Bronze foundries, artists flourish in Flathead Valley

Montana State Roundup

Published July 1, 1997  | July 1997 issue

The Flathead Valley's idyllic setting in northwestern Montana and the work of well-known bronze sculptors have drawn a sizable art community to the area and, along with it, a growing industry for local economies.

Since the first bronze foundry was opened by the son of the late Western artist Ace Powell some 30 years ago, the number of foundries has grown to eight, ranging from very small to those that have a capacity for life-size or epic-proportion work. And the valley's foundries work with artists from around the nation, Canada and Europe, according to Jon Olson, owner of Kalispell Art Casting.

The foundries have generated support businesses as well. From Big Fork to Whitefish, three to four people build walnut bases for sculptures, and others make marble bases, Olson says. He adds that all those sculptures also need to be crated, packed and shipped, thus creating more jobs.

Olson says the setting appeals to artists and cites the concentration of artists and galleries in Bigfork, at the valley's southern end. "Almost the whole town's economy is derived from art," he says. "It's a little art Mecca."

"The Flathead Valley may have the highest concentration of fine artists in the West outside New Mexico," says Douglas Rauthe, Kalispell's mayor and the owner of a frame and art supply store. Rauthe, who also heads a regional business assistance program, says that it's hard to measure the importance of the area's artists and craftspeople to the economy. But when he bought his business 21 years ago, there were two frame and art supply stores in the area, now there are about 18, Rauthe says.

Also supporting the valley's art community are over 60 galleries, dealers and consultants.

And membership in the Artists and Craftsmen of the Flathead stands at about 110, says the organization's president, Larry Johnson. Once there were one or two shows a year, Johnson says. Now the group sponsors three to four, with 100 exhibitors, about 60 local and the others from out of state. Johnson, a wood turner, says that with year-round tourist traffic—Glacier Park in the summer and skiing in the winter—the Flathead is a good location for artists to market their work.

Olson points out that art is also diversifying the economic mix in the region. The valley's economy traditionally has been based on natural resources, particularly logging and aluminum, whose fortunes fluctuate. "The valley has its trends, but they don't affect our business," Olson says.

The economic impact of the art community is "like an iceberg—it's underwater—and not obvious on a paycheck," Rauthe says.

Kathy Cobb