New downtown gallery brings art back to historic building

Among guests at the opening of a new art gallery in downtown Billings Thursday night was Bob Durden, senior curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum.

Standing in the long, narrow, high-ceilinged Stapleton Gallery on the second floor of the Stapleton Building at North Broadway and First Avenue North, Durden said that what he liked most about the new gallery was that it brought art back to a building that used to be teeming with it.

Decades ago, historic preservationist and patron of the arts Senia Hart, inspired by an artists collective she saw in San Francisco, started Levels 3 and 4 on the top two floors of the Stapleton Building. Soon the collection of small rooms housed a variety of artists’ studios and galleries, as well as a few nonprofit agencies and Marie Halone’s famous Level 3 Tea Room.

“I love the fact that it shares that history,” Durden said of the new gallery. “Billings is really rife with so much vitality these days.”

The gallery was developed by Jeremiah Young and Abigail Hornik-Minckler. Young is the creative director for Kibler & Kirch, an interior design firm that has a design studio in the Stapleton Building as well as the original design studio and retail store in Red Lodge.

Young, whose business owns the ground floor and second floor of the building, had already beautifully restored a portion of the second floor for the design studio, building everything from scratch but in a style that would have looked perfectly appropriate when the Stapleton opened in 1904.

From the beadboard wainscoting and mosaic tile floor to a period kitchen, butler’s pantry and a spacious living room that must rank with the most comfortable indoor spaces in Montana, the design studio is a sight to behold.

Adjoining the studio was that long, narrow space that used to be an atrium, bringing sunlight into the center of the second and third floors. The result is that when you enter the Stapleton Gallery, on your right is a row of what look like exterior windows, with a regular wall on the left.

Two years, when the space was completely unfinished, Young put up an art show there and 200 people showed up on the coldest day of the year. So he knew he had something.

Hornik-Minckler, meanwhile, had created a custom-made lampshade for Young’s office in the studio, and he talked to her about what he wanted to do with the space. Though Young wanted to build a gallery, Hornik-Minckler said, “He said, ‘I don’t have the time.’ I said, ‘Hire me and I’ll do it.’”

So he did and she did, working with Young to bring his vision to life. Young said Hornik-Minckler “knows old, fabulous, Western things,” and when he told her what kind of gallery he wanted, “she got it and was an engine for helping me get it done.”

Hornik-Minckler has a background in the arts and is married to Thomas Minckler, an antiquarian and author who owns the L.A. Huffman print used on the lampshade in Young’s office. Huffman was a pioneer Montana photographer who himself had a studio in the Stapleton Building early in the last century.

Young and Hornik-Minckler were both drawn to the idea of creating a gallery where the art was hung by palette, as she put it, rather than exhibiting each artist in a separate space.

Kuntz

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A large self-portrait by photographer Ellen Kuntz dominated one end of the gallery.

Young said he finds pieces of art that share colors, shapes and themes and groups them together. At the opening, for instance, one pairing involved two photographs: Chris Boyer’s aerial photo of a settling pond at fertilizer plant, dominated by a plume of violet liquid, and a deadpan self-portrait with a vacuum cleaner by Ellen Kuntz, in which she is wearing a dress of nearly the same shade of violet.

Other artists invited into the show by Young and Hornik-Minckler were Jennifer Eli French, Erika Haight, Jennifer Li, Carol Murray and Dominique Paulus.

At the entrance to the gallery, Young was showing a collection of snapshot-size black and white photos from early-day Montana, what he calls “brilliant photos often taken accidentally,” culled from his collection of thousands of such photos.

In the gallery and throughout the design studio, Young was also selling found items, folk art and artifacts, including an old canvas map of Yellowstone National Park with a carrying box.

Young said he wanted to open the gallery to “explore the relationship of art to one’s home.” Virtually all of his clients already have art collections of one kind or another, Young said, and he often commissions artworks for his clients, or uses art as a starting point for his own interior design work.

So he asked himself, “Why not take that one step further?”

Another aim of the gallery is to bring artists and collectors together to establish relationships, he said, because “it’s very important in Montana for the clients to know the artists.”

And as they did on Thursday, Young and Hornik-Minckler hope to show works by established and emerging artists. One of the latter on Thursday was Boyer, the aerial photographer whose training was in fluvial morphology—the study of rivers and how they change.

He used to do stream and river restoration, then retired from that to do mapping and survey flying. A piece or two piece or two of his has been shown before, but this was his first real exhibition. He has worked hard to make his photos more than mere documents, and it has paid off.

“Just in the last couple of years, I’m allowing myself to say I’m an artist,” he said.

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