City Focus: Bozeman
Bozeman, Montana, is buzzing. Nestled in the idyllic Gallatin Valley about an hour north of Yellowstone National Park and less than 50 miles from Big Sky Resort, Bozeman has quickly become one of the most desirable cities in the northern Rockies. The spectacular beauty of rural southwest Montana and its outdoor amenities, from fly-fishing to downhill skiing, is attracting an increasing number of residents and seasonal visitors. Yellowstone alone draws four million tourists annually and its prestigious Yellowstone Club resort is located less than an hour from Bozeman.
Bozeman’s desirability isn’t just speculation; according to the 2018 economic profile commissioned by the city’s chamber of commerce, Bozeman is the number one micropolitan area in the country—meaning it’s the fastest growing city of less than 50,000 in the entire United States. If the current annual growth rate continues, Bozeman will soon creep over that 50,000 mark and be considered a metropolitan city. Bozeman’s boom is quite the comeback; it wasn’t too long ago that residents and business owners were disheartened by the community’s economic outlook. The 2008 recession hit Bozeman hard and was followed by a deadly gas explosion in 2009 that leveled five historic buildings and deeply wounded the community. Montana Trails Gallery, owned by Steve and Maria Zabel, was one of several businesses that lost everything in the 2009 explosion including their gallery director and more than a million dollars’ worth of artwork. But like the rest of the downtown district the gallery persevered, re-opening at a new location only a few months later.
Montana Trails has maintained a strong presence in
Bozeman since 1993 whether on Main Street or in the Zabel’s remodeled barn that served as their appointmentonly gallery. Founder and longtime Western art dealer Steve Zabel is a native Montanan; he grew up on a ranch in nearby Madison Valley and his father, Larry Zabel, was a great Western wildlife painter whose work is still available at the gallery. The young Zabel got his start in the business publishing and selling prints of his father’s paintings and eventually began representing other local artists. Right out of college, Zabel opened his first brick-and-mortar gallery in downtown Bozeman and “things just grew from there.” Zabel continued to establish collector relationships and soon began dealing in the secondary market. The gallery is now known for its historic and period collections, which include rare paintings by Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse and more.
After a hiatus from Main Street, Montana Trails is now open in a new downtown location. This month they host an exhibition for contemporary Western painter Michael Haykin, whose compelling realism renews our perspective on familiar objects or landscapes. Zabel’s extensive knowledge and experience in the Western art world makes him a great asset to Bozeman’s art community, as he represents some of the most notable Western artists working today as well as their historic predecessors.
Another pioneer and stronghold in Bozeman’s gallery scene is the Thomas Nygard Gallery, also located on Main Street. Another extremely knowledgeable and respected dealer, Thomas Nygard founded the gallery in 1976 and evolved the business into what it is today—one of the finest gallery collections of Western, wildlife and sporting art. Nygard specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American art, particularly historical art of the Northern Plains. The gallery exhibits work from the Taos Society of Artists, Rocky Mountain School, Hudson River and California schools. Albert Bierstadt, Edward Borein, Thomas Moran and Georgia O’keeffe are just a few of the esteemed artists you’ll find in this elegantly and expertly curated gallery, housed in a historic 1882 building in the heart of downtown.
When Sundog Fine Art opened in downtown Bozeman in 2014, the presence of museum-level artists and knowledgeable dealers continued to increase. Gallery
owner Bruce Vanlandingham has been in the art business for 45 years, working as a private dealer in Santa Fe before establishing his Bozeman gallery. Sundog Fine Art showcases a diverse and unique collection ranging from historic Native American art and artifacts to works by post-war modernists such as Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn. The gallery also represents several contemporary artists such as photographer Robert Osborn and his powerful Native American portraits. The gallery is consciously curated as Vanlandingham and his managing director Greta Hagg set high criteria for what they show and how they show it. “We take time to understand what we’re dealing with,” says Vanlandingham, who has established an extensive working library for the gallery staff to research each artwork so it can be exhibited intelligently and respectfully. Historical works are often paired with modern pieces, playing off each other in a visually intriguing way. “I’ve placed classic Navajo wearing blankets right beside a Rauschenberg or Motherwell painting,” says Vanlandingham on curating exhibitions. “And they all work together because it’s such high quality art. I think what we do here relates very strongly to the presentation you would expect in a museum.”
On display this summer at Sundog is a “Show of Masterpieces,” which pairs 19th century Native American art and artifacts with Western paintings. Post-war and contemporary artwork is also included. “Every item in the show is as good as the one next to it as a work of art,” says Vanlandingham, “which we feel is very important.”
When it comes to the contemporary market, Visions West is responsible for bringing Bozeman’s art scene up to the present. Gallery owner Nikki Todd founded Visions West Contemporary in Livingston, Montana, in 2000 and opened the Bozeman location shortly after. It has since expanded to Denver and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The gallery’s aesthetic is contemporary naturalism; their artists are “motivated by a passion for nature, animals, environmental issues and the West.” The most cuttingedge gallery in the region, many of Visions West’s artists push the envelope when it comes to “Western art” while others spark relevant dialogues through their work. William Sweetlove of the Cracking Art Group creates hard resin sculptures that comment on consequences of climate change; penguins carry water tanks and dogs wear boots, suggesting that we’re running out of drinking water and sea levels are rising. Tracy Stuckey’s contemporary realist paintings are focused around the “romanticized mythos” of the American West and are meant to expose the reality of that cultural identity, often with a humorous tone. His work is included in the gallery’s current exhibition, The Wacky Western Show, which features artists who bring new points of perspective to this idea of “Western art.” “The artists we look for have a fresh voice and are talking about the West with a new vocabulary,” says Todd. Visions West fills a niche as one of the only truly contemporary galleries in the region, and according to Todd the response has been positive. “I think we’re really lucky to live in a place where this artwork is appreciated and there is an audience for it,” she says. “Having that diversity is definitely an asset for Bozeman.”
Bozeman’s art community accelerates right along with the area’s economy, but pioneering galleries and local artists have clearly been rooted to this area since the beginning. Bozeman’s current shape is malleable; as the population rises and new business develops, the density of downtown could very well increase or the sprawl could seep into county land. Regardless, the caliber of this city’s long-standing galleries, expert dealers and diversified market gives us the confidence that whatever shape Bozeman takes, the arts will remain at the heart of it.
Other notable galleries in downtown Bozeman include Old Main Gallery and Framing, A. Banks Gallery, Altitude Gallery and more.
Patrons at a gallery during a Downtown Art Walk.
Visitors stroll through downtown Bozeman.