The cowboy artist’s namesake museum celebrates its 50th annual Russell Auction during Western Art Week.
Cowboys & Indians: You were named the new executive director of the C.M. Russell Museum in the late spring of 2017 and your first day was July 1, so you’re nearing the one-year mark of your tenure. What are some of the key things you’ve learned about Charlie Russell and the museum in that time?
Thomas Figarelle: I’m a native of Great Falls. Being from here, you get this sense that Russell is so connected into who we are as a community and our identity. And I knew that. But I’ve really learned about the extent of the network of Russell supporters and fans of Charlie. That network — connected by way of his art and life, his uniqueness, and genuine quality of him as a historical figure — is so much deeper and wider than I had realized. Some folks are so involved through their own collections, some of his illustrated letters, or just learning about him as a person. Russell’s reach and appeal were really accentuated by the Montana PBS documentary, C.M. Russell and the American West, and the volume of DVDs we’ve sold to Europe and Canada. The vastness of the Russell network is surprising and illuminating to me.
C&I: Great Falls was Russell’s hometown. How does his legacy shape the community?
Figarelle: In terms of my position, and the strength of the institution itself, we have deep connections to so many people that we otherwise wouldn’t if it weren’t for his legacy. I really believe if Russell were here today, he would walk the streets of Great Falls and feel comfortable. That has to do with the genuine culture in Great Falls and with his genuine personality. The way that Great Falls is rooted in the real authentic, genuine spirit he embodied permeates through to the present day and is a unique part of the Great Falls community and the union between the museum and the larger north-central area of Montana.
C&I: You left for some years for school and career and came back to take this important post. Did anything in particular strike you about Russell’s presence after you’d been away for a while?
Figarelle: There was a 10-year period between auctions I attended: I was at the Russell Event in 2007 and then wasn’t back till 2017. The evolution of the event in that time was striking. The auction itself had grown grander in scale. All the other events around it — educational symposium preview party, Art in Action— many facets had developed and grown. Now we’re celebrating the 50th annual auction. Even though it’s a bigger event, the auction still has an organic feel to it; residents in the community put in hard work and there are folks around the country who remain loyal patrons.
C&I: Why do Russell and the museum dedicated to him remain important?
Figarelle: I think the biggest thing is that Charlie is so accessible. He is certainly an American icon. You get a sense of who he was as a man through his art, illustrated letters, and essays about him. He’s so easy to connect with — in many respects he embodied the West he was painting. His personality was true to his art he was creating. A lot of artists are drawn to Charlie on a personal level I think because of his spirit, which is so easily understood as truly genuine to the American West. He was capturing the qualities of a fading frontier. Even people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves fans of Western art find themselves endeared to his work. He was trying to use art to capture his time and place, and we still do that. It makes him relevant and unique and timely.
C&I: Where are you at the moment in the preparations for The Russell?
Figarelle: Right now it’s just finishing touches. The event’s nearly sold-out. All the for-sale art is on display in the galleries. Now, we’re just focused on conversations with folks and a wide-open welcome. After months of managing the details, now it’s time to welcome people in.
C&I: What are some of the pieces you’re especially excited about?
Figarelle: The cover piece of the catalog is Buffalo Hunt, No. 7, a tremendous Russell oil. It’s drawing a lot of attention from the public, who want to see before it sells; it’s also drawing the attention of lots of buyers. There are also three Russell bronzes that are tremendous offerings. One is Nature’s Cattle. And then we have A Bronc Twister. The third is The Spirit of Winter.
C&I: What are some aspects of the auction people might not know about?
Figarelle: It’s a celebration of Western culture, that’s why there’s fashion, music, and a general engagement with people from across the country who appreciate the art and soul of the American West — these events capture that. They tend to put the humanity back in the humanities. It all makes for a fun, engaging, immersive way to celebrate Western culture, and it’s an attractive reason to come to Great Falls in the middle of winter.
C&I: Besides The Russell Event itself, what are some of the things you’re most looking forward to about Western Art Week?
Figarelle: It’s really an opportunity to meet and have conversations with folks who are coming here. It wouldn’t be the same without the people. It’s a wonderful time to fortify some of those relationships for the museum and learn as much as I can about why people on an individual basis are drawn to Charlie and Western art.
C&I: For folks coming into town who might not know where to eat, drink, etc., what are some personal favorites that you steer your own out-of-town guests to?
Figarelle: There are lots of great local places. We have some tremendous breweries in the area. We have three in Great Falls, and there’s another one [24 miles away] in Belt. One place a lot of auction supporters gravitate to is [an Irish pub called] the Celtic Cowboy, which is close to the Mansfield Civic Center where we’re holding the auction. As for places to get a great steak here in Great Falls, there are too many places to count.
Find more information about the C.M. Russell Museum and The Russell Event, visit their website.