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The Charles M. Bair Family Collection: Western and Native American Art

June 19, 2004 - January 16, 2005


The Yellowstone Art Museum Board of Trustees and staff are presenting The Charles M. Bair Family Collection: Western and Native American Art. The Bair family collection truly represents a major cultural and historical legacy of Montana, and it celebrates the unique interests of this visionary family. (right: Man's Beaded Vest, late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, probably Plateau, 22 x 18 inches, Bair Collection) 

Charles M. Bair came to Montana from Ohio in 1883 as a conductor on the Northern Pacific Railroad. From that moment forward, Billings would remain "his town" no matter where in the world he found himself doing business. He went into the ranching business in 1894 by filing a claim for 320 acres of desert land near today's site of Lavina, Montana. Although he became a successful rancher, Charlie Bair made his fortune in the Alaska Gold Rush. Over the years, he invested in mining, oil, and real estate to supplement his extensive ranch holdings, becoming one of the largest sheep owners in the world. At one time, Charlie was running as many as 300,000 sheep.

On the eve of a new century, Charlie Bair and his family found themselves financially and socially positioned to affect their home state positively on a number of fronts. Almost two decades of hard work, combined with the overwhelmingly lucrative outcome of the Klondike excursion, allowed Bair and his family to travel, purchase art, and to experience many opportunities in ever-widening social and political circles. It was during this time that Charlie Bair became great friends with Charles Russell, Joseph Henry Sharp, J.K. Ralston, and Will James. For many years, he and his family made substantial contributions to Montana and the West. The years between his birth in 1857 and his death in 1943 encompass the story of a quiet but competitive, ambitious, and enormously generous pioneer, father, citizen, entrepeneur, and philanthropist who had left his mark on the West. Charlie Bair, the King of the Western Wool Growers, was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1975.

All of the items in the exhibit are from the Charles M. Bair Family Museum at Martinsdale [1], where the family's ranch home was turned into a museum after the death of Alberta Bair, one of Charles Bair's daughters. The Bair Family Museum shows the breadth of their interests and diverse personal collections. About 50 selected items of Western art by Charles M. Russell, Joseph Henry Sharp, and J.K. Ralston; photos by Edward Curtis; and Native American bead and quill work on parfleche, leggings and vests are on display.

While the Bair family worked primarily with the Crow Tribe, the Crow in turn traded with other tribes. That interaction brought a richly diverse collection of Plains Indian art into the Bair home. Among the most striking components of the exhibition are the photographs of Edward S. Curtis, which are delicately preserved on tissue-thin paper. The Western and Native American art in the show are intentionally intermingled to mirror the culturally complex world of the collector. (left: Beaded Pipe Bag, early twentieth century, Lakota, length 38 inches, Bair Collection)

The social, economic, political, and cultural contributions of the Bair family are singular and must be shared, understood, and deeply honored. The Yellowstone Art Museum is a devoted advocate for the preservation of the Bair family collection.

The Charles M. Bair Family Trust was established to commemorate the legacy of this great Montana family. The trust strives to continue the direction and initiatives maintained by the late Bair sisters, Alberta and Marguerite, in providing financial support to eligible organizations in the areas of education, health care, human services, civic services, and cultural activities.



1. According to Travel Montana, "The Bair home was first built in 1913. The family added to the house until it had 26 rooms. Bair's daughters, Alberta and Marguerite, who were the last to live in the house, purchased many of the antiques and works of art on their frequent trips to Europe. Some of the Native American artifacts displayed in the Pine room, the Bair's favorite, include a small beaded vest given to Alberta Bair at about age six by Chief Plenty Coups. Furnished throughout the house are original paintings by C.M. Russell, Joseph Henry Sharp and other world-renowned artists."

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