The Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings has added 45 works of Western art to its permanent collection following the death of Joseph S. Sample, who amassed an impressive collection of artwork by some of the region’s most legendary painters.
The works were collected by Sample beginning in the 1950s and obtained by YAM in June, adding to the Sample family’s legacy of gifts to the museum. Beginning in 1985, Miriam Sample, who was married to Joseph, purchased and donated more than 200 works of art by contemporary and Montana artists to the YAM. In total, Miriam donated more than 400 pieces of artwork to a dozen regional museums. Miriam died in June 2008 at the age of 88, and Joe died in October 2022 at age 99.
The couple’s collections couldn’t be more different, but together they tell an eclectic story of the West and the artworks that have contributed to its iconography. While Miriam sought out works by contemporary artists of her time, Joe was dedicated to collecting the Western masters, many of whom made Montana their home.
“To be able to show Joe’s collection, as well as the contributions from Miriam, is hugely significant for one institution,” said Lisa Ranallo, curator of the permanent collection at YAM. “Not only does it start that dialogue of Western art — but what is Western art as a complex definition that is continually changing.”
Joe amassed works by two dozen Western artists, including Frederic Remington, C.M. Russell, Will James, Edgar Samuel Paxson, E. William Gollings, Maynard Dixon and Joseph Henry Sharp. Two Indigenous artists, Kevin Red Star and William Standing, are represented in the collection. The value of the donation was not disclosed by YAM, but acquiring such a complete collection of private art representing the American West from the turn of the century into the late 1940s is rare.
“The collection from Joe adds work that we can use to tell a fuller historical story,” said Jessica Ruhle, YAM’s executive director. “There is a hope that this will broaden our visitor base and be of real excitement and interest to the community.”
YAM plans to display both Miriam and Joe’s collections simultaneously, opening with “The Joe Sample Collection with selected works by Joseph Henry Sharp” on Oct. 5, and then “Gifts from Miriam Sample” on Nov. 16. This two-part celebration honors artwork gifted to the museum by the philanthropic couple.
AN ARTISTIC FORTUNE
The husband-and-wife duo made contributions to Montana’s artistic and cultural landscape in many ways, including through television, public broadcasting and radio, which brought Joe from Chicago, where he was born, to Montana in the 1950s.
“He fell in love with the West, and falling in love with the West was also falling in love with a lot of those works that came from that time in history,” said Pat Sample, one of Joe and Miriam’s three sons.
According to Pat, Joe landed in Billings when the media market was wide open, and he established the Montana Television Network with stations in Billings, Butte, Great Falls and Missoula. At the time, Western artwork was selling for “pennies on the dollar,” Pat said, and is now “worth a fortune.” Joe was in the right place at the right time to collect such works.
“A lot of us kids love that art and would love to have some, but [Joe] said, ‘No, it’s not going to you. It’s going to the people of Montana,’” an arrangement the family supported, Pat said.
“Having a private collection of this caliber gifted to a public collection — rather than being broken apart and sold and disbursed to who-knows-where — it lets you see that broader picture,” Ruhle said. “This work is not going to be hidden away and inaccessible to the public.”
“He wanted it to go to a place for people to enjoy it,” Pat added. “That’s how he operated with just about everything.”
‘AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN’
Joe Sample’s impacts are far-reaching, from his contributions to Montana’s media landscape to the Billings Public Library to his long-running jazz program on Yellowstone Public Radio, “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around.” His involvement in YPR extended into fundraising and supporting the studio’s expansion in the 1990s when it was named the Joseph S. Sample Studios — much to his chagrin.
“You have to understand Joe’s sense of humor,” said Ken Siebert, general manager of YPR, referencing Joe’s on-air pseudonyms, which included “Fred Seeds of the Watermelon Growers of Northern New Jersey” and “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Old Scatman,” his sign-off from his jazz program.
“He didn’t want to be out there as, ‘I’m Joe Sample,’ and here’s all this money I am giving,” Siebert said. “He was always trying to encourage the growth and the listenership of the station because he believed so much in what public broadcasting does.”
The extent of Joe’s philanthropy may never be known. Even his family was surprised at some of the donations that have come to light following his death. “I didn’t even know half the things that he had given to until after he passed away,” Pat said. “He was really quiet about it and took a lot of enjoyment in doing it.”
Joe moved from Chicago to Billings in 1954, though his first experience in Montana was a few years earlier while attending a wedding in Missoula. He stopped in Butte to purchase a tuxedo shirt. According to Joe’s obituary, he was directed to the mortuary and “decided then and there that a place where the only person in town who owned a tux was the mortician was a place he wanted to live.”
Joe returned to Chicago often, where he met Miriam. He was seated next to her at a dinner party and said that he was looking for a woman willing to live in Montana. Miriam replied that Joe needed to “find someone who can live with you,” recalled Barbara Sample, wife of the late Michael Sample (one of Joe and Miriam’s sons). “They started dating immediately, and they were married within a year,” Barbara said.
Similarly, Barbara and Michael met on a blind date, and a year later, in 1972, they were married. Barbara, who grew up in Great Falls across the street from the C.M. Russell Museum, had not seen Russell’s works outside a museum setting, so she was shocked when she walked into Joe and Miriam’s house and saw original work by Russell hanging on the wall.
“I didn’t know people could have them, because they were always in a museum,” Barbara said. “They were just so kind and generous, and Miriam was so patient. She taught me about art and brush strokes. At the time, I didn’t know anything [about art].”
Barbara described Miriam as far more outgoing than Joe, “which is why I think they got along so well,” she said. “If you went into their home, Miriam’s art was gargantuan and gorgeous and colorful and free-flowing. She loved modern art, and Joe loved Western art. The difference was night and day.”
When Miriam died in 2008, Barbara said, her relationship with her father-in-law deepened. “Anyone who knew Joe was privileged. He was such an extraordinary man,” Barbara said. Then her husband Michael died in 2014 after being stabbed at his downtown Billings business.
“When Michael was killed … there are no words …,” Barbara said. “The outcome of that was that we became incredibly close.” She remained in Billings and spent time with Joe, often traveling with him to Florida, where he spent winters in Naples. His son Pat lives outside of Seattle, and his son David lives in northwestern Montana.
At the end of Joe’s life, Barbara stayed by his side, listening to story after story as visitors shared their recollections of time spent with Joe.
“I’d sit there with my mouth hanging open,” Barbara said. “Joe never told anyone what he had done within the state. He didn’t believe in putting his name on anything. I would never have known except for the parade of people who came through.”
As Joe neared his 100th birthday, he told Barbara, “I promise you, I won’t live till 100.”
“He did not want all that attention,” she said.
A PERMANENT HOME
Per his wishes, the works Joe collected throughout his lifetime will now have a permanent home at YAM. “He wanted people in the state of Montana to have total access to this art, and he wanted people in Billings to have first access to it, just like they have to Miriam’s art,” Barbara said.
“I don’t think he was interested in the financial end of it at all,” Pat said. “What he really wanted to do was put it out for the public and have the people enjoy it.”
The Samples’ philanthropy also lives on through the Sample Foundation, which grants money to health and social service nonprofits in Montana.
The collections that the couple amassed will be stored in YAM’s Visible Vault, which the Sample Foundation was instrumental in funding. The vault allows the public access to the museum’s collection for viewing or research, and the Sample Foundation funded handicap-accessible lifts as well as the observation deck and audio system.
“That’s what kept him going — being able to get out there and help people,” Pat said.
Barbara said what she misses the most about Joe is his kindness, humor and generosity. “He had the ability to find me as equal no matter what, and I think he did that for everybody,” she said.
“The Joe Sample Collection with selected works by Joseph Henry Sharp” will be on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum from Oct. 5 to Jan. 7, 2024. “Gifts from Miriam Sample” will be on display from Nov. 16 to Aug. 18, 2024. An opening celebration for the Joe Sample exhibition will take place on Oct. 12 at the YAM and will include a live jazz performance.
The public can access any of the YAM’s stored artworks through the Visible Vault, and once the Joseph Sample collection is fully cataloged, the public will be able to view the works online along with other works in the permanent collection at https://yellowstoneart.pastperfectonline.com.
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