The Business of Art Billings creative class propels local art trade

Billings has a new claim to fame. The city is now home to the largest Artwalk in the state, featuring nearly 40 participating galleries.

“Artwalk has reached critical mass and people want to be a part of it,” said Virginia Bryan, president of Billings Artwalk, which is heading into its its 22nd season. Indeed, for Billings, the arts scene has never been more vibrant.

Part of this growth is simply economics. There’s an audience and a market. But the part that is less tangible is the enthuastic support of a diverse and vibrant artist culture and the grassroots beginnings of Artwalk.

Parties centered on creativity, with art on display, live music, bites of food, and splashes of wine, Artwalk has grown into a vital Billings event, though its beginnings are quite humble as a member-run organization with a handful of participating galleries. The first galleries to consistently hold events helped grow five attendees to a thousand plus people mingling across downtown Billings for the event.

“We only have Artwalks this good because we have been building on them for 21 years,” said Mark Sanderson, who co-owns Toucan Gallery with Allison O’Donnell. They purchased Toucan nine years ago, but the business has been in operation nearly 30 years.

Before owning Toucan, O’Donnell was an employee. She recalls the early years of Artwalk, when they would serve wine in glassware that they hand-washed. Now on average 500 people come through Toucan during an Artwalk evening.

“It’s such an open event,” O’Donnell said. “People can come and go as they please. Downtown feels so vibrant on those evenings.”

This year, Artwalk Billings merged with the Downtown Billings Association. Being under the DBA umbrella has given Artwalk much-needed administrative support, an office presence downtown, and though it was an integral part of downtown in the past, it’s now officially part of Downtown Billings.

Part of Artwalk’s success is the density of art galleries in the downtown core. Artwalkers can park and walk to a majority of galleries on the tour. Gallery presence is strong along Second Avenue, North Broadway, and Montana Avenue, and a bus takes patrons to outlying stops as far west as Crooked Line on Division and east to the edge of MetraPark.

“Billings is embracing its art community,” Bryan said. “People are genuinely excited about art and excited about the artists that live here.” She refutes a long-standing notion that there’s no culture east of the Rockies. “We are taking that outdated notion, and we are refusing to accept it. When I look at the number of artists who have either come out of Billings or who live and work in this area, or have national recognition, it’s astounding to me.”

Indeed, the walls of Billings are lined with Theodore Waddell, Sheila Miles, Kevin Red Star, Harry Koyama, Carol Hagan, Kira Fercho, Jon Lodge, and many others who choose to make Billings and the surrounding area their home and workplace.

“There are fabulous artists that choose to live and work here,” Bryan said.

Hardin-based artist Harry Koyama has run his gallery on Montana Avenue for nine years. Koyama looked at other places around town in which to open his gallery, but Montana Avenue made the most sense. “Montana Avenue is the hub of the arts district,” Koyama said. “The minute I moved to Billings things changed dramatically. Having access to large numbers of people—Here success multiplies.”

Koyama’s cultural investment in Billings has proved to be a fruitful one, but it was patiently nurtured. “It takes a community effort,” he said. “As long as the people want to see more art, there will be more.”

Indeed, you won’t find more art per square foot anywhere else in Billings. Montana Avenue is the hottest strip arts and dining real estate in town. Walking into Koyama’s gallery, a narrow building sandwiched between other galleries, restaurants, and retail shops, one is struck with a palette of vibrancy. His impressionist style allows imagination to run, placing familiar subjects as you’ve never quite seen before.

A few doors down at Toucan, the entire store is filled with handmade and regionally sourced art. From Carol Spielman’s distinct stick-legged horses to glass artist Kathy Burk to folkloric pottery artists Theresa Gong and Sue Tirrell, the range of work on display spans paintings, pottery, glass, metal, turned wood, and more.

“Small business is defined by adaptation, and that is why this place has survived,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to offer a broader selection of art with the idea that everything is handmade by an artist. Nothing in here is made in China.”

Further west, on 14th and Grand, The Frame Hut owner Helen Tolliver has artwork for sale from nearly 70 artists—many from Billings and the surrounding area.

“We have a fabulous client base that supports the local artist that we carry,” said Tolliver, who purchased the gallery and frame shop in April. Her decision to invest in the arts was a pivotal moment in her life.

“I did not want to have any regrets, and I jumped.” Tolliver was no stranger to the gallery life, having worked at The Frame Hut for 14 years prior to purchasing the business.

The Frame Hut is rich with textures and mediums of all kinds, from jewelry to the massive towering paintings. Tana Patterson’s hand-built ceramics, the fused glass creations of Mary Knapp, frescos and cleaned gourds of Sharon Fred, A M Stockhill’s paintings atop old pages of books, chunky, brightly painted originals by Kira Fercho and giclées of her 12 Tribes of Montana—it’s in each piece that Montana comes alive.

Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Dec. 2015

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About Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a writer, poet, and photographer advocating for live music culture, visual and performance arts, and the creative class in Montana through writing. More >>