Just after noon, Dagny Walton, a University of Montana Master of Fine Art candidate, heads to the basement of the Social Science building to a room filled with thousands of paintings, ceramics, and sculptures. The art, dating back to the 1800s, is stored on shelves in rows that fill the room ground to ceiling.
Walton, a museum intern, wears gloves to sort through the rare collection of valued artworks twice a week. As Walton carefully looks over a painting to evaluate its condition, she documents all she discovers and compares it to the records.
“It’s been really cool handling a variety of pieces from diverse time periods and artistic backgrounds,” Walton said.
The art collection belongs to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, or MMAC. The collection has been built for decades, shuffled and renamed so frequently that the true history is hard to track. But art lovers and experts on campus have long advocated for a more permanent, fitting and appropriate way to show the collection.
Through private funding from donors, the MMAC will move out of storage space and into its very own building.
In February, MMAC officially started moving the entire University collection to the new museum as its being built. The focus is on the first 300 to 400 objects that will be on display. Upon completion of the MMAC in the fall of 2023, volunteers will move on to the rest of the roughly 12,000- object collection.
The museum has pieces from around the world, like Asian textiles, Eastern European prints, European paintings, Western and Indigenous art and even pieces dating back to Ancient Greece. But the soul of the collection is Montana artists, including art made by students and faculty.
It’s the largest public collection in the state, according to MMAC Director Rafael Chacòn. Chacòn said moving all the art could take years as the MMAC team sifts through records and inspects each piece before properly documenting it.
After two decades of some neglect, mishandling, theft and too small of a space, the process is going to be far from easy. And, while UM may be showcasing the art now, it wasn’t always so willing.
Theft, poor management and a rocky start
As far back as its birth, UM’s collection was short on space and unable to support the museum’s rapid growth, Chacòn said.
The first of these collections started in 1895, with scientific specimens from the Smithsonian. Initially, the collection — called the Museum of Northwest History — was used for science education and contained historical artifacts and works of art.
By 1912, the collection had outgrown its space in University Hall and was disbanded to make room for other departments. The museum was dispersed to various locations on campus. Nothing was cataloged, and the collection was neglected for a decade after World War I.
Despite that neglect, from 1929 to 1936, the University received substantial art donations. They included historical objects like Indigenous items, tools, paintings and drawings. The University boasted about its roots in Northwest history and ethnology.
With the growing collection, the then-named Museum of Northwest History became the leading institution of Western arts and culture in the Inland Northwest — but there still wasn’t any space for it.
Through a grant from the Public Works Administration of $14,727 and a donation from the Woman’s Club of $18,000, a building was contracted and named Woman’s Club Art Building.
Pieces were divided into science, art and history in 1952 and granted to departments on campus. The collection continued to grow, and the Woman’s Club Art Building hosted exhibitions until around 1957, when the building space was, again, too small.
Between 1930 and 1950, the museum acquired Indigenous artifacts donated by non-Indigenous people, but pieces created by white artists were favored, according to past Kaimin reporting.
Scandals were attached to previous museum leaders too. In 1937, Paul C. Phillips, former professor and museum director, resigned following assault allegations, and was reinstated in 1944.
With the lack of leadership, lack of cataloging and a scattered collection, the Kaimin reported items started to go missing.
The University’s dean closed the museum in 1966, stating academic growth took precedence. Rumors spread around campus about the neglect and closure of the museum. When donors caught wind, some asked for their donations back.
After the museum was disbanded, the collection was dispersed. Pieces were stored at Fort Missoula, the Fine Arts Building and the steam tunnels under the newly built University Center.
“The University made up its mind to get out of the museum business,” said historian K. Ross Toole in a 1976 Kaimin article. “University officials just decided ‘this junk pile has got to go.”
Since no complete records were kept of what was donated, loaned, returned or given back to donors, no one knows what UM has, where it is or how much it is worth.
According to the Kaimin archives, UM had a rare gun collection dating back to the early 19th century. A former UM student said he bought a Japanese rifle from the collection in a Missoula second-hand gun shop during the late 1960s.
Several years later, he claimed, he came across a description of a gun identical to the one he purchased while going through records of the UM gun collection. He checked his records, and the serial numbers matched.
It is possible the donor had asked that the item be returned and subsequently sold to the gun shop. The former student, who was an anonymous source, said there was “definitely a lot of pirating” following the decision to close the museum. Currently, there is no knowledge of the gun collection or what happened to it.
Three former students — Deborah Dawson, a senior in sociology; Dawson’s spouse, a junior in psychology; and Jane Gardiner, were charged with art theft in 1977. The fourth suspect, Robert Larry Welch, pleaded guilty to felony theft of art in 1978. The total estimate of stolen goods in today’s dollars is about $592,000.
Among items lost and never found was a silk garment belonging to China’s Empress Dowager Cixi, Ming Dynasty porcelains and sculptures, a Russian imperial Easter egg and pieces of Steuben glassware.
Recently, a prized painting was returned to the University: “Portrait of Clifford Breeding.” Fra Dana, an impressionist painter from Montana, painted it. It went missing in the 1950s and was featured in a 1990s missing arts journal, which reported that the piece was one of Montana’s most important artworks.
“This is a very important portrait for Fra Dana’s career,” Chacón, the MMAC director, said. “Not only do we see her at her most skilled as an impressionist in the way she handles composition, light, and color, but we also see her interest in the subjects of the Ashcan School, an American movement from the East Coast at the turn of the century which focused on common subjects in an honest and sincere way. Dana brings the Ashcan to Montana in this sensitive portrait of an Indigenous boy living in two cultures. It is a powerful statement.”
Chacòn received a phone call from a man in Kentucky, who claimed his father bought the painting from a garage sale but didn’t specify a date. Before his father died, he had told his son the painting belonged to the University of Montana and needed to be returned.
The painting’s return is rather uncommon and Chacòn hopes it inspires others to return other missing pieces. Due to mishandling and lack of documentation, an unknown amount of art is still missing from the collection, according to Chacòn and historical documents.
Now this storied collection will get a dedicated home.
“The move to this new state-of-the-art facility is the culmination of the hopes and dreams of generations before us who understood the value of this unique collection of art,” Chacón said.
The new 17,000-square-foot MMAC building was designed with its surroundings in mind to maximize light in some areas while protecting art from light in other areas. Chacòn said the location and design allows the museum to embrace its setting by invoking traditional Indigenous uses of the land. Many of the open spaces are shaped in a round design to evoke Native tradition.
“We have the views of art and views of nature, where you could have that dialogue between the two,” Chacòn said. “For example, the building opens to views of the river and mountains surrounding it and the grounds will be planted with Indigenous plantings.”
The privately-funded building got the green light through donors like Patt and Terry Payne, who made the initial gift to launch the project and have committed a total of $12.5 million to the new facility, wrote Elizabeth Willy, director of communications of the UM Foundation, in an email.
The MMAC relies on 30 to 50 volunteers and its student interns for the initial moving process. Among those volunteers is Tom Benson, retired director of the nonprofit Arts Missoula.
“[The MMAC is] the best-kept secret in the Northwest,” Benson said. “As one of the largest collections, this museum is important so the people can finally see the collection.”
The first step in the moving process is the documentation stage — where people like Walton shine. In that stage, volunteers check that each piece of artwork has correct documentation in digital and physical records.
They write a condition report, do a light cleaning and then package the art for transportation to the stage area.
The volunteers then move the art to the Paxson Gallery in the PARTV building. Eileen Rafferty, the MMAC photographer, and her volunteer team do professional high-resolution photography for each artwork to help with digital records.
The artwork is then packaged — again — and moved to the holding area in the Meloy Gallery of the PARTV building, where the MMAC team selects an artwork each week to be featured and discussed by expert museum attendants, called docents.
Artwork that has long been closed off in storage will be accessible while not on display. The paintings will be stored in natural light with large racks rolling out to the room’s middle. The rooms and staircase will be named after major donors in a reveal on its opening day.
The exhibitions will be themed. They’ll have sections called Origins, Conflict, People, Land, Beliefs, Beauty, Harmony and What is Art For. Chacòn said there will be an open-air terrace with seating where your eyes can rest.
Additionally, there will be classrooms for students to curate their exhibitions. A museum study course will be added in fall 2023, listed as a graduate course, but open to undergrads.
UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said that while UM employees are state employees, the museum will be staffed by professionals directly employed by UM, including facility employees. UM also plans to cover the management and operations costs of the building in perpetuity through the facilities budget.
Students speak out
While many are excited about the new building, some students say its an unwanted move.
Katryn Rosenoff, a UM grad student, said the student body wasn’t appropriately considered when officials chose to place the museum on campus.
“I think many students are opposed, but we never had the chance to weigh in,” Rosenoff said. “I’m really frustrated that it was built in a parking lot despite the big-time parking shortage.”
What was an available parking lot by the Adams Center is now a construction site. Beyond parking, the site encroaches on walkways because of stray cones and fences barring entrances.
Chacòn said when the building is complete, the parking lot will be safer than before. It will have only one entrance and exit. The space will have a few specific designated parking spots for other buildings, like the Adams Center, but will still have student parking.
Rosenoff said she feels like UM hasn’t taken action to open up enough parking to make up for the lost space, and said a new museum feels frivolous when students struggle to make it to class on time because of a transportation crisis.
“Too frequently, the University chooses what is ‘best’ for the University without concern for its effects on the students,” Rosenoff said. “I sincerely believe the opinions and well-being of students should come first.”
Alena Flocchini, a 20-year-old from Sandpoint, Idaho, said the lack of communication deeply frustrates her.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” Flocchini said. “We didn’t get a say. It just happened, and all of a sudden, half the parking lot was ripped up.”
She said the University needs to improve its transparency, especially regarding construction projects. As an environmental studies and sustainability double major, Flocchini said she worries about the environmental impact the construction causes.
“Every time a new building is constructed on campus, it adds to the University’s carbon footprint and pushes it farther from carbon neutrality goals,” Flocchini said.
Kuntz said the MMAC would be a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Certified building, meaning it would be one of the most energy-efficient buildings on the campus. That being said, Kuntz said he understands the concern.
“As with all new constructions and renovations on campus, the UM Sustainable Campus Committee and Arboretum Committee were consulted prior to construction beginning,” Kuntz said. “There isn’t a construction-related action that takes place on this campus without a detailed conversation about the impact on UM’s sustainability efforts.”
Sophomore Nicole Elman said if the University wants to support the arts, there are better ways to do that. She mentioned improvements to the music building and PARTV building.
“It’s not that a museum is a bad thing.” Elman said. “I think good stuff will come out of it, but it feels really hollow when there is so much else that needs to be improved, including other buildings and departments.”
Elman said funding could be better allocated toward other programs, like the science department, for improved equipment.
In 1977, the museum was reconstituted. In 1982, the museum hired its first curator, Dennis Kern. Following the thefts, Kern moved the whole collection to the basement of the Social Sciences building.
He started the first electronic database and collaborated on conservation and storage grant proposals. In addition, an advisory board was created and implemented collection management policies. The clothing and textile collection is still not digitized, so records are scarce.
In 1984, the then Museum of Fine Arts was moved into the newly-built Performing Arts Building of the Radio and Television Center. Only the most essential parts of the collection were stored in that building.
By 1995, the museum’s leadership moved to the president’s office, hired Maggie Mudd as the director and curator and opened a sound gallery in the PARTV building. At that time, the museum had two galleries — the Paxson and the Meloy — named after previous artists and donors.
Again, the growing collection made it impossible to keep it accessible to the community and students. The new director, Nelson Britt, proposed a new separate building in 2003. However, he died shortly after taking the position. Chacòn’s predecessor, Barbara Koostra, worked as the director from 2005-2018 but was let go just before receiving retirement benefits, according to a lawsuit on grounds of Title IX violations.
“[The University of Montana] replaced Ms. Koostra with a male museum director with fewer qualifications and a higher starting salary than Ms. Koostra received when she began in this position,” reads the lawsuit text, referring to Chacòn. UM denies the allegations and is fighting the lawsuit and its pursuit of class-action status.
The museum was returned to the College of Arts and Media administration in 2018. That’s when Chacòn, a UM art history and criticism professor, was hired as the director.
“It was good for the museum to have a pair of fresh eyes. Chacòn came at a pivotal time and became an asset to the museum as the director,” said curatorial assistant Ashley Rickman. “Rafael Chacòn cares to be transparent and to right the wrongs of the past.”
There have been two curators since Chacòn was hired, and they have both been fired from their position. The first curator was Jeremy Canwell, who left UM after an investigation by UM’s Title IX office found him responsible for sexually assaulting a former intern.
Anna Marie Strankman was hired after Canwell, and she was let go just after a year because of a “business decision,” according to the Missoulian. Rickman took over some of Strankman’s responsibilities. The position is temporary and was created for her to take on and assist in curatorial duties while MMAC transitions between curators and the new building.
“I started as a volunteer and intern in 2021, going back to school specifically to work in the museum, gain curation experience and work with Rafael [Chacòn], with whom I took art history courses as an undergrad,” Rickman said. “The whole experience has been a dream for me.”
As of now, a replacement has not been made for the new curator for MMAC. Chacòn said they had three candidates, one of whom was extended an offer. According to Chacòn the offer fell through, and for the time being, he intends to hire a museum manager instead.
“As with every museum that has been around for a while, especially having such a large collection of roughly 12,000 art and historical objects, there have been many challenges.” Rickman said. “Moving to our new space is an incredible opportunity to re-process each artwork, take a look at what we have, and highlight pieces that we want to share with the public.”
Chacòn added, “We’ll take every opportunity to remind people through both art and architecture of the history of this valley.”
For now, the art lies in wait for a new home, and potentially hundreds of pieces will be released from decades of solitude.