DENVER — A chorus of cowbells rang out instead of a gavel to end the bidding session at the 2020 Coors Western Art Exhibition and Sale, for 27 years an annual event at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. In less than three hours, $700,000 was spent by collectors lassoing contemporary American art instead of the steer corralled just a few floors below. The presence of enthusiastic artists and patrons provided an antidote to any looming cynicism from Basel’s bananas in Miami, but most importantly, proof that collectors are everywhere.
For 120 years the National Western Stock Show (NWSS) has hosted rodeos, livestock and horse shows every January, drawing approximately three-quarters of a million people. Like the art sale, the NWSS is a nonprofit and proceeds fund scholarships in agriculture and veterinary medicine for rural areas. In 1993, Pat Grant, CEO of the stock show until 2010, partnered with Coors Brewing Company to launch an art exhibition. Grant’s mother, Mary Belle, was an artist and informed her son his first try at curating the effort was “not good.” So Ann Daley took on the task for three years before leaving to join the Denver Art Museum. Rose Fredrick assumed the curatorial reins ever since, growing the show from 32 participating artists to 75. She told Hyperallergic by phone, “we can’t compete with museum collections so we make our own path. We show living artists dealing with issues in the West today.”
Select artworks are available through a silent auction with an alternative price point to “buy now,” and higher ticket pieces are paired with a small bid box that acts like a lottery system. Fredrick explained, “when the event was smaller, a buyer just hailed down a volunteer to purchase an artwork. As we grew, some sales almost went to fisticuffs, so this is our way of being fair.”
Not far from the arena that sells prize-winning bulls, the absence of a live auction with a fast-talking auctioneer at the helm feels like a missed opportunity. Fredrick responded to this prompt:
In the first few years the gallery was wedged between a petting zoo and pony rides. We did a live auction, which was challenging with only 150 bidders in the room. Ultimately, the excitement riled up the animals and it was difficult to hear over roosters crowing.
Now the evening takes over an entire floor of the large complex to accommodate its 1,100 buyers. The highest sale of the night was a large oil painting titled “Aglow” (2019) by Rick Stevens from Santa Fe for $21,000. Another 225 artworks found owners that night and some artists sold everything, such as artist Black Pinto Horse/Monte Yellow Bird, Sr., who sold all six drawings exhibited. Nancy from Big Timber, Montana was thrilled to own the artist’s “Younghawk’s Medicine” (undated) for $4,800 but noted it was a unique acquisition within her collection of predominately women. Any unsold work was rehung and available for viewing and purchase for the stock show’s 16-day run.
“Our friends in St. Louis said we had to buy a Billy O!” Jill from Denver said, talking about Billyo O’Donnell’s impressionist style landscapes. She has attended the art sale since its inception, “I love the idea of Western art because it is always changing. These artists interpret those shifts, from ranching to climate.” Barbara from Fort Worth, Texas was also studying O’Donnell’s work, but confessed she committed to a pastel by Sabrina Stiles. Last year, she bought a drypoint monoprint by Paula Schuette Kraemer, a Wisconsin artist who was exhibiting again this year.
What does contemporary Western American art mean? Several patrons saw their own childhoods in the paintings, but I noticed the spectacular skill in the room that recalled Thomas Hart Benton or Ernest L. Blumenschein and understood why that work still captivates. Taos artist Dinah Worman dispelled the clichés that come to mind with the genre: “It’s not cowboy art, it’s not parlor art, it is a nuanced view of the American landscape.” The work that night was not nostalgic and did not follow the stereotypical characters that flow from American Western art and film historically, but the myths of rural American life were not confronted either.
It is unusual for a stock show to present art today but it isn’t unusual for fine art to play an important role in trade fairs of the past, such as the World’s Fair. The Machine Hall which exhibited the latest products in industry and science such as the cranes and excavators used in the urban renewal of Paris was the big attraction at the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle with 3,626,934 visitors compared to the 906,530 that attended the fine art palace. Those percentages never improved, even when attendance grew in later years, but they significantly exceeded the estimated Salon attendance (461,000 in 1861). Events, such as the stock show, that attract the public for reasons besides art, offer the opportunity to bring new collectors into the market. The art illuminates the lives of folks working in the nearby arenas — from equestrians to cowboys on the rodeo circuits, which is related to why people attend the NWSS. Animal handlers and Grand Prix horse owners are also drawn away from the stables to visit the the Coors art exhibition. Fredrick knows these visits are common based on the amount of straw and manure she has to remove from the gallery floor each day.
“We got it!” Rob and Nancy from Englewood, Colorado hunted me down to share the news of the Jill Soukup painting “Trickling Faces” (undated) they had spoken of lovingly earlier in the evening, and then acquired for $6,000. I was struck by how much they cared about the art: they owned many paintings by the artist and were tracking her work closely.
It may be easy for some to dismiss an event like the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale because it does not present radically new ideas or compete with the eye-popping prices of the big auction houses. But as galleries review the successes and costs of December art fairs, the fact remains that over a thousand collectors joyfully descended on a complex that is essentially a large barn to buy art because it connects them to a person, a memory, or a community they value. If the “art world” ignores those motivations and numbers it does so at its own detriment.
Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale, curated by Rose Fredrick, is open on the third floor of the Exposition Hall (4655 Humbolt Street, Denver, CO) at the National Western Stock Show, from January 11 through 26.