nail pullers, and an old red truck. Bob and his crew, mostly former students, took apart the warehouse, hauled the lumber to the lots, straightened the nails, and put together the first part of the complex that would become the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.

In 1952 the first floor included a little sales shop, an alcove where a giant grizzly reared, and a workshop. Upstairs was storage for plaster castings and a paint booth for lacquering them with an airbrush. In the basement was a pole rack for scraping the fat off bear hides and an ancient wine vat where hides soaked all winter in mild acid to tan them. Taxidermy and small plaster casting went along together, completing each other. On a selling trip one fall Bob and Jeanette received so many orders for the little figures that they had to add staff and spend the winter working hard to cast, trim and paint them.

In 1958 the second section built was the major hall of the museum where the goal was to present an excellent example of each of the major trophy species of Montana, plus a collection of birds and small mammals. Because they needed a big high space with no columns supporting it, Jimmy Fisher suggested the rafters be designed like bridge supports. The plan was to include lectures on animal anatomy and maybe wildlife movies. By 1960 the third section to the west was two rooms, one a gallery for Bob’s sculpture and guest painters, and the other for miniature dioramas of the game animals. This last was finished in 1962.

After that came work spaces: an unheated shed for saws and plaster storage and the first version of the foundry, which was the old coal shed from the Browning Merc, expanded on the north end with a cement block space for baking molds and melting bronze. Bob’s own house, the first he had owned, was also built in the backyard, which was so crowded by this time that he considered just roofing the whole thing over.

Instead, across the highway at that time was a motel and cafe, and he bought land behind it. By 1966 this became a corral with the moved-in addition of the old stable that had sheltered the Browning Merc delivery wagon and faithful horse, Old Rock. In time he bought the motel/cafe and moved it out to his ranch west of town. When the owner of the concrete tipi threatened to demolish it, he bought it and moved it across the street from the museum, where eventually the Circle K was built. In 1988 he gave the concrete tipi to the Town of Browning and it was moved back to its original location. One might call it the creeping tipi.

By then the bronze business was major. Bob bought out his neighbor to the east and added a steel building to house a two-story gallery. Upstairs presented an example of each of his works and downstairs was an elegant setting for his portraits of Blackfeet. To the north, out back, the foundry was rebuilt, a far more ambitious and spacious industrial factory capable of casting heroic-sized bronzes. He rehung the massive skulls that gave the foundry its name: the Bighorn Foundry. When he bought a ranch west of town, called the Flatiron Ranch, the outbuildings were soon filled with molds for full-mounted animals, old farm and ranch equipment, a spring wagon, a sleigh, and a restored buggy.

By the time Bob Scriver died in January, 1999, the value of his estate was in the multi-millions. It was dispersed quickly, awkwardly and inexpertly. His sculpture molds were destroyed as he had requested and evidently the taxidermy molds were unrecognized and dumped as junk. I don’t know what happened to the original plasters. Eloise Cobell, with her usual resourcefulness, managed to preserve local ownership of the Flatiron Ranch by arranging cooperation between the Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Land Trust. The museum complex was sold to the Blackfeet Tribe and became the Blackfeet Heritage Center. The bronze portraits of Blackfeet went to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. The rest of the estate went to the Montana Historical Society where it is stored in a warehouse next to the Fish and Game complex by the airport. All the full-mounts went to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which already has a huge collection of such figures. The paintings, whether by Russell, Remington, Rungius or Fery, were dispersed in two auctions, one in a major Coeur d’Alene Galleries Auction held in Reno and the other in a near-private auction in Kalispell.

A great deal of Blackfeet artifact material remained even after Bob sold the Scriver collection to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. Much of it was intercepted and impounded at the Canadian border on one pretext or another. Some of it was stored at the Montana Historical Society alongside impounded materials from other people. Anything more than that is undisclosed. Whether all or part of it was “repatriated,” in the sense that it was given to enrolled Blackfeet members, is not known. Scriver’s personal Thunder Pipe Bundle which was never sold in his lifetime, disappeared. The judge who presided over his probate hearings lost the next election and left.

Rumors continue to circulate that millions are missing. Bob’s fourth wife’s lawyers hint that the money went to her brothers when she died in 2003, but that’s unconfirmed. Since they live in Vancouver, B.C. and are quite wary, it’s hard to investigate. There is a small “Scriver Family Trust” with a lawyer in Helena that grants an annual modest bursary to art students at Carroll College. Each of Bob’s grandchildren received $10,000, as did Bill Byrne, the student who helped demolish that original old warehouse.

After Harold’s death, the Browning Mercantile was owned and run by his daughter, Laurel, who eventually sold it. Not long afterwards it burned to the ground. The land was sold to the United States Postal Service which built a big new Post Office there. The house where Harold and Robert grew up is now the Eagle Calf Medical Supplies business managed by Leland Ground. Right next door is Cuts Wood Nitzipuwasin Real-Speak Immersion Blackfeet School. And so it is that times change. Between 1951 when Bob was 37 and 1999 when he died at 85, he created thousands of sculptures, some of them classics, mostly in storage -- unseen.