Rudy Autio (‘52) and Harold Balazs (‘51) were monumental artists in their respective orbits, which coalesced in the early 1950s while both attended graduate school at Washington State University. Autio’s fame extended well beyond his Montana home, buoyed by his involvement with the internationally-acclaimed Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. Balazs’s work, in contrast, was prolific, varied, yet regional: seven decades of paintings, jewelry, drawings, enamels, and more, including sculpture in public and private spaces throughout Washington, Idaho, Alaska, California, Oregon, and Montana.
“Each exerted enormous influence in their fields, but more potently, throughout their lives they supported and nurtured the young artists who came up behind them,” says Ben Mitchell, an independent curator, arts writer, and editor familiar with both artists. While curator at Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), for example, Mitchell assembled its 2010 Balazs solo show, featuring more than 125 sculptures, drawings, and other pieces—including the artist’s workbench.
When each man died—Autio in 2007, Balazs in 2017—he left a considerable void in the art world, and a larger question, too: what to do with the collection?
“There is an exquisite challenge and responsibility tending an artist’s collection, their own works left behind, and those works of others—friends, colleagues, students—they collected throughout their lives,” says Mitchell.
For the Balazs family, the answer to “What to do with the artwork?” was simplified by the success of the artist’s last exhibition in 2017. Like others prior—he’d exhibited at Couer d’Alene’s Art Spirit Gallery since 1997—it virtually sold out.
“There’s not that much [of Harold’s artwork] to sell,” says daughter Erika Balazs, one of Harold and wife Rosemary’s three adult children.
“He was never about inventory,” adds her sister, Andrea Balazs.
Indeed, the 89-year-old artist was oft-quoted as to why he sold stuff: to make more stuff.
Thus, to put together an August 2019 exhibition of the two men’s work, titled Northwest Monumentalists, Art Spirit Gallery owner Blair Williams pulled from secondary Balazs markets or found people willing to loan items.
What the family has in abundance, however, are artifacts. Rarely one to stop working (except for hunting and fishing), Harold instead gave people money to bring back things from their travels and pieces by artists whom Harold admired, including Rudy. The collection covers nearly every inch of wall space in the family’s Mead-area home, spilling onto the grounds and outbuildings.
“I counted once and there were over 100 [artworks] on the walls and 70 just sitting,” says Erika.
The Autios’ challenge is similar, albeit magnified. Daughter Lisa Autio figures she and brother, Chris Autio, have catalogued some 2,600 pieces. In addition to their father’s drawings, early watercolors, and maquettes, it includes artworks by people the Autios knew, such as Peter Voulkos, Rudy’s contemporary and cofounder of the Archie Bray.
Initially, the collection fell under the purview of Rudy’s wife, Lela Autio, a respected artist, teacher, and arts advocate who helped found the Missoula Art Museum (MAM). She passed away in 2016, her last journal entry asking, “What am I going to do with this collection?”
Now Lisa is the point person amongst her three brothers. “I arrange shows, answer dad’s website questions, set up family meetings about the collection (and the estate before it was settled),” she says.
Lisa was also unknowingly a catalyst for the upcoming joint-collection exhibit by attending the opening of what would be Harold’s last Art Spirit show. She and Williams chatted about how the two families grew up similarly influenced by their fathers’ shared profession. Williams, a Coeur d’Alene local who attended college and started a career in Montana before returning to Idaho, wondered how the gallery might highlight the culture of camaraderie that existed between artists like Rudy and Harold.
Williams eventually narrowed the focus and consulted with curator Mitchell and both families. The resulting exhibition offers another gift from the artists: an opportunity for frank discussions about artists, and their legacy—artwork, but also family.
“We have all gotten better at this,” Lisa says of the past three years dealing with her parents’ estate. “At the beginning, it seemed like a mountain. We didn’t have space to grieve.”
She says she is thankful her mother left funds to care for the collection, which is nonetheless still in flux. “I think museums are finding limits to transportation, insurance, and organization of a traveling show,” she says.
So the family perseveres: two future exhibits booked in Montana, ongoing donations to institutions—books to the Archie Bray, for example—but still volumes of archival material to sort through, maintenance on the house, the need for good tracking software, and all the other tasks that must happen in order to preserve the Autio legacy.
The journey has been formidable, Lisa says. “But we’ve been mindful of doing the right thing for the folks, whatever the issue. They were good to us.”