‘Jewel of the crown:’ New art museum dazzles on opening night
(Missoula Current) At exactly 2 p.m. on Thursday, Ronin Hoffman announced to a busy room of people that the building in which they were eagerly discussing – the Montana Museum of Art and Culture – was officially open.
Hoffman, the museum’s Lead Gallery Manager, invited people to sign in at the front desk to get a count of visitors, but most darted up the staircases to witness the museum’s vast collection.
Within seconds, dozens more streamed in and dispersed throughout the building’s three floors and several gallery rooms. After an hour had passed, by Hoffman’s count, well over 100 people already visited the museum on its inaugural day.
Since 1895, the University of Montana has moved its steadily growing collection to various locations around campus. Over the decades, the collection has been placed in basements and storage rooms of various academic departments, and displayed in smaller exhibition halls.
As time went on, the museum passed through numerous managerial changes. In 1976, over $100,000 dollars worth of the pieces were stolen, with most never getting recovered. But in the ensuing years, the collection only grew in its diversity, taking in everything from painted depictions of the American West to 15th century Italian pottery.
Finally, after a long journey, the roughly 11,000 pieces making up this collection have a home for Missoula to appreciate in one place.
“Missoula has such a beautiful and connected community that when we get to do things like this, it really helps to just showcase to people coming from out of state just how connected and beautiful we are,” said Kiara Johnson, a pre-med freshman from the university.
Following about a year of work, Tucker Wells, an electrician who helped set up the building’s lighting and power system, looked forward to attending the museum as a visitor. “If I wasn’t working, I’d be in there right now,” said Wells.
Visitors of the 17,000 square-foot structure appeared awestruck and impressed by both its design, as well as the many pieces on show. Among the museum’s most powerful displays was that of the Batts Gallery, “Rising from the Ashes: Selections from the Three Chiefs Cultural Center Collection,” present just to the right after entering.
The gallery commemorated the Center – an important place of public education for several communities belonging to the Flathead Nation. Having opened in Pablo, Montana in 1994, the Center was burned by arson in 2020. The selection showcased a series of culturally important crafts and historic artifacts which survived the flames.
Stephen Johnson of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan walked around the gallery, intently focused on the pieces, like those of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He could smell smoke from the fire on an openly displayed garment, he said. He spoke of how this brought tears to his eyes from the heavy emotions that arose, reflecting on what had happened.
Upstairs, the museum’s brightly lit third floor opens to reveal an enormous assortment of works, bringing to life the true scale of the collection’s variety. The collection is so packed together that a few visitors could be overheard remarking that they were overwhelmed.
Because of this curation, different pieces are hung next to one another on walls, revealing fundamental similarities.
“I love how the Papua New Guinea pieces are meshed in with all of the Montana and European history,” said Annabel Boedeker, a political science sophomore attending the University.
The diversity of work includes watercolors painted by university faculty in the 1940s, a full set of samurai armor, an 18th century Flemish textile, silver gelatin prints of street photography, American-Potawatomi pen and ink illustrations, Ming dynasty Chinese figurines, and piece of Greek pottery dated to circa 290-280 B.C.
The incredible range of works on display was mirrored by the large turnout of visitors, appearing to come from all walks of life.
“I’m really happy to see both young and old people appreciating it,” said Georgia Balius, a junior at the university studying philosophy. “ I think it’s important for younger people to be exposed to art as well, and I think that sometimes there’s a bit of a struggle to get people. You know a lot of younger people, college-age students might not be like, ‘oh lets go to the museum.’ So, I think it’s wonderful that we have it on campus and it’s so close.”
Mary don Glidewell came to the museum’s opening through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (MOLLI), the University’s continuing education branch that caters especially to older populations. “I’m impressed and proud for Missoula and Montana,” don Glidewell said.
In 2001, George Dennison, then the university’s president, referred to the museum as the state school’s “jewel of the crown.” Today recognized as Montana’s most foundational, wide-sweeping collection, Dennison’s words seem to echo exactly how visitors felt during the opening day.