By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Colin Mathews studied art history at Stanford and in Europe, but he received his education about contemporary Western art and Western masters at Western Art Week in Great Falls.

Called “The Russell Show,” the annual three-day fine art exhibition and fundraising event takes place the third week of March and benefits the C.M. Russell Museum.

“It’s become the most important business trip I make every year,” said Mathews, who with his wife Paula owns Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky. Mathews has attended every year since 1999.

Many of the artists Creighton Block represents have display rooms during that week, and there, Mathews can see “the newest, finest pieces that artists whom we represent have done in the previous 12 months.”

Because this is the biggest show of the year for many artists, they bring their largest and best work to try to sell themselves, Mathews explains.

“I get the pick of the work… from the artists we represent, so trip accomplishes replenishing inventory with wonderful new work from artists in our gallery.” Mathews returned to Big Sky with nearly 20 new artworks.

Of the three auctions that take place during the event, two benefit the C.M. Russell museum directly, and a third, the Western Masters Auction, is organized by Great Falls business people to sell the work of independent artists from across the West.

The auctions are juried, and the artwork involved ranges in value from $1,000 to more than $500,000. In total, the three auctions gross about $4 million in sales.

An additional auction, organized by the Coeur D’Alene Auction House separately but concurrently, adds another element of prestige to the week. That group runs the highest dollar auction of Western art that takes place annually in Reno, in July.

“These are experienced auctioneers and this is something I keep my eye on,” Mathews said.

Attending the auctions helps Mathews stay abreast of market prices, something he says is very important, and it also helps him find fresh work for Creighton Block. He’s excited to have picked up several new artists this year, including John Demott, Frank Hagel and Tom Dean, and to have come back with major pieces from an existing artist, Laurie Stevens.

Another major perk of the event for Mathews is spending time with artists—both those he already knows, and meeting new friends. He describes visiting a colorful local bar called the Sip n’ Dip at around midnight after the auctions, and finding half a dozen or more of the most prominent living Western artists and the owners or operators of major Western art galleries there, with the bar’s trademark mermaids bobbing up and down in a pool seen through a window behind the bar.

“It’s just a hoot, and a fun way to get to know these artists and their spouses better,” Mathews says.