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In a back room of Bozeman High School’s library, there’s a series of unassuming cabinets. Inside hides a trove of original artwork curated by one of the school’s clubs for the last 60 years.

The Bozeman High Art Club was first created in the 1960s, originally helmed by art teacher and local artist Ray Campeau.

Beth Pfaff, who now teaches at Gallatin High, has been involved in the art club for the last 24 years.

“It’s a really unusual and unique thing for a high school to have,” Pfaff said. “…This is their collection. It’s owned by BHS art club and collected by BHS art club students. The students themselves either bought the work on art club trips or people in the community donate.”

Campeau, who is retired from teaching and lives in Bozeman, said the art club grew over the years until students began taking trips to visit art galleries throughout Montana. The trips eventually grew so popular they were traveling to Seattle and Canada to see museums, art galleries, plays and performances.

Students were responsible for paying for their food while on the trips and would stay in college or high school gymnasiums in the early days, Campeau said. As trips became popular they eventually included students from schools in Helena, Butte or Missoula.

While on the trips students would typically buy art pieces for their collection with money they had raised through events like a kids art festival, Campeau said.

Campeau has scores of stories of art club trips and members who have gone on to be involved in the art world or reported back on the meaning they found via the club.

He recalls one incident when Isabel Haynes, who managed lodges in Yellowstone National Park and owned Haynes Picture Shop, reached out to donate pieces to the club’s collection in its first decade or so.

Campeau and two art club students went to Haynes’ office where she instructed the two students to pick a piece out of a large storage room filled with paintings and sculptures.

The students returned with a painting by Conrad Schwiering, who often depicted the Grand Tetons.

“When they came back with it, she said go get something else. Get something else, 130 times. 130 pieces of work,” Campeau said. “… It took a truck to get it all back.”

In addition to its own collection, there is also the Robert and Gennie Deweese gallery in Bozeman High, which Campeau and early BHS art club students were instrumental in creating and advocating for.

Both Pfaff and Patrick Hoffman, the current adviser for Bozeman High’s art club, said they envision the two schools having art clubs that collaborate and work together to manage the collection and possibly take art trips again.

While students had previously gone on extended week-long trips to tour museums and art galleries, attend theater performances and collect art, Hoffman said he envisions inviting artists to speak to students and showcase their work at the school.

“The new format for the club is going to be more of a guild format where we’re in the ceramics, we’re in the metals room, we’re in the drawing room, and we’re making work to sell,” Hoffman said.

Although the club was not meeting for the last year-and-a-half due to the pandemic, Hoffman recently held its first meeting where 24 students showed up.

“I feel like the art club will forever be important to the students,” Hoffman said. “It’s very clear to me that even if we didn’t have the legacy things in place, the club would exist. Students need it and want it. A lot of these kids are identifying as artists and this is their community.”

With the high school under construction, the collection remains scattered between the library cabinets and a room where the larger pieces are stored. Once the renovations are complete, Hoffman said he anticipates the art club will have a dedicated space to store the collection all in one place.

While a portion of the art has been cataloged in a binder, there are still newer pieces that need to be photographed and logged, Pfaff said.

The collection has anywhere between 300 and 500 pieces, Hoffman estimated.

Hoffman and Pfaff said they are working to create an advisory committee or governing body that would meet biannually and include teachers, employees within the school and members of the public to oversee, discuss and maintain the collection.

They’re looking for an individual from the larger art community in Gallatin County to hold a volunteer position.

“We want someone, a person at large from the community who would be an adviser to the art club kids and to all of us,” Pfaff said, adding the individual could help advise on situations like what the club could do if they need art reframed.

The two advisers said they’re hoping the committee could also help establish a way to check art in and out from the high school’s collection. The smaller pieces are the only ones now available for checkout.

“The vision is pretty much not to check it out all over the schools to whoever wants it but generally to check it out via the libraries so the librarians would have that responsibility and people could come and view them there. Not that they couldn’t go to individual classrooms but probably not outside of the school,” Pfaff said.

Hoffman said he could see a Montana State University graduate student express interest in the advisory position.

Back in the library room, Pfaff and Hoffman pull out framed and unframed pieces, some still needing to be formally cataloged.

“You could kind of get consumed by the stuff in here, hanging out and looking at all we have,” Hoffman said. “…It’s so unique and that’s what makes it so special.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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