MISSOULA — More than five years have passed since the Radius Gallery opened in downtown Missoula, marking the city’s first studio fully dedicated to contemporary art.
Skeptics passed it off as experiment bound to fail in a city where tradition often overshadows today’s modern flavors. Even some dedicated patrons weren’t sure what to make of the new gallery when it opened in 2014.
But as Missoula has matured, bringing with it new architecture and taste, so too has it recorded an evolution in its call for art. On Wednesday night, the Radius Gallery unveiled its new home on Higgins Avenue – a modern steel and glass building designed specifically to showcase the region’s contemporary works.
“They’re living artists – they’re alive and they need paychecks and we’re supporting them,” said Brian Sippy. “They have a history, standing on the shoulders of their mentors from the past – the impressionists and abstractionists. This is a contemporary gallery, and that’s a very distinctive message in what we’re trying to do.”
Sippy, a retired eye doctor and a former board member for the Missoula Arts Museum, met gallery owners Lisa Simon and Jason Neal through the larger arts community several years ago. He was quickly swayed by what he described as their “art centric” approach to doing business, and the risk they had taken by focusing exclusively on contemporary art in the Rocky Mountain West.
As philanthropists, Sippy and his wife, Karen, saw an opportunity to help the Radius advance its mission. Together, they funded the new $3 million gallery with eye on contemporary art. That vision played a central role as the team sat down two years ago to design the new facility.
“Lisa and Jason were making a difficult run at the contemporary art market in the West and they were in the red within five years, which is nearly impossible,” Sippy said. “They were quite easy to get behind. They needed a place that was built with respect and size and scale to show that off and inspire them.”
The new gallery covers two floors with high white walls and equally bright lighting, and it provides opportunities that were not available in the old facility off Main Street. With its additional room and modern design, the new gallery easily accommodates large-scale pieces, including the ceramics of Rudy Autio.
It wasn’t by accident that Simon and Neal chose the fabled artists to highlight their inaugural exhibit. Autio, a founding resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena in 1952, helped bring the contemporary movement to Montana.
“The philosophical idea of contemporary art came to Montana in the 1950s and 60s, and Rudy Autio was part of that first generation,” said Simon. “We’re the first major gallery dedicated to contemporary art in Missoula, and we’re paying homage to where that started with Rudy Audio.”
Autio’s large ceramics and bright abstract paintings fill the gallery’s main room, though he’s not alone in comprising the opening exhibit. Textiles by Barb Karst, stoneware by Josh DeWeese, encaustics by Pamela Caughey and the prints of James Todd, among others, also make up the display.
Simon attributed the gallery’s success over the past five years to a recallibration of sorts. While it has showcased high-end art from time to time, it has focused more on the middle market, playing off Missoula’s love of art while also recognizing the reach of local buyers.
The approach has enabled the Radius to carve a contemporary niche in a market otherwise dominated by traditional tastes. The gallery, which also curates the art display at the new Mercantile hotel next door, has sold $1.3 million in art over the past five years and has written checks to more than 600 individual artists, Simon said.
“We always said Missoula is a well educated, art appreciating middle market. We never went after high design,” she said. “Now we’re going to hold that middle and inch up, and that’s what this facility allows us to do. We don’t want to lose that middle market – it’s our base – but we have to be able to sell more expensive art here, too.”
While the new gallery offers more space to display more art, it also serves to elevate the pieces adorning the various rooms and the artists behind the work. As Sippy said, if Missoula is going to grow its arts economy – and it is – then it has to write checks to the artists who power that sector of the economy.
“I love the museums and yes, I love conservation and research and telling the story to future generations, but there’s also a role for collectors, and there’s a role to mobilize these things to the public and tell the story, and that’s through the retail market,” said Sippy. “The Radius Gallery was serving that purpose, and serving it at a level of excellence that I thought was ready for the next step.”
Designing the new facility from the ground up afforded Sippy an opportunity to bring other ventures to the gallery. In partnership with appraiser Tim Gordon of the Antiques Roadshow, the gallery will dedicate a room on the second floor to something novel in Missoula – the display of rare artifacts.
“Tim Gordon is going to help us source rare artifacts and fine arts, typically from the early- to mid-1800s,” said Sippy. “With his privilege to these beautiful artifacts and his mountain of knowledge, he can basically bring to the public’s eye these jewels that have been going to the big city’s until now.”
The Radius Gallery will open to the public on Friday, Jan. 24.