On Higgins Avenue, just south of Broadway, a sandwich board, painted by Bob Phinney that depicts the Dana from a street view, beckons. The large storefront window bursts with color. Carol Spielman’s almost life-sized horses in warm, textured background placed alongside the glossy colored steel patchwork of one of Bill Drum’s buffalo statues.
Inside is Montana’s largest gallery, which hosts shows of national importance and features an eclectic mix of local and regional artist “favorites,” a reading corner with an extensive collection of art books, and “The Vault” with art by renowned artists, such as Marc Chagall, Picasso, Tu Baxiong, Edward Curtis.
In the entryway currently are a small oil by Jennifer Li, an image of an other-worldly female contrasted against a common background, as well as a Janet Sullivan majestic skyscape distilled to minute format, alongside the jewel box elegance of artisan jewelry.
Once inside, the spaciousness of the gallery proper expands the view again. Often on display are larger-than-life Jonathan Qualban concrete-based statues that seem to be lighter than air itself, defying gravity and held together as if by magic. Also Joe Halko’s life-sized horse of driftwood and other wood pieces improbably swept together in odd grace, and several of his playful bronze bears cavorting on the floor.
Davi Nelson’s land-and-skyscapes showcase with understated drama typical rural Montana vistas. She was the first non-photographer to display at the Dana, and is definitely a favorite, as well as an award-winning, Montana artist. Janet Sullivan’s richly-loaded pastel skyscapes, or her other nature scenes done in oil make the same point about living under the “Big Sky,” but with an unrestrained palette. She too is a multiple award-winner, and besides that, she’s one of Missoula’s own.
Julie Chapman focuses on wildlife of the area, seeming to paint her subjects from the inside out. The blues and yellows of “The Nagual” are compelling, but in the end serve as backdrop for the penetration of the fox’s gaze. And the work of another favorite Montanan, Tom Gilleon, will be on display, offering a silhouetted tepee, captured at just the right time of day to emphasize its shape as well as evoking an emotional response to its function.
Wondering what was the secret of a being a successful gallery owner, I asked Dudley Dana, who declared, “ it is all about relationships.” He talks more about the artists as individuals than the art hanging on the wall. He delights in telling anecdotes about the artist and how he or she lives and works For example, Alan Chan originally came to the Gallery because of a student show that Dudley attended at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Dudley invited Alan Chan to show his work in an “Emerging Artists” exhibit, an annual Gallery event held every March, which otherwise features local emerging talent.
Dudley sometimes has to make compromises that are inherent in running a retail establishment, and he seems to take it in stride only because of the gratification he experiences from these personal relationships. He also sometimes says “we” when talking about gallery decisions and visions; this plural encompasses another essential relationship -- with his wife, Candace Crosby. Thus, these facets of his own experience get mixed into his exhibit and event choices and create and shape the finished product that evokes your response when you visit the Dana Gallery.
The Summer 2006 line-up is impressive. Neil Patterson’s work will be featured in July, extending his presence from the May and June Oil Painters of America 15th Annual National Exhibition of Traditional Oils. Since this major event has formerly been held in a large city, it’s quite a coup for Missoula to be the new host. Obviously, the reputation of the Dana Gallery opened up this opportunity. Neil Patterson was the first Canadian to become a signature member of OPA, and became a Master Signature Member in 2000. His richly colored and textured scenes have universal appeal. You can usually find one or two pieces on the walls of the Dana. How much better it will be to have a whole wall full of them to linger over.
Joining Neil Patterson in the spotlight in July will be new work by Robert Moore and Carol Spielman, with an opening reception on July 7th. And horses, of course. Carol Spielman’s horses graze lazily, comfortingly, not really looking at me, but definitely catching my eye and seeming to invite me to hang out with them as they interact with each other. I want to touch, maybe nuzzle one of them.
The Gallery’s already abuzz, anticipating Robert Moore’s new work. Dudley has been attracted to this farm-raised Idahoan over the years and is particularly pleased to have his impressionistic, thick-layered oils on display. Dudley talks about the artist, not only enchanted with his double-handed painting methods, but with the color-blind man himself. And as far as I can tell, everyone who comes in contact with Robert Moore is struck by his ability to render nature precisely, so that one “feels” what it’s like to be in one of his Aspen groves, for example. Because Dudley is also an artist and color-blind, his link with Moore seems stronger. It seems paradoxical but perhaps their particular experience of color plays a part in each one’s success. They both use colors that are saturated and lively with subtly nuanced play of shadows and contrasts.
The Dana Gallery started in humble ways. In 1996, in a small storefront about a block from the current location, Dudley opened a gallery to showcase the work of seven local photographers, himself among them. At that time there was not a venue for the exceptional photographers working in the Missoula area. And he says he’ll never forget his first Saturday after opening, when he worked at the gallery all day long: not a single person walked through the door. He insists it was his sheer obstinacy that kept the gallery open during the first few years.
Another difficult period occurred after September 11th, 2001. Art purchases may express the quintessence of luxury, and with the economy in turmoil Dudley had to make some difficult decisions. Understanding his avid art supporters and feeling certain that he could help sustain the local clientele, he developed a special payment plan where he paid the artists immediately, yet let his clients take a piece of work home with them and pay the gallery over a period of time. He was willing to take the risk, and his experiment proved its value, helping forge new relationships as well as strengthening existing ones.
Curious as to how the Dana Gallery accumulated “The Vault” collection of work by renowned artists (for the most part deceased), I asked about its origin. It’s far simpler than I’d imagined: starting in 2004, the Gallery promoted a “Collector’s Resale,” which it continues every February. The way it works is that the Dana Gallery puts out a call for art that owners are willing to turn over. The pieces are exhibited and in silent auction format are sold to public bidders. Over time, the Dana Gallery accumulates some of these fine art pieces which are exhibited openly in the small “Vault” room of the Gallery. My favorite is a reclining nude, seen from the back, with a compelling red background, by Tu Baxiong. But then again, I have many, many favorites.
For example: Bob Phinney. Throughout the summer, many of the Dana favorite artists bring in new work and it’s rumored that Bob Phinney will show a new “Missoula series.” Using and mixing a wide variety of media, his drawings and paintings are full of motion and rhythm, whether depicting a downtown street corner or a remote waterfall. I think of Bob Phinney as one of Missoula’s most accessible artists, partly because some of his subject matter captures an ephemeral but distinctly “Missoula quality” so straight-forwardly. And partly because he’s such an excellent teacher who offers affordable classes for all levels (including rank beginners!) in a variety of venues around town. He likes to share his expertise and genuinely likes helping the rest of us learn to “see.”
Besides serving as a sort of fan club for its featured artists, the Dana hosts or participates in numerous events throughout each year, blending Gallery goals within the larger community and ensuring that the Gallery and its art remains accessible. Proceeds of special exhibits might benefit the Missoula Art Museum; an annual silent auction helps support the Humane Society.
Each first-Friday-of-the-month, most Missoula galleries host opening receptions in the early evening. These not-to-be-missed First Friday Art Walks feel like a celebration, as familiar and new faces mix and greet on the streets and in the studios and feast their senses on the newly hung gallery offerings. Show up between 5:00 and 8:00 pm on July 7th, August 4th and September 1st to experience the scene for yourself.
The 4th Annual Plein Air Paint Out dominates the Dana Gallery focus from late July through August, with the opening reception on August 4th. The invitation list includes twenty artists, mostly from Montana, but also representing Washington, Oregon and North Dakota. During the five-day Paint Out (July 29 – August 2), this “Who’s Who” of locally well-loved artists will head outdoors, dispersing throughout the greater Missoula area to paint in almost marathon style. Last year 73 paintings sold, of about 118 that were produced during the Paint Out. The all-star cast of painters this Summer includes Tom Gilleon, Thomas English, Janet Sullivan, L.A. Stevens, Jeff Walker, Steven Oiestad, Bob Phinney, Robert Schlegel, Steve Seltzer, Phil Korell, Nick Oberling, Parvin, Ron Ukrainetz and Julie Chapman, among others. And what could be better than to have lots of new Missoula area paintings? Want a chance to meet the artists in a special preview reception? A limited number of spaces are available, so call early to make your reservation.
Start your own relationship with The Dana Gallery and pick your own favorites. Find them at 246 N. Higgins Avenue, which is on Missoula’s main drag, just south of Broadway. Call them at 406.721.3154 or visit www.danagallery.com.
~ Lois Schlyer is an artist and writer living in Missoula.