BY: Mira Brody, Explore Big Sky Staff
BIG SKY – When Courtney Collins shows you around her art gallery in Big Sky Town Center, she does so as though she were introducing you to her close friends. It isn’t completely off base: Kevin Red Star, Tom Gilleon, Ben Pease, David Yarrow and many other acclaimed Western artists are featured in her space and each has played a role in her journey to opening Courtney Collins Fine Art gallery.
Collins loves them all and can’t tell you what her favorite pieces are, but she can tell you how she felt when she first saw them. Once such experience was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at a Herb Ritts photography show titled “WORK” in 1996. Ritts’s stark black and white images of celebrities and supermodels blended with classic fine art works left a lasting impression on her.
That same strong relationship serves as the foundation of her success today. After Creighton Block Gallery closed in March, where she worked with gallery owner Colin Matthews for eight years, Collins used her close contacts to build a space of her own.
“I had all these great relationships and I thought it’s such a shame [that] if I walk away from this now, it’ll all be over,” Collins said. “I didn’t want that to happen because I have a lot of pride in this, so I thought, ‘I have to find a way to do this.’”
In June, after finding a landlord that would lease her the space in Town Center, Collins knew she only had a couple months left in the busy summer season to make an impression, so she quickly displayed some art, hung her Murano glass chandelier from Italy in the foyer, and, as she says, “I just made it happen; I made it happen fast.” She had the gallery open by July 4.
Collins collected artist contacts to bring her gallery to life just as she collected experiences as a child to build her career’s foundation. Her father, who worked for a company that manufactured men’s clothing textiles, raised her in Long Island, New York and she remembers, as a child, being fascinated by the different patterns of the ties in his closet. She attended Syracuse University then the Art Institute of Chicago, where she says she was introduced to an eccentric and affluent group.
Once fascinated by fashion design, Collins ultimately found it outside of her wheelhouse and settled instead on a degree in textile design. Already familiar with the area from spending summers with her mother, Collins moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she spent 15 years working in interior design learning from Barclay Butera, a notable name in the industry. While in Jackson, she grew her relationships with Western art and fell in love with the idea of selling pieces to those who would cherish them.
“I love the West and I’m able to relate to all of these people I sell art to,” Collins said. “I understand their city roots but also their love for the West.”
Working with clients, advocating for artists and a career in gallery curation fell into place for Collins, who then moved to Big Sky for a change in scenery. She now has been here for 10 years.
“I want my gallery to leave the viewer challenged and stimulated and have thought-provoking work that’s important and beautiful,” Collins said. She also believes art has the power to teach kids about Indigenous cultures, to which she refers to Kevin Redstar, a member of the Crow nation and prominent Western painter who held his first show in 1969 at Woodstock in New York.
Collins circles her gallery once more as though to pay respects to those artworks and their creators. Each artist is museum vetted and a branded artist, and Collins as curator takes pride in properly representing them while they hold a space on her wall.
On her desk sits a large Poe-esque raven sculpture and displayed in three glass cases at the front of the gallery are impressive jewelry pieces by Jill Garber. As though being surrounded by provoking art isn’t enough, Collins is wearing one of Garber’s pieces that covers most of her neck and chest in silver and jewels. The gallery owner, by her own right, lives and breathes— and wears—fine art.