By Richard Ecke

Competition takes place in the art world, but it’s often indirect.

An artist can win a people’s choice award, be selected for a juried show, or sell for the highest amount at a live auction.

But there is a different type of competition emerging during Western Art Week in Great Falls in 2019. You will find this new event at the Holiday Inn hotel in Great Falls, featuring lively competition, cheering spectators, and an atmosphere that might remind people of a country rodeo.

“It ought to be fun,” says Mary Michael, a sculptor from Bridger who is president of the longstanding Western Heritage Artists organization.

This new concept is called a Western art rodeo, part of the WHA Footprints on the Trail Art Show at the Holiday Inn.

This won’t be a rodeo with life-size bucking broncos, bulls, and calves. Instead, it’s a competition with artists vying against each other for recognition and cash prizes. Artists who perform well in Great Falls will even have a chance to compete in a world art rodeo final later this year.

The Great Falls event will be one stop on a multi-part tour, but with a big difference.

“This is going to be our first live event since 2011,” says Russ Larsen, president of the Utah-based Western Art Rodeo Association, which on its website bills art rodeo as “the world’s first art sport.”

Art rodeos might seem to be a bit offbeat to the uninitiated, but it’s a concept that may be starting to gain some traction in the West, where Western art flourishes.

Larsen says the idea was dreamed up 11 years ago by Utah sculptor Jeff Wolf. Russ and his wife, Marcy, run the day-to-day operations of the Western Art Rodeo Association, based in Spanish Fork, Utah.

The association is up and running and crowned world champions last year, although nearly all of the competitions take place online rather than in person.

But the Great Falls show is going to take place live, as the first of nine stops on the group’s 2019 circuit. Catch the live action in Great Falls Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23, from noon to 1pm each day at the Holiday Inn. Admission is free.

Brent Jordan, a pro rodeo announcer from Montana, will emcee the art rodeo events in Great Falls, entertaining the crowd and interviewing artists. The competition is described as “American Idol” style, in which each artist appears before three judges and is judged for his or her artwork, using established principles of fine art.

Artists will get about a minute each to talk about their works in various media, including sculptures, carvings, watercolors, oil paintings, pastels, and more. The artist then is given a score of 1 to 33 points from the three judges.

“Then the audience boos or cheers,” Larsen says with a chuckle.

Judges for the art rodeo event during Western Art Week consist of metal art sculptor Jim Dolan of Bozeman, filmmaker Mike Gurnett of Helena, and bronze sculptor Bob Burkhart of Bozeman.

Nearly 30 artists had already entered the competition through mid-February; artists had until the end of the month to join the fun.

According to Michael, art shows sometimes can get into a rut.

For instance, “everybody has an auction,” Michael explains. At times, art auctions may attract buyers seeking to acquire art at “bargain-basement prices,” she says.

When sale prices are low, “it gets kind of discouraging” for the artists, Michael adds.

But an art rodeo means cash prizes for winning artists and a chance to be adjudicated by a trio of judges.

“They pick it for the quality of art itself,” Michael says.

A live art rodeo is action-packed.

“It’s something fun, and it’s exciting, and it gets the audience involved,” Larsen reports.

Not everyone fully understands the concept of art rodeos yet. For one thing, participating artists aren’t required to make their artwork’s subject matter to be rodeo-related. The subject can be pretty much anything considered Western art.

“It’s just basically a circuit of events, just like a rodeo,” Larsen adds. The rest of the art rodeo group’s events in 2019 will take place online.

Michael hopes participation by artists will be strong for the inaugural effort in Great Falls during Western Art Week. Artists don’t need to have a room at the Holiday Inn to take part; artists from other shows already have signed up to attend the live event.

It only takes about a minute to be judged, but some artists may be reluctant “to leave their booths or rooms” at other venues to head across town for the art rodeo, she says. She’s hoping the freshness and different approach of the fledgling event will help allay such concerns. Artists pay up to $50 for two pieces of art if the works are accepted into the competition. Larsen thinks a number of artists will be willing to spare an hour each day to take part in this new concept. Fans can purchase artwork directly from the artists after the competition is finished.

“We’re hoping to get a good crowd to introduce this to the art world,” Michael says. Michael witnessed a Western Art Rodeo Association live art rodeo event held in Park City, Utah, in 2011.

“To have a live auction was really fun,” Michael said.

During Western Art Week in Great Falls, head on over to the Holiday Inn at high noon Friday and Saturday to see how this new-fangled art rodeo event actually works. Chat with artists, whoop and holler for the artwork you like best, and find out about this new manner of showcasing and judging art.

By the way, the art rodeo won’t be dusty like a real rodeo is. But it may sound a lot like a rodeo if fans make enough noise. You might even want to bring along a cowboy hat.

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