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Bozeman Art Museum meets art education needs of rural schools

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Erin Jones Graf and Linda Williams stand in the Bozeman Art Museum beside a sculpture by Floyd DeWitt. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

By Mira Brody EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Erin Jones Graf, president of the Bozeman Art Museum board, believes art is a universal, connecting language. Unfortunately, it’s also a subject many rural Montana communities are lacking, a gap the Bozeman Art Museum is trying to close classroom by classroom. Hope is on the horizon however, after having successfully opened Bozeman’s first-ever art museum this past January, Jones Graf, and Linda Williams, executive director and founder, are no strangers to paving the way in the name of access for art.

“For many kids art is their reprieve. It grounds them, it brings them emotional stability,” said Jones Graf. The art advocate attended Montana State University, studying printmaking and art education. She coached track and field at the college for a stint, before ultimately becoming an artist herself. She joined the museum board and at the first meeting was elected president. “If we can reach those kids early on that have an inner passion for art and provide that place for them, I think that’s really important.”

The Bozeman Art Museum sits in the West Main shopping center sandwiched between Distinctive Lighting and the Frugal Frame Shop. It’s a narrow room, well-lit and today home to paintings by Steve Huston and large metal statue works by Floyd DeWitt. Although the physical space only recently opened, their art education and outreach programs have been in full-force since 2012.

Williams, a single parent of four and longtime art collector and contributor to Art Connoisseur Magazine, had long dreamt of bringing such a space to the area, even returning to school to get her Master’s in art history to build a stronger foundation for her vision.

“Every other large town in Montana has one,” Williams said. “Miles City, Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell…and yet so many people consider Bozeman the art hub.”

Today, the Bozeman Art Museum is a reality, operating as a nonprofit and supported by a local board as well as a national advisory council. Each year, through their education program and staff of talented educators, the museum teaches 1200 students in a 12-week curriculum.

They target rural schoolhouses and education centers, including Pine Creek, Pass Creek and the L’esprit Mental Health Center in Livingston, where teachers often do not have the experience or funding for art education. They are also thankful to be able to host group lectures in the Bozeman Public Library and Museum of the Rockies.

“The struggles in rural Montana run deep,” said Jones Graf, who was born and raised in Harlowton, a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. “In many ways art saved my life and I know many other kids that can say that. In the city there’s so much to do. In a small area, you have four to five teachers doing everything and who don’t have an art background. When you go to rural towns, you can really get those kids into art and learning it like they should.”

For Jones Graf and Williams, it’s not just about access in school, but the opportunity to teach the general public about art history as well, bringing a service to southwest Montana that usually only exists in large cities. While those who grew up near a major populous have memories of Monet’s and Da Vinci’s work in person, others are unable to travel to those lengths.

“There’s an importance of seeing actual brushstrokes,” said Williams. “You can look at this stuff online, but you don’t realize the Mona Lisa unless you’re standing in front of it, and you realize the size and scale. Realizing that it was the hand of man that did that. We want to encourage people to see that somebody made this. This was a blank canvas. And behind that there’s years of work.”

That’s the vision behind the Bozeman Art Museum—providing that ability to stand around a 200-year-old painting, feel the energy that was exerted in its creation and have a discussion about it. The Bozeman Art Museum’s long term goal would be to purchase a larger space and bring in incredible works from all over the world, and ultimately, become a longstanding staple of the community.

“That’s how every art museum has started. It’s started with an idea,” Jones Graf said.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has provided time to apply for grants and come up with a game plan for their art education program and art show openings moving forward. While they can teach remotely, they will attempt to host an invitation-only, multi-night opening for their upcoming exhibit slated for July 15.

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