How Missoula, MT became a Modern art hub

2019 was a banner art year for me. My first visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. My first trip to Paris. Discovering the remarkable Modern art history in Missoula, MT.

The story of Montana as a modern art capital begins in what is now Cameroon. A story as unlikely as this might as well have an equally unlikely origin.

That’s where Frances Senska was born in 1914.

After coming to America and serving in the Navy during World War II, with scant training in the discipline herself, Senska was hired in 1946 to teach ceramics at Montana State College in Bozeman. She quickly developed a small studio there, learning the craft as she taught, and in almost 30 years on the job, spun off generations of artists who would go on to define modern ceramics, their influence subsequently defining contemporary ceramics.

Most notable among her disciples were Rudy Autio (1926-2007) and Peter Voulkos (1924-2002).

Even today, conversations about art in Montana as surely lead back to this pair as they do Charles Russell, the father of Western painting and a long time Great Falls resident.

“Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos have been among the most influential artists in the American ceramics movement, transforming the medium from one of many utilitarian ‘crafts’ to a fine art in its own right,” Jeremy Canwell, curator at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in Missoula, said.

The pair’s impact can be felt to this day.

Bronze castings of Voulkus’ breakthrough non-functional, sculptural ceramic “stacks” were featured by Manhattan contemporary art gallery Burning In Water during an exhibit this past summer. The gallery described him as, “widely acknowledged as the progenitor of a profound transformation in American ceramics… Voulkos’ legacy and present-day influence on the medium cannot be over-stated.”

The Art of Peter Voulkos

Elissa Author, Chief Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, also in New York, compares his innovations and talent to Jackson Pollock.  

Not bad for the Bozeman-born artist who graduated from Montana State in 1951.

Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), vase. Stoneware, glaze, 1959, Missoula Art Museum Collection, donated by Maxine M. Blackmer, 2003.03.17.
Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), vase. Stoneware, glaze, 1959, Missoula Art Museum Collection, donated by Maxine M. Blackmer, 2003.03.17.MISSOULA ART MUSEUM

Autio, who launched the University of Montana’s ceramics program in 1957, leading it to international acclaim through 28 years, also casts an inescapable shadow, particularly in Missoula, home to UM and his home until death.

Missoula’s Modern art history lives on

Autio factors not only into Missoula’s artistic past, but it’s future as well.

When Missoula’s Radius Gallery moved into its new building in January of 2020, its second floor was devoted to an Autio exhibit. Lisa Simon, co-owner of Radius Gallery, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Her commitment to honoring Missoula’s artistic past while shaping its future extends beyond her own business. Simon curated the contemporary art program for the Residence Inn by Marriott which opened in 2019 on real estate once occupied by Missoula’s Mercantile department store.

While the original building from the early 1800s could not be saved, Simon, along with the property’s developer, designer and Marriott, prioritized constructing the new hotel with an authentic, historic, Missoula soul.

Doing so through a locally focused art program was unprecedented for Marriott. Decorative details throughout the property give the hotel a feeling simultaneously fresh, while rooted in the past.

Visit Missoula, MT for the arts

Kevin Red Star painting (left) side-by-side with Robert Moore at Dana Gallery in Missoula, Montana. CHADD SCOTT

Missoula’s emphasis on the arts has drawn national recognition. A study released this year by Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research placed the city among its Art Vibrancy Index Top 40, a list which includes New York, San Francisco, Denver and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Inclusion requires more than a legendary ceramics tradition. The University’s robust fine arts program and the vibrancy of a college town assist. Almost every day in Missoula you’ll find a speaker, reading, concert, live music set, play or performance to pop in on.

Missoula also houses the state’s largest art collection at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture on the UM campus.

The Missoula Art Museum is emerging as the leading contemporary art museum in the Intermountain West.

One last art destination not to be missed is Dana Gallery, two blocks from both MAM and the Residence Inn by Marriott. The work of Kevin Red Star alone, one of the most acclaimed living Native American artists, makes Dana Gallery a must.

His star isn’t the only one shining there. Robert Moore’s frosty landscapes, thick with paint, and Kira Fercho’s marble-sized globs of pure color demand admiration. Be sure to visit the gallery’s downstairs “treasure trove” before leaving.

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