Best Museums in America: Montana’s C.M. Russell Museum

A towering bronze mother bear oversees two playful cubs at her feet near the entrance to the C.M. Russell Museum the best museum in America you have yet to visit. It’s been called Montana’s top museum worth traveling for, and True West magazine named it one of the nation’s top six museums featuring Western art. Here, the focus is on Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), or Charlie Russell, America’s Cowboy Artist—a man who lived among his subjects in Great Falls, Montana, and beyond, which in turn produced brilliant creations that now serve as a first-hand character study and recorded history of the American West as Russell experienced it at the turn of the century.

Along with Frederick Remington, Russell is considered one of the most significant and well-known artists to come out of the American West. Russell’s drawings, illustrations, paintings and bronze sculptures deeply and realistically depict the rapidly changing American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His vibrant imagery features ethnographic dress, indigenous and American Indian culture, and the practical work of cowboys.

Russell was an artist and storyteller, and a significant portion of his work (2,000 pieces) can be found in the permanent exhibitions at the C.M. Russell Museum Complex. Open Wednesday through Sunday, in the heart of Great Falls, the museum and grounds feature a gorgeous building showcasing permanent and changing exhibits, as well as Russell’s original log artist studio and Great Falls home.

Within the art world, the name Charlie Russell is synonymous with vibrant, distinct Western art attracting admirers and collectors—garnering the late artist much-deserved critical acclaim. Here’s a look at some of the reasons why the C.M. Russell Museum captures the true art and soul of the American West, and why it needs to be the one museum on your list of the most underrated places to visit this year.

Charlie Russell: A Master Artist and Storyteller

You can’t talk about Charlie Russell as an artist without acknowledging his gift for storytelling, and vice versa. His literary talents are only surpassed by the artistic work made with his hands, but both told the story of the dying American West as only Russell could do. Inside the museum are art pieces, American Indian and natural history artifacts, as well as photographs, video and narrative histories that introduce visitors to Russell’s American West—featuring most prominently the vivid artistic ‘portraits’ of cowboy life and American Indian life and customs, in addition to wildlife of the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains.

The main collection, the Charles M. Russell Collection, provides a glimpse of the artist’s astonishing depth and range. Hundreds of pieces that fill five galleries document his artistic and personal evolution, from boyhood sketch artist to St. Louis transplant working for cattle outfits, to renowned artist who passionately portrayed his beloved home. Living history presentations and guided tours, plus expansive public and educational programs, can enhance a visit to the museum.

Elsewhere on the property the blue, two-story C.M. Russell House (temporarily closed for restoration) that dates back to 1900, providing a glimpse of the artist’s daily life with his wife, Nancy Cooper Russell. Period pieces and items from the Russell family furnish the home, where Nancy was a trailblazer, herself. Acting as her husband’s business manager, she promoted and sold his art and negotiated with wealthy art patrons.

Opening adjacent to the home in 2017, Charlie Russell’s Log Cabin Studio was built from western red cedar telephone poles in 1903. The studio gives a first-hand look at the environment in which the artists created many of his most important works.

Beyond Charlie: Other Featured Exhibits

In capturing the art and soul of the American West, Russell and other artists naturally focused on the wildlife that also called the area home. The museum’s permanent exhibit called The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture illustrates the majesty and power of bison from the northern plains of the United States and northwest Canada. The largest mammal on the North American continent, bison have lived in this section of North America for 500,000 years.

Each museum wall in this exhibit tells a different story. Along the east entry wall, the exhibit explores this remarkable mammal’s history on the Northern Plains, from the 1750s to the present day, a time when dramatic change occurred for bison and American Indians as Europeans settled this area in increasing numbers. The west entry depicts how American Indian and Euro-American actions and policies, plus environmental forces and competing grassland species, led to near extinction of North American bison. Along the South Wall Back, visitors can learn about the sacred and ceremonial significance of bison among Northern Plains tribes. Additional displays depict mass migration among bison, in response to seasonal/climate fluctuations and local bluffs used for hunting bison, among other things.

One other permanent exhibit worth a closer look is The Browning Firearms Collection, displaying firearms that exemplified the American West including rifles, shotguns and handguns crafted by the gun maker John Moses Browning and the Colt and Winchester company where he worked.

Featuring historic and contemporary paintings, sculptures and photographs, changing exhibits enhance the Russell Museum’s permanent collection. Families can also explore and learn together about Western history, art, and wildlife, inside the interactive Russell’s West Discovery Gallery. Shared art activities, period props and recreated environments spark the imagination.

The Russell: One of the Best Western Art Auctions in the World

The C.M. Russell Museum annually hosts a world-class auction of Western art, which takes place each March, near Russell’s birthday. It has become one of the leading Western art auctions in the United States. The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit the C.M. Russell Museum draws collectors and Western art enthusiasts from across the globe.

A true Western art experience, hundreds of artists present their views of the West through multiple artistic mediums including paintings and photography, sculptures and furniture, jewelry and more. Typically, 99 percent occupied during this popular event, local hotels host art shows, too. In 2016, the event raised a record $9.4 million from work by Russell as well as other prominent Western artists. And while that number is very large, the museum keeps only a small portion of the proceeds from the event. In fact, for every dollar raised at The Russell, the museum must raise another $2 to meet it expenses every year.

Great Falls: The Place Charlie Russell Called Home

If the C.M. Russell Museum is the best museum you’ve never been to, then Great Falls, Montana, is probably the coolest destination you’ve never visited, either. This is the place that the now-iconic artist called home for much of his life, together with his wife Nancy who helped get his art out in front of the public.

Great Falls and the surrounding region looks a little bit different than it did during Russell’s lifetime, but there remains many vestiges to its past. At First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, you can see massive cliffs that American Indians chased bison off while hunting them—a site that’s depicted in some of Russell’s works. You can relive one of the nation’s most historic expeditions at the 25,000-sq.-ft. Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. And you can explore Air Force memorabilia and vintage planes at Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum & Air Park.

And perhaps you should plan an afternoon exploring the area’s six waterfalls that cascade along the Missouri River, as well as the 57-mile-long River’s Edge Trail and two additional state parks. Backpack through the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, or enjoy natural beauty amid one of 57 city parks. From fishing to snowshoeing, there are endless outdoor activities available in this central Montana city where on the day of Russell’s funeral in 1926, all the school children were allowed to be absent to watch the procession. Great Falls and the state of Montana inspired many of Russell’s works and captured his soul. And though you can see a lot of it in his paintings, it’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself.

Check out some of the featured works of art in the Charles M. Russell Collection on our website and of course, come the C.M. Russell Museum Complex in person to understand why this is one of the most underrated museums in the country.

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