(University of Montana) Montana Museum of Art and Culture Director Rafael Chacón received a phone call last winter from someone in Kentucky who said he had something that belonged to the University of Montana.

The man, who had been going through his late father’s things, came across a work of art his father had told him years before he wanted returned to UM. When Chacón saw a photo of the piece, he knew immediately it had been missing and thought lost for more than 60 years.

“He said his father bought the painting at a yard sale in Missoula for $25. No one knows how it ended up in that yard sale,” Chacón said. “I didn’t ask any other questions. I just said thank you. We are just so grateful to have it back.”

The portrait of a boy wearing a brimmed hat and smoking a cigarette has soft, quick brush strokes characteristic of impressionist works. Painted by Fra Dana – inarguably Montana’s most gifted impressionist of the early 20th century – “Portrait of Clifford Breeding” went missing without a trace in the 1950s. It was even featured in a 1990 missing arts journal as one of our most important lost artworks at the time.

Chacón thought it was lost forever until the man in Kentucky called to tell him what he’d found.

“This is an exciting return,” said Chacón. “We hope it opens the door for other pieces to come back to our remarkable collection.”

The discovery and return of this beloved artwork couldn’t be timelier as the staff at MMAC, along with community volunteers, graduate students and interns, works to catalogue UM’s collection in anticipation of the museum’s move to a new building under construction on the UM campus.

Scheduled for completion this fall, the new building will be the first permanent home for a collection with a storied past.

“The move to this new state-of-the-art facility is the culmination of the hopes and dreams of generations before us who understood the value of this unique collection of art,” Chacón said.

Established in 1895 with scientific specimens donated by the Smithsonian, the museum was first housed in University Hall (now called Main Hall). But by 1900 the collection had grown so large that curators ran out of space to display it. The lack of space and a dedicated home became the story of the museum – at times overshadowing the deep and rich tales of its collection.

“Throughout its history, the museum has had periods of explosive growth and long periods of neglect,” Chacón said.

Fra Dana’s portrait of “Clifford Breeding”
The new Montana Museum of Art and Culture. (UM Photo/Tommy Martino)

From the better part of the last century, the museum has moved around campus, with display spaces in Main Hall, the Women’s Club-Art Building, Turner Hall, and storage in the journalism, fine arts and social science buildings, and any suitable place curators could find.

While some of the collection was visible in public spaces and offices across the campus and on loan to institutions across the state, large parts were stored in basements, closets and attics, with artwork tucked in out-of-the-way and forgotten places. Over many years, it has been the subject of undocumented loans, disappearances and outright theft.

“Calls for a new building go back to the early 20th century,” Chacón said of the new building, which ultimately will serve as a cultural gateway to campus. “But the shared vision of our generous giving community and the University finally made this possible. It is a singular moment for all of us who look forward to years of reflection, education and enjoyment of this collection in its new home.”

The privately funded project is made possible by the generosity of many donors, including a commitment of $12.5 million from longtime UM donors Patt and Terry Payne.

As Chacón and his staff prepare to move the collection for the last time, they are making sure they know precisely what has been stashed in the basement of the Social Science Building, where the museum’s paintings, sculptures, period furniture pieces and fabric artworks currently are stored.

UM students like MFA candidate Dagny Walton are donning white gloves and helping catalogue the pieces while getting an education in art history at the same time.

“It's been a great opportunity to experience the permanence of art,” Walton said. “I feel like, as a student and as an artist in the oversaturated digital era, I’ve accepted that my work certainly won’t occupy a permanent spot in history. It’s been a pleasure to handle well-known pieces of art that do have that permanence alongside work that is also largely unknown, but still holds a spot in this prestigious collection. That blend has been really satisfying to experience.”

UM’s Megan Foster, another MFA student, said it is a “remarkable thing” to help catalogue MMAC’s collection at such an important time in the museum’s history.

“For me, what has been the most special, aside from just being able to experience the collection in such a personal and hands-on way, is knowing that the work I am doing will enable so many people in our community and outside our community to see the collection as well,” Foster said. “It’s a collection that I feel is very connected to this area and its people while also being a collection of great breadth and depth.”

Along with Walton and Foster, close to 50 community members volunteered to help process 350 to 400 objects – the “greatest hits,” as Chacón calls them – between now and August.

One of those greatest hits will be the Dana painting “Portrait of Clifford of Breeding,” home at last.

“This is a very important portrait for Fra Dana’s career,” Chacón said. “Not only do we see her at her most skilled as an impressionist in the way she handles composition, light and color, but we also see her interest in the subjects of the Ashcan School, an American movement from the East Coast at the turn of the century which focused on common subjects in an honest and sincere way. In this sensitive portrait of an indigenous boy living in two cultures, Dana brings the Ashcan to Montana. It is a powerful statement.”

While the building is scheduled to open this fall, staff, community volunteers and students who are earning a soon-to-be-launched museum studies certificate will continue to process the rest of the objects over the next two to three years.

“We’ll make countless exciting discoveries along the way,” Chacón said.