It’s another First Friday at the Dana art gallery in downtown Missoula. People are walking around with plastic wine glasses in hand, snacking on the complementary animal crackers. A western-themed band plays in the back far right corner of the gallery, just loud enough to add background noise but quiet enough that people can still talk. Couples and families migrate between paintings of men on horseback and cows grazing in a field, stopping in front of the occasional one that catches their eyes. Comments like “that’s nice” and “this is pretty” crop up between conversations about their day at work or school.
Not too far from downtown – but a world away from the First Friday art scene – in a workshop disguised as a gallery, right by the tracks, is a completely different conversation, about a completely different work of art.
Amid streamers and colored lights are multiple flat television screens, each displaying a different clip of Dorothy. A projector fills one wall with an endless stream of YouTube videos. In one corner there’s a photo booth with cake and lots of glitter. And in the middle of the room, lying on a twin-sized bed atop a raised platform, is Dorothy.
Marshall Granger performs the character of Dorothy, his online alter ego, wearing a black dress and a short, red-haired wig. He interacts with people as they approach him, smiling and sipping from a yellow Solo cup. At 8 p.m. the real performance begins.
“It’s a party inside my fucking room,” shouts Dorothy as he picks up a microphone and begins singing. The spectators sway and dance while experiencing the performance.
The crowd is mostly trendy twenty-somethings. Their eyes glued to Dorothy.
“If I take my headphone off, will you still be in my room,” sings Dorothy. “Are we ever alone, do we want to be?”
Dorothy: Manic Pixel Dream Girl is a reflection of not just online identities, but an exploration about whether people present a more honest version of themselves on the Internet. It’s the kind of performance that the Real Good Art Space was built to highlight.
“Conceptual art is more about social themes than traditional art,” said Emily Johnson, a Pixel Dream Girl spectator.
In Missoula, the most celebrated art galleries are the ones with traditional styles of art. The galleries that sell paintings of landscapes and Montana wildlife, like the Dana, Monte Dolack (before it closed) and 4 Ravens. Missoula has a reputation as an artsy community, and First Fridays are about socializing within the context of art.
But among the free snacks and wine are other galleries that foster a subculture for conceptual art.
Frontier Space, The Brink and Real Good Art Space are three galleries in Missoula that exhibit works aimed at challenging viewers to search for meaning. Conceptual art is about creating art from an idea rather than material. It can come in the form of performance pieces, installations, and even traditional mediums like painting. But the one struggle for conceptual artists is that the work they create isn’t always something that can be sold.
In Missoula, the economic support for conceptual art galleries simply isn’t there, say critics. Still, Rafael Chacón, professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana, said that in the larger art world conceptual art is often as successful as traditional art.
He points to the apparent economic contradiction in the works of Jeff Koons and Thomas Kinkade. Koons is a conceptual artist who is most notorious for his large scale reproductions of objects like balloon animals, produced entirely in stainless steel. Kinkade has produced prints and paintings that can be found in one in every 20 American homes.
“It’s interesting that you can have a Jeff Koons succeeding on the one hand and a Thomas Kinkade succeeding in the other. Earning the same, equal amounts of money for works that are radically different, sort of philosophically, radically different and they’re hitting very, very different kinds of audiences,” Chacón said. “Now, the snoots in the art world would say, ‘Koons is an artist and Thomas Kinkade was basically a hack who came up with a formula for pulling the wool over mall-walkers.’ But, you could argue the same thing about Koons, that his work is formulaic, that his work is in fact produced by a studio of assistants.”
While Koons has the vision, his assistants do most of the work. Yet Koons’ pieces sell. He made $58.4 million for an enormous, orange balloon dog. That piece is now the most expensive work of art sold by any living artist at auction today. Kinkade made his fortune through quantity. His work is not unlike the kind of traditional works sold in commercial Montana art galleries.
Samantha French, an employee at the Dana art gallery, estimates that they sell more than 10 paintings a month. In the summer, the Dana sells more pieces because of the increase in tourism. “Tourists are looking to take back a piece of Montana with them,” French said.
However, among the conceptual galleries, works are rarely being sold. Despite the continually growing and changing definition of what art truly is, it has made it no easier for artists to make money. But a real art community, said Chacón, takes more than money.
“If you drop a bunch of Hollywood money into a Western Montana town, that does not necessarily give you, or yield, a thriving art community. There are some examples around the state and they do not have the kind of lively art scene that we have here,” Chacón said. “It really is remarkable that a town of our size can sustain as much art activity as it does. Now, whether it can sustain thriving art businesses, that’s a different question.”
But Chacón is quick to add, “the more conceptual art, and the more edgy art, that has a harder time.”
Part of this reality is that galleries often operate either as a business or a venue for artistic expression. The Dana Gallery has regular business hours, Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. That isn’t the case with the conceptual galleries. Frontier Space and Real Good Art Space are only open on First Fridays. The Brink operates only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for five hours a day.
Valerie Hedquist, professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana, points out that some galleries also rely on classes and workshops for their income.
“The Clay Studio has classes around the clock, and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography is dependent on its school,” Hedquist said. “You can’t have a significant revenue flow trying to sell works of art.”
Hedquist explains that many artists have two different avenues in which to make art — their commercial path and their true art path.
“Your commercial path will fund your art path,” Hedquist said. “So if you can find a niche in commercial art, why not?”
For their owners, conceptual galleries are usually not their full-time jobs. Not because they don’t want them to be, but because they can’t be, financially. With so little money coming through these galleries, they have to make a living through other means.
The bartender looks like just a normal guy. He’s tall, blonde and wearing a red button up shirt. Another average Missoulian.
He’s also a professor of art who runs a contemporary art gallery.
His name is Jack Metcalf and he is the owner of Real Good Art Space on Defoe Street. His style of art is a different approach than what is found in a traditional art gallery.
“I like work that challenges us and adds to the conversation of what art can be,” said Metcalf. “I like things that are a little bit unpredictable you could say – predictably unpredictable.”
Metcalf is the son a mechanical engineer and a teacher who went to college in Georgia and later attended the Savannah College of Art and Design to become an architect, seeking a more “practical” career. “I didn’t like architecture because you usually have clients, and your building stuff for other people, and there’s a lot of limitations,” Metcalf said. “It wasn’t as fun as art can be.”
He later applied for the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Montana. After earning his MFA, he was offered a teaching job on campus. Jack then opened Real Good in 2014, which as his website defines is, “a communal laboratory that houses four printing presses, a full wood shop, a digital design center, a converted mobile step van and a malleable gallery/performance/theater space.”
Real Good is not exactly the kind of place that someone just stumbles into. It has certain performances at certain times. It’s an art destination.
The gallery has an artist in residency program that includes a stipend for materials and a space for artists to create. Metcalf wanted to build a place for artists to have the opportunity to do what they want to do in an environment that helps them succeed. It’s a mission that has personally cost him. He is the one who foots the bill for the resident artist.
It’s a commitment that even other conceptual gallery owners laud. The Brink gallery owner, Jennifer Leutzinger, called him a “southern gentleman.”
“His creativity and where his brain goes, no one else’s brain goes,” she said. “He creates the events, the drive, the productivity. It’s insane, how much stuff he creates, and now trying to balance with fatherhood, is very impressive. His sense of humor, it’s all ‘real good,’ ” said Leutzinger.
Metcalf is inspired by a lot of local artists and tries to bring something constantly surprising to the community. Even his two-year-old son, Dash, had his own exhibition in October.
“I want to look back and be happy about what I’ve created,” he said. “I like creating, making things. I don’t know about a legacy – but I want to have something that I’ve made and be proud of, whatever that may be,” he chuckled.
Although Metcalf’s art isn’t traditional, he doesn’t describe it as “high brow.” He has a lot of projects that are accessible for not just the art community to understand, but for everyone to relate to, including building treehouses for kids.
“I don’t think people understand everything that I do. I don’t think I understand everything I do. If I did understand everything I do, I think I’d be bored,” said Metcalf.
The problem with running a space that isn’t a commercial art gallery is that it’s difficult to make a consistent income from the art created. Metcalf specializes in creating experiences that can never be had again. It’s the struggle of being a conceptual artist. Metcalf admits that he makes more money bartending than he does teaching three college classes a semester as an adjunct professor. Receiving financial support in a community like Missoula as a conceptual artist is a different experience than in a larger city.
“I feel like people are supportive to a certain extent,” said Metcalf “The money’s not there supporting people, but the emotional kind of thing is there, the pat on the back and the moral support. I don’t really see a lot of people selling stuff.”
His observations aren’t alone.
“Missoula is filled with so many great artists that have so many great ideas that do so many great nontraditional things that wouldn’t necessarily sell in a regular, typical commercial art gallery, in my opinion,” said Leutzinger.
She should know. Leutzinger opened the Brink gallery in 2010, as a space for her and her friends to create without the pressure of meeting a sales quota. Six years later, Leutzinger said that not a week goes by that she isn’t contacted by someone in the community who thanks her for opening the gallery. She’s enjoyed forming relationships with her neighbors and how much the Brink is loved by the community.
But love was not enough.
Leutzinger has announced that the Brink will be closing in May.
The audience attracted to conceptual art doesn’t have the funds to help keep it going. “I would love to write a check every month to an artist – there would be six months that would go by and I couldn’t write a check,” said Leutzinger.
Leutzinger appreciates places like Frontier Space and Real Good, and thinks that alternative art galleries can exist in Missoula. She feels that it’s time to move on but believes that the Brink will live on in other ways. She thinks she and her friends will come together every once in awhile to create together.
Back at Real Good, Granger and other local artists are benefiting from Metcalf’s hardwork.
“Working with Jack is really satisfying,” said Marshall Granger. “It kind of relieves any fear, because I wasn’t an art student, that I wasn’t sure about the right way to do things. He’s the kind of person that’s like ‘here’s the key to my space. Tell me what you need from me and that’s great, let’s do that.’ He didn’t really need to get what I was doing.”
Granger, a Billings native, is new to the performance art world. Metcalf approached him to do a performance at ‘Real Good’ after watching one of his shows at the Roxy Theatre. He feels that he’s received a lot of support from the Missoula community as an artist.
“I feel like Missoula is always churning forward new things. Every First Friday there’s actually somebody you’ve never heard of and same goes for bands, filmmakers. It probably helps having a university but I think there’s a lot of support here.”
In Granger’s experience, there are a lot of Kickstarters and grants to support artists. For him, performing is more about the experience than a financial payback.